If ‘the line’ goes away, many more local elections may come into play

U.S. Rep. Andy Kim and first lady Tammy Murphy are eagerly awaiting a decision on Kim’s lawsuit challenging the “county line” ballot provision, one that gives a big advantage to the county’s preferred candidate — and one that may have taken a huge hit when Attorney General Matt Platkin announced Sunday that his office will not defend the ballot, saying it was unconstitutional.

Kim (D-3rd Dist.) and Murphy aren’t the only candidates anxiously awaiting the ruling, which could come this week.

If U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraishi rules the primary ballot is unconstitutional — which seemingly would make the state use the bubble voting ballot that nearly every other state uses — candidates in less-heralded races (now and moving forward) may be impacted even more than Kim and Murphy.

So said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship.

“The power of the line is its impact on the uninformed partisan voter,” he said. “The voter who isn’t even sure who their county commissioner is, or their state legislator, for that matter, much less their council members, when that voter walks in and sees Joe Biden or Donald Trump on a column, they vote for everybody on down. They have no idea how to make a decision on these people they don’t even know, but they’re going to trust the recommendation of the county party.

“These people may not know who their mayor is, but they’ll vote for whatever mayor is on the line.”

“The line,” which, in simplest of terms, means the candidates are grouped in a single line by the preference of the party rather than by the office they are seeking, is important.

It is one of many reasons why incumbents have such a huge advantage over challengers — assuming they stay in good graces with the party leaders. When incumbents lose the party line, they often become underdogs.

Ben Dworkin. (File photo)

This advantage is one reason the debate over “the line” comes up every election cycle. This year, considering that the sitting governor’s wife is a candidate for one of the state’s top offices, it has come into question even more.

“We’ve been building up to this, but this may well be the tipping point,” Dworkin said. “History will determine whether this was really the moment when the dam broke.”

And, while studies have shown the line can be a double-digit percentage advantage, it is far from perfect, Dworkin said.

“There is evidence that it has power, but the line is never 100%,” he said. “People can win and have won off the line.”

Dworkin points to when Phil Murphy was seeking the party’s nomination for the first time. Murphy won the nomination — but it was hardly a landslide.

“In 2017, candidate Phil Murphy got virtually every line and he won the primary,” he said. “But he only got 44% of the vote — which means 56% of the people voted for somebody off the line.”

Was the line enough to push Murphy over the top? That’s unclear.

As is this: Is the county line concept unconstitutional, as the attorney general (and many others) feel?

Dworkin, while duly noting he isn’t an attorney, said he isn’t so sure.

“I think there is a legal argument to make for the line,” he said. “Effectively, a primary election is an activity conducted by private organizations, namely, the Democrats and the Republicans — you have to be a member of one party or the other to participate.

“If you look at it from that perspective, the organization’s ability to endorse and to bracket its favored candidates would appear both reasonable and legal — no different than a board recommending preferred people to their shareholders.

“That’s what it may fundamentally come down to:  How do you interpret the primary election? Is it an exercise by a private organization or is it an exercise in public democracy?

“I think one of the reasons it hasn’t been decided, because these questions are serious.”