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Why stop at county lines? Let’s ditch the primaries.

by Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed on on March 24, 2024 and was published in the March 25 edition of the Star-Ledger.

New Jersey’s unique – some would say bizarre – primary ballot design is getting national attention. Political leaders who have benefitted from the “county line” are now at least talking about reforming it. If you question why there are county lines on our ballots, though, the next logical step is to ask why we have primary elections at all. Hear me out.

The ostensible purpose of a primary is to choose which candidates will represent the different political parties in a general election. The United States is one of the few countries that regularly opens that process up to any voter who is willing to put a “D” or “R” designation on their voter registration form. That’s it. Check a box and you get to determine a political party’s standard-bearer. Some states don’t even require that minimal level of commitment. In other words, our party candidate selection process can be subject to the whims of voters who have very little stake in the long-term viability of the party in whose primary they happen to participate.

Politicians in other democratic countries scratch their heads at the American process. Their view is that a political party has a degree of policy and reputational cohesiveness which is in the party’s best interest to protect. As such, the party organizations should play a significant role in vetting candidates who want to represent that party in an election. This is not to say that they do this in smoke-filled back rooms. Although some European parties can be very top-down in their candidate selection process, most utilize some combination of leadership vetting and rank and file input.

Let’s take the process in the United Kingdom, which will also hold a national election this year. Those who want to run as a major party candidate in a parliamentary district must first submit their names to the national party. The national party conduct a preliminary vetting process and provides a longlist of eligible candidates to a screening committee of local party leaders in each district. That committee creates a shortlist of contenders which is then presented to local party members for a final vote.

By the way, to be a party “member” in the UK, you need to pay an annual membership fee (between $44 and $86 in most cases). In other words, the entrance barrier to being enfranchised in determining your party’s candidate is not unreasonable for the average voter, but it requires a higher level of commitment to that party than simply checking a box. In the end, if you believe that political party organizations have a stake in protecting their brand, then it makes sense to defer the candidate selection process to those who have the greatest investment in that party.

But here’s the rub. Americans tend to believe that electoral politics should be made available to as many voters as possible regardless. I blame those pesky New Englanders with their annual town meetings and 400-seat legislatures. While some places in the United States still use party conventions to select nominees for certain offices, primaries have become the default option. That means we expect government entities, and by extension taxpayers, to underwrite and run what is essentially a party selection process.

When you apply that logic to New Jersey’s county line ballot design, it looks like we are actually requiring public agencies to create advantages for the political party organizations. I cannot comment on the constitutionality or legality of that, but from a common sense standpoint, having county line ballots means we are using taxpayer dollars to run primary elections that, by design, benefit an established political organization. This concern would be moot if the parties had to run primary elections on their own dime, but that is not going to happen.

This is not to say county organizations cannot endorse and support a preferred candidate in publicly-funded primary elections. But they should have to do it the old fashioned way – through voter turnout and persuasion efforts – not by designing a ballot that requires state and county government to wade into partisan politics by conferring an inherent advantage on a preferred candidate.

My point is you can’t have it both ways. There’s a strong argument to be made that party organizations – with the input of bona fide party members – should play a guiding or even determinant role in deciding who gets to carry their banner in a general election. On the other hand, if we accept the premise that opening the process to a wide swath of voters is more in line with the ethic of American democracy – and, as such, primary elections should be government-run and taxpayer-funded – then you need to use a ballot that puts the candidates for each office on an even playing field. In other words, design a ballot like the other 49 states in this country use.