Is This It for New Jersey’s Corrupt Primary System?

March 27, 2024   |   Tags: , , , , , ,
Andy Kim, Bob Menendez, and Tammy Murphy. | Illustration: Lex Villena; Senator Bob Menendez, Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor's Office, Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Column A is a symbol of New Jersey's notoriously un-democratic Democratic Party primary. Under the "county line" system, party bosses in each county get to choose which candidates show up in the first column of primary ballots, then urge members to "vote Column A, all the way."

Both parties in all but two counties use this system for primaries. Because New Jersey is a safe blue state, putting a Democrat in Column A is basically coronating them for office. "Column A, all the way" has even become a slogan that politicians use to shout down protesters.

But the county line system may soon become a relic of the past. Sen. Bob Menendez (D–N.J.) is facing corruption charges, leaving his seat up for grabs. Rep. Andy Kim, one of the Democratic candidates to replace him, is suing county clerks across the state to have the primary ballot redesigned. Congressional candidates Carolyn Rush and Sarah Schoengood have also joined the lawsuit.

Over the weekend, Kim's main Democratic rival Tammy Murphy dropped out of the Senate primary, and county bosses across the state endorsed Kim, setting up his name to be in Column A. The Burlington County Clerk then implied in a Monday court filing that the lawsuit should be thrown out, since "lead Plaintiff Andy Kim will hold the ballot position this very lawsuit alleges is unconstitutional in every county in the state that utilizes this design."

Kim, Rush, and Schoengood have vowed to press on with their case. In a letter to the court filed on Tuesday night, Kim's lawyers said that he will accept the Column A endorsements but "all Plaintiffs have requested and continue to request" that the system be abolished altogether.

"The clerks' county line primary ballots county line primary ballots continue to violate constitutional rights of all three candidates who are suing, as well as the voters' rights," the plaintiffs' lawyers said in a separate statement to Politico. "New Jersey cannot tolerate one more unconstitutional election."

An expert report submitted to the court by Princeton University neuroscience professor Samuel S.-H. Wang noted that the ballot design is a "powerful force to steer voter behavior towards specific choices." Just looking at a sample ballot in the report is enough to explain why.

The New Jersey party column ballot design for primary elections.
(United States District Court for the District of New Jersey)


Surprisingly, the New Jersey state government appears to agree. Attorney General Matt Platkin said that the county line system was "unconstitutional," adding that he would not defend it in court.

The story of this primary race is the story of a clown car of Democratic Party corruption skidding off the road and crashing. The Senate primary opened up after Menendez was indicted in 2023 for taking bribes—including gold bars and a Mercedes—to benefit patrons from Egyptian military intelligence officers and a Qatari-linked real estate developer to a local businessman accused of loan fraud.

It was the second time in a decade that Menendez was charged with corruption. After he was acquitted of bribe-taking charges in 2017, the Democratic Party allowed Menendez to keep his prestigious committee assignments. But this time around, Democrats quickly turned against him, demanding that he resign immediately. Menendez refused.

Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Phil Murphy, stepped in to run for Menendez's seat. Democratic county chairs across the state, many of whom rely on the governor for funding, immediately endorsed her. Murphy's rivals fired back with what The New York Times called "nonstop claims of nepotism."

The governor accused his wife's rivals of sexism. "I bet you if she were my husband it would be a different story," he told the radio station WNYC. But as polls showed Kim beating her by 12 points or more, Murphy dropped out of the race.

Menendez, meanwhile, has turned against the Democratic leadership that used to guarantee his seat. An hour after Murphy announced her candidacy, Menendez accused her husband of "a blatant maneuver at disenfranchisement" and said that "they believe they have to answer to nobody." 

More recently, Menendez has threatened to run as an independent. "I will not file for the Democratic primary this June," he said in a March 21 video. "I am hopeful that my exoneration will take place this summer, and allow me to pursue my candidacy as an independent Democrat in the general election."

In a final twist of fate, the lawsuit against the party establishment might benefit Menendez's attempted return to power.

"If the primary ballot access ballot format is held unconstitutional, it should be possible to get reform for the general election ballot format also," noted Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, in a recent article. Bucking the party bosses might become easier for everyone—even the party bosses themselves.

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