U.S. Rep. Andy Kim and two other Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, Patricia Campos-Medina and Larry Hamm, are calling on Democratic county party chairs and county clerks across the state to ditch the so-called “county-line” ballot for primary races and instead use the standard “office-block” ballot that is used in the rest of the country.
Nineteen of the 21 counties in the state use the “county-line” ballot. The only two that do not are Salem County and Sussex County.
New Jersey primary ballots are unlike those of any other state. Other states organize their primary ballots around the electoral position being sought, with candidates listed beneath or immediately to the right of each electoral position. But in New Jersey, primary ballots are organized around a group of candidates endorsed by either the Democratic or Republican Party. These groups of candidates endorsed by county party leaders are referred to as the “county line” or the “party line,” because they are presented on the ballot as a vertical or horizontal line of names, with a candidate included for every office. The county line receives a prime location on the ballot as the first column or row on the ballot. Candidates not on the county line are placed in other columns or rows, sometimes far away from the county line candidates.
It is very difficult for a candidate who does not get the party line to win in a primary race. A Communications Workers of America analysis of New Jersey Legislature primaries for 2009 through 2018 showed that not a single state legislative incumbent receiving county-line placement lost a primary race.
First Lady Tammy Murphy has received endorsements from many Democratic leaders across the state and is likely to receive the county line in many counties for the primary race. Kim and other candidates seeking the Senate seat are at a disadvantage because of the county-line ballot and are now calling for change.
“As Democrats, we cannot accept a ballot system that is inconsistent with our values and directly contradicts our fight to protect and promote democracy and voting rights,” Kim said. “It does not have to be this way. Our county clerks and our county Democratic Party chairs have it in their power to call for and provide an office block ballot for the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.”
Kim said rejecting the county-line ballot system would be an important step in showing people “that we’re better than the corruption we’ve seen from Senator Menendez.”
Campos-Medina said that she has been calling for the elimination of the party line for years because it often shuts out Latinas and women of color.
“I have already experienced the discriminatory nature of this process during this campaign by being excluded from some counties’ forums and debates,” Campos-Medina said. “This exclusion is a clear and present danger to our Democracy. And as President Biden is working to increase Black and Latino voter participation in 2024, the county line works to suppress these same voters that are critical to energize the democratic party base in a run-up against Donald Trump.”
Hamm said ballots should be designed and structured in a way that does not give any individual candidate a built-in advantage over the others. “Failure to do so erodes confidence in our electoral process,” Hamm said.
The letter to county clerks calls on clerks to use an office block design ballot for mail and in-person balloting for all competitive elections in the June 4 Democratic primary election, as Salem and Sussex county clerks already do.
“Party organizations will still be able to list the slogans of candidates, but the credibility of this primary necessitates your action to ensure that the election is seen as fair for all candidates – and for all voters – with a ballot that does not give any single candidate a state-conferred advantage by design.” reads the letter from the three candidates to county clerks.
The three raise concerns in their letter to Democratic county chairs about improper and unfair practices within the party, potential conflicts of interest, alleged intimidation tactics, threats, public attacks, and questions about the use of state party resources. “Calls for an investigation have gone unanswered, even against the backdrop of serious concerns over broader conflicts of interest given the dynamics of this particular cycle,” reads the letter to county Democratic chairs across the state.
“There is a crisis of credibility right now in this Democratic Senate primary. At a time when President Biden is running on a platform to protect our democracy, we cannot be seen as taking steps here in New Jersey that are viewed as undemocratic, or worse still, pressure the President to do so,” reads the letter. “Otherwise we will severely damage our ability to attract voters, especially unaffiliated and young voters who are weary after the Senator’s indictment.”
The three candidates have also called on all other candidates to support getting rid of the county line.
Murphy campaign spokeswoman Alex Altman said all of the candidates in this race are actively seeking county lines and party support in this campaign by participating in screenings, forums, and earning votes at conventions.
“Congressman Kim has also happily run on county lines with party support in every single election he’s ever run in,” Altman said. “Congressman Kim seems to be of the opinion that when he receives a county line it’s OK, but when someone else does, it’s not. It’s yet another example of him and his campaign talking to voters out of both sides of their mouth.”