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The New Jersey political tradition of landing the party line on primary ballots could end


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Last week, a series of texts from a Bergen County Republican operative offered a rare, unvarnished look at the pay-to-play transactional politics that shape New Jersey primaries. 

Candidates had to pay — and pay big — if they wanted to land on the "county line" with other candidates blessed by the Bergen County Republican Organization. Without the line, candidates were simply wasting their time.

"Buy the line,'' Matthew Gilson wrote to congressional candidate Frank Pallotta in the run-up to the 2020 campaign. Gilson says the text was part of an ongoing joke he shared with Pallotta about another candidate.

But a ruling in federal court, released Tuesday, has raised doubts about the future of the party line, a powerful relic of political bossism that has shaped New Jersey primaries for almost a century. New Jersey is the only state in the country that uses the line this way.

U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi allowed a 2-year-old lawsuit to proceed that would dismantle the county line, the practice of grouping candidates with the coveted blessing of county parties on the primary ballot in one column.

Candidates who are listed on the line almost always win their races. Those who fail to win the endorsement often find themselves listed in a remote portion of the ballot, and rarely, if ever, win.

Given its almost automatic success rate, critics say, party bosses often award the line to the highest bidder. It explains why two former wealthy Goldman Sachs executives — Democrats Jon Corzine and Phil . Murphy — were catapulted to power despite never holding public office.

Both men won most county lines by spending lavishly on Democratic Party accounts across the state. And Republican Bob Hugin, a former pharmaceutical executive, also spent heavily to win the nomination from county parties in a 2018 bid for the U.S. Senate. He is now chairman of the Republican State Committee. 

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Supporters of the line say the practice fosters party unity and allows for efficient administration of elections.

But critics, including a group of progressive activists and former candidates who filed the lawsuit, describe it as an antiquated, Tammany Hall-style relic that effectively picks winners before voters cast their ballots.

It discourages competition and makes party-blessed candidates more dependent on the dictates of party bosses instead of voters. Activists also argued that it steals the constitutional rights of candidates by creating an unlevel playing field.

Quraishi agreed that there were enough concerns about the line's constitutionality to let the case go forward.

"The court recognizes the gravitas of its decision to move this case forward,'' the judge wrote. "However, it is the court's duty and imperative to protect the Democratic process."

The ruling was a blow to the Murphy administration and a group of county clerks who had asked the court to dismiss the case. But it was a surprising victory for progressives, who have been leading a slow, grassroots ballot reform effort in county and municipal committees.

"We are pleased that Judge Quraishi denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss our lawsuit, which will bring fairness to New Jersey’s democracy,'' said Sue Altman, state director of New Jersey Working Families, a leading progressive group that helped bring the lawsuit.

"At a time when democracy is under attack in so many states across the country, it’s time to reform New Jersey’s unfair and unconstitutional primary ballot system, which only serves well-connected party insiders and corporate special interests."  

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A spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office declined to comment.

The case could take years to resolve, but for reformers, that drawn-out process may indirectly help build public support for their crusade. They are hoping that the discovery process — the exchanging of evidence before trial — could serve to reveal some of the backroom politics behind the county line.

"Abolishing the county line would be an earthquake for New Jersey politics,'' said Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers' Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy who has been counseling local municipal parties about reform efforts. 

"Our entire system is built on transactions, starting with whatever candidates have to do to obtain the county line. Without the line, our elected officials would have to worry about pleasing the voters rather than pleasing the party bosses, and we would likely see a lot more political bravery."

Charlie Stile is a veteran political columnist. For unlimited access to his unique insights into New Jersey’s political power structure and his powerful watchdog work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: stile@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @politicalstile