By Allen Swanson
“The Line” (also called “County Line” or “Party Line”) is the term for the New Jersey ballot format used in primary elections, and is the only one of its kind used in the United States.
What makes the NJ primary ballot unique is that it is arranged by columns which are organized and defined by party rather than political office. Every other state uses ballots where the selection is between the candidates running for a specific office. Each column or box includes all the candidates running for that office. In a primary, that would mean every person running for a spot as the Democratic nominee for an office would appear -- together -- in a single column or box. Voters are then presented with the opportunity to vote for who they believe is the best candidate.
In New Jersey, the offices are organized in rows, while each column lists candidates grouped by party affiliation. In Union County, NJ, for example, one of those columns is referred to as the “Regular Democratic Organization,” which includes the list of candidates supported by the Union County Democratic Committee (UCDC). This column almost always includes the frontrunning, top-of-the-ticket candidate endorsed by the UCDC. Below it are all the other candidates endorsed by the UCDC. This creates a situation where voters are encouraged to “vote the line.” Problem is, voting the line means voting for candidates selected by a small group of individuals, often solely the leader of the County Committee. Most voters do not spend a lot of time researching the candidates and do just as one would expect: they vote the line.
The NJ ballot design ensures that any candidate not selected to be on “The Line” has a very small chance to be selected by the majority of voters. This is due not only to the lack of voter research on candidates, but the fact that “The Line” is usually in the most prominent position on the ballot, with the other candidates requiring a search across the columns. Another significant factor is that being on “The Line” assures that your candidacy will be supported by the leadership that selected you. This means media exposure, campaign funds, endorsements by candidates for higher offices, opportunity to advance in the party and more.
What happens if you are not a candidate selected by the County Committee leadership? In Union County, you are no longer considered a “Regular Democrat” and you are prohibited from using that term to identify yourself. You must, as some do, refer to yourself as “People First Democrats” (Fanwood) or possibly, “Democrats United for Progress.” To date, no one has selected “Irregular Democrats.” Kidding aside, this system exists solely to ensure that the powerful remain in power. The problem is -- it works. This system has the effect of sweeping aside many good, public-service-minded people who might choose to run for office but who realize the likelihood of winning is low unless they “toe the line” and express their loyalty to the party machine. This makes it extremely hard to make the changes needed to create a more democratic primary voting system in New Jersey. That does not mean there are not people who are trying to educate voters and party activists to work for that change. It will take time and there will be resistance, but the change needs to come.
There are groups who are working to make the changes needed in the ballot and candidate selection system in New Jersey. Here are just a few:
Better Ballot NJ: A new organization launched in December, 2020 through the Good Government Coalition of NJ. Their website contains information and suggests actions. It includes two videos that provide a quick and clear description of the problem with NJ ballots. Better Ballots NJ website
Fair Ballot Project: New Jersey’s ballots are designed to influence voters to choose candidates selected by party bosses. The Fair Ballot Project works on behalf of New Jersey voters asking our state legislators to support fair ballot design. New Jerseyans deserve to have fairly elected leaders working for us, not career politicians who care about appeasing party bosses in order to keep their seats safe. Fair Ballot Project website
NJ Policy Perspective: New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) is a nonpartisan think tank that drives policy change to advance economic, social, and racial justice through evidence-based, independent research, analysis, and strategic communications. New Jersey Policy Perspective website
“Toeing the Line: New Jersey Primary Ballots Enable Party Insiders to Pick Winners,” by
Julia Sass Rubin, June 29, 2020
“Does the County Line Matter? An Analysis of New Jersey’s 2020 Primary Election Results,” by Julia Sass Rubin, Aug 13, 2020
About the blogger: Allen Swanson is the co-editor and lead writer for Truth Matters NP, “a periodic journal dedicated to political and governmental matters of interest in New Providence, Union County, NJ, and the USA.” His areas of interest include politics and the environment. Swanson serves on the NJ Sierra Club Executive Committee, and is the Conservation Chair for the Loantaka Group (Morris and Union Counties) for the Sierra Club. To subscribe to the Truth Matters NP journal, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, visit their website at Looking Left NJ.