Q&A: What court ruling on county line means for N.J. primary elections this year — and in the future

In a monumental decision that could forever alter primary elections in New Jersey, U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi on Friday struck down the county organizational line, a unique ballot design that puts enormous power in the hands of the county leaders of the party.

What does that mean?

Here’s an ROI-NJ attempt at a Q&A explainer of the issue.

Q: Will this ruling have a big impact on the primaries in 2024?

A: Not necessarily. Yes, it will have all candidates bunched together on the ballot. That’s good for those who did not previously have the line. But, you have to figure some top candidates did not enter, knowing they wouldn’t get the line.

Q: That’s good, right? This means more reform (or anti-establishment) candidates will enter future races. Yay for Democracy, right?

A: As with everything in politics, it shifts the balance of power — it doesn’t eliminate it. With essentially ‘open’ elections that put everyone on the same footing, the person with the most money now has the power, not the county organizations. Is that better? Think of campaign finance reform — it didn’t necessarily make the system better, just different.

Q: But, still, this means powerful county chairs don’t have the power they once had. That’s got to be good, yes?

A: Depends on your perspective. Some will argue a private political organization (the Republican or Democratic party) should have an outsized say in what candidate wins the primary. Now, an outside organization may have that power.

Q: Same difference?

A: Not exactly. The county line may not have been the most democratic system there is — and there’s a lot wrong with it — but it did help the party prevent its most extreme members (candidates that have little chance of winning a general election) from getting the nomination. This also opens up an even greater chance of money from someone who favors one party dictating the other party’s choice.

Q: All that being said, this does put New Jersey on par with every other state, correct?

A: Unless this is somehow overturned on appeal, yes.

Q: Who should be the most nervous about that?

A: As of now, everyone planning on running now and in the future. This ruling may forever change how primary elections are contested in New Jersey. The only thing left to do is to figure out how to gain power in the new format, whatever it is.