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A Senate race raises concerns over 'ballot Siberia' in New Jersey primaries

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and first lady Tammy Murphy attend the National Governors Association summer meeting, July 15, 2022, in Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and first lady Tammy Murphy attend the National Governors Association summer meeting, July 15, 2022, in Portland, Maine.

The U.S. Senate campaign of Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Phil Murphy, is calling attention to an arcane voting system in New Jersey, which could give her an upper hand in the Democratic primary.

Murphy, 58, has never run for elected office, but in the days following her announcement, many of the top Democratic Party officials in the state pledged their support.

"Tammy Murphy is a very good fundraiser, so she's not only going to be able to bring in money for herself, she's going to be able to bring in money for these county democratic organizations," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll. "And that's going to play a significant role in determining who their top choice is going to be for the nomination."

Placement on a ballot matters, research shows

Endorsements from the county party organizations are a key feature of New Jersey's unique voting system.

All but two of the state's counties endorse candidates for the primary and then place their endorsed candidates all in one line. It's called "the county line" or "the party line" and it includes candidates for various positions. In the June 2024 primary, that line would start with the incumbent president at the top, and give the impression of legitimacy to each candidate who follows. The other candidates for the same seat are placed in what's known as ballot Siberia – way off to the right on the ballot and all alone.

"We are a state with strong party machines, particularly on the Democratic side," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. "Those party chairs, who are largely men and largely white, make the decision about who gets the party nod, who gets the party line – meaning literally where they're positioned on the ballot."

Walsh is one of a growing number of people in New Jersey who think the endorsement process is corrupt. Research has shownthat candidates who run on the county line win the primary by an average of 38 points.

In a state with a Democratic majority, the primary is likely to choose the winner for any statewide election. Additionally, no incumbent on the county line has lost a primary election since 2009, according to the researcher, Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

Tammy Murphy is running for the seat currently held by Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democrat who was indicted in September on bribery and corruption charges related to an alleged scheme to help the government of Egypt. He's denied the charges and has said he will not resign. Menendez has hinted at a reelection campaign in 2024 but has not officially declared his candidacy.

Murphy's role as first lady aids her political aspirations

Since her husband became governor, Murphy has been highly involved in his administration.

"Over the last six years, we have worked nonstop to make New Jersey a better place to live, work, and raise a family," Murphy said. "I've personally taken leadership roles in two major areas, maternal and infant health and climate change education."

Murphy is also known for raising money for Democrats in the state, attending events and building relationships with political leaders. In the runup to the governor's first election in 2017, the Murphys made donations to many of the Democratic county party organizations, and Phil Murphy received the line in every county that uses the system.

"And of course, it's not just her ability to raise money, but it's also her ability to self fund a campaign as her husband did," said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "And so I think that's the value proposition for her candidacy. The concern is that political spouses run a serious risk of looking like the seat is being handed to her."

New Jersey is well acquainted with nepotism in its political class. In the state's congressional delegation there are four representatives who have strong family ties, if not the exact names of previous elected leaders. Rep. Tom Kean Jr. is the son of a former governor; Rep. Donald Payne Jr. is the son of a former congressman; Rep. Rob Menendez is the son of the current senator; and Rep. Donald Norcross is the brother of a Democratic Party boss.

Rep. Andy Kim, D - N.J., speaking here in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, says without political connections and wealth, it's hard to enter politics.
Eric Lee / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., speaking here in Washington, D.C., on March 29, 2022, says without political connections and wealth, it's hard to enter politics.

"As someone who doesn't come from a political family, a connected family, as someone who doesn't come from a wealthy family with millions of dollars in the bank, it was very difficult for me to enter politics in New Jersey," said Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., who is running against Murphy for the Senate seat.

"I find myself in a situation right now where it feels like, you know, those who have the most connections, those that have the most money, those that are the most powerful already have a leg up," Kim said.

Both candidates are seeking endorsements and a place on the county line, but Kim is speaking out against the system and calling for reform. Murphy is a bit more circumspect.

"I believe that this is the system we have," Murphy said. "And we have done incredible things with this system over the last number of years, being able to expand voting rights and to really strengthen the party and make real change in the lives of working people up and down the state."

Copyright 2023 WNYC

Nancy Solomon