In the Democratic primary for retiring Congressman Rush Holt’s seat, progressive Democrats risk having their voices drowned out by party insiders who wield tremendous power over an anachronistic peculiarity known as “the line.”
This peculiar feature of New Jersey elections allows Republican and Democratic county organizations to place primary candidates on the same ballot line as local down-ticket candidates.
In this race in particular, two strong, progressive Democrats will face the challenge of overcoming the conservative and undemocratic line.
They are New Jersey’s deputy Assembly speaker and frequent collaborator with Rush Holt, Upendra Chivukula and scientist/educator Andrew Zwicker (U.S. 1, April 30). They are candidates who are eminently qualified, and arguably more aligned with the educated, progressive values of voters in the district than the two candidates backed by the Democratic organizations of the most populous counties in the 12th District, Mercer and Middlesex.
While the other candidates talk the talk of progressive values, they have records and connections that would suggest otherwise. Voters beware.
While primaries should be about competition and democracy, the line gives an advantage to back-room leaders exchanging favors behind the scenes. In Union County, which makes up a considerable section of the 12th District, the candidate who received the line was literally handpicked by just three Union County political insiders.
The risk this year is that the winner of the primary will ultimately be decided by the five or ten party insiders who get to allocate the county line, rather than the hundreds of thousands of voters who will be represented by the candidate for potentially decades to come.
For voters to make their voice heard in the June primaries, they will have to scour their ballots to search for the preferred candidate outside their local party line. Unfortunately, most voters just vote down the line without doing their own research.
This institutionalized advantage of allowing the county parties to award the line to the candidate of their choosing, via back room deals, not only promotes corruption but is inherently undemocratic. Voters should decide who represents them, not party heavyweights.
While some of the political machines may not want to acknowledge more progressive candidates like Chivukula and Zwicker — and have even tried to force them out of the race — it’s important that their voices are heard so that the line is not the big winner this year.
It’s a great irony that if the well-loved progressive champion Rush Holt were running for Congress in this primary, he too would probably be brushed aside by the establishment insiders, in much the same way Chivukula and Zwicker have been treated.
When Democratic voters go to the polls on Tuesday, June 3, to vote in the 12th District primary, they should vote according to whom they think is best for the job, not who has the “line” on their ballot.
They should study the candidates, and vote for themselves. We are, after all, the Democratic Party.
Israel, a Franklin Township resident, works in government affairs for a non-profit organization. “I am not involved and/or working for any of the campaigns mentioned in this op-ed,” he says.