June 24, 2020

Urging Voters to Look Beyond the County Line on Primary Ballots

To the Editor:

Princeton residents may not give much thought to County Committee — the bottom position on the primary ballot. Until recently, I too thought this is an inconsequential role. I learned differently as co-founder and president of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey (www.GGCNJ.org).

In New Jersey, where politics are ruled by strong and bullyish political bosses, voters feel disenfranchised. Much of this can be traced back to one thing that is unique to New Jersey — the structure of our primary ballots, with a “County Line.”

On your primary ballot, you will see the County Line in column A, the one with the most candidates. Most people vote “down the line,” for all and only column A candidates. Candidates in column B or C have virtually no chance at winning the primary — and therefore the general election. The party bosses know this, and grant preferential ballot placement on “the Line” carefully. In many counties they strategically place challengers — often progressive, grassroots candidates — so as to hurt them the most: in column F following several almost empty columns, in the same box as another candidate with an opposing platform, or dividing a group of candidates running as a slate across several columns.

Because people vote down the line, and because primary elections are the elections that matter in most gerrymandered districts, by choosing who gets to be “on the line,” party bosses are basically electing our representatives for us. No wonder people feel their vote does not matter. 

(Princeton is actually an outlier: all our local candidates are placed on the line — we do not use these tactics of banishing anyone to column F — but the problem still exists on our ballot for non-local races, and throughout New Jersey.)

What can you do about this? Two things. First, spread the word, especially with out-of-town friends and family: we should all look beyond the line and consider all candidates on our ballots. All the candidates on your primary ballot are from the same party, and you should choose your representatives based on their platform and their actions, not based on whether they have been anointed by political machines.

Second, choose your County Committee representatives wisely (or even run for Committee yourself!). It is through the County Committee that the political machines and party bosses exert their power. They do so by promoting committee members who will maintain the status quo. Which is why you should elect County Committee members who will do the opposite — who will make our elections fair by abolishing the Line, so all candidates have an equal shot at winning, and so voters choose who they want, not who the machine tricked them into choosing. 

This is a unique year in terms of voting due to COVID-19 — and also a year we should all be voting in, in the primary and definitely in the general election. So much is at stake.

Yael Niv
Franklin Avenue