In an editorial, Progressive Democrats of Hudson County members Hector Oseguera and Elena Little explain how “party insiders have hijacked the ballot” in New Jersey and why the “corrupt” system must be fixed.
Democracy in New Jersey is being stifled because party insiders have hijacked the ballot and restricted choice in primaries for far too long. Change is needed and can only come with the elimination of the corrupt ballot line.
Here in New Jersey, we have a uniquely backwards way of presenting candidates to voters in primaries.
Those wishing to challenge incumbents are given a disadvantageous ballot position, challengers are misaligned from the party insiders, who are placed together on the ballot line.
This means party insiders have a disproportionately high chance of winning their party’s nomination and securing re-election.
We learned this the hard way.
Inspired by outsiders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley who won against powerful political establishments, we decided to run for office in 2020, determined that the best way to serve our community was to use our experiences as environmental activists, community leaders and advocates to fight the corporate status quo and serve New Jersey’s 8th congressional district in the House of Representatives and Hudson County on the Board of County Commissioners.
The ballot line is in place to keep insiders in control and prevent others from stepping forward to serve. Running off the line meant being seen as outsiders – enemies, even – of the existing Democratic Party structure.
Throughout our campaign, longtime elected officials and others with connections to the Party reacted negatively to our candidacy. Because we were running off the line, some voters saw us as less legitimate. Fundraising was more difficult. Some voters were confused about which party we represented.
The Hudson County Democratic Party itself intentionally fueled this misunderstanding, with mailers and posters urging voters to select their column to “Vote Democrat” and to “Stop Trump”—as if it weren’t a Democratic primary.
We found that few voters were tuned into the machine politics of the primary election, and while they were not satisfied with the current Congressional representative, they were often unaware they had alternatives to choose from.
One of the great examples of the capricious nature of the Hudson County Democratic machine occurred during the 2020 elections.
Because they were afraid of splitting the down-ballot votes and creating space for progressives to gain power, the party initially decided to not have any presidential candidate on any of the line-choice voting.
The party saw the possibility that progressives could bracket with popular progressive challengers such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
However, one week after the ballot was due–and once Biden had captured the nomination–the party changed the rules again and placed Biden on the Democratic machine line, positioning him against the rest of us running.
We came to realize that our original ideal of what democracy was supposed to be was lofty. We believed that candidates put their ideas to the public, and that the candidate the people agreed with most should win.
It turns out there is a set of people who are in control, who want to stay in control, and who don’t want to let other voices change their system of control. The ballot line is carefully calibrated to preserve establishment power and snuff out progressive momentum in any form.
This year, we focused our electoral efforts as candidates and volunteers on a much more local office: Hudson County Democratic Committee.
In tiny districts that span only a few city blocks, one might think the power of the line and the political machine would be diluted. While it’s true progressives were able to claw our way to some off-the-line victories, we were only able to do so with professional-style campaigning—canvassing tools, phone banking, union-printed literature, and more.
Meanwhile, many of the candidates recruited and backed by the Hudson County Democratic party did none of these things. Some weren’t even told what they were running for.
And some other progressive candidates, who knocked on all the doors in their districts multiple times, still lost to on-the-line candidates who didn’t campaign.
Those running off the line and against the machine need to work several times as hard as machine loyalists to even have a shot at electoral victories.
We know what it’s like to run off the line. We have heard of many similar experiences from so many people across the state. People try to get involved locally by speaking to local officials, but eventually they run into the machine.
Those who try are seen as outsiders. The machine is more interested in maintaining power than enacting substantial policy changes that could help the communities they purportedly represent.
Progressives across the state have been organizing on multiple fronts, building strong electoral movements and launching a lawsuit to end the unjust ballot line.
We recognize that the current power structure is stacked against change, but we believe that we can flip the undemocratic status quo.
Hector Oseguera and Eleana Little