How we construct democracy is political. It’s a lesson that’s on full national display, where an attempt to make the Iowa Caucuses more transparent — by showing vote counts along the way — has backfired. Or maybe, it’s actually worked, because it’s shown how constructed the entire process is. Caucuses have always had systematic biases (and human error). Just like New Jersey’s contribution to democracy, the line, has always had systematic biases. Want proof? Look at home Hudson County Democrats are considering changing the rules when the rules don’t favor them.
Here’s the quick run down. The “line” is a ballot technique that puts all candidates from a given political group (often a party) in a single vertical line. In New Jersey, you can click a single button in the voting booth and vote for all the candidates associated with one another.
I haven’t seen a great study indicating the exact effects of the line — but it’s extremely powerful, particularly in primaries. That’s because voters often see a better known candidate, such as Sen. Cory Booker, and vote down the ballot for associated local candidates for office.
One way to know that this is obviously political is that folks are trying to change it when it is less beneficial to them. Take, for example, what the Hudson County Democrats are doing (1). They’re considering decoupling the presidential primary from the line.
In practice, this would be a way to protect the local democratic party from uncertainty in the presidential race. For example, imagine that much of the New Jersey establishment chose to align with former Vice-President Joe Biden (something that seems particularly possible in South Jersey), but that Sen. Bernie Sanders runs away with the election (something that also seems possible). By the time the Jersey primaries happen, progressives that have aligned with Sen. Sanders might have a significant structural advantage in local primaries because of the line.
Hudson County Democrats are quite clear and on the record about their reasons for considering changing the system in this one case. It’s because it does not benefit them. Here’s one quote that gets to the reasoning:
“We’re trying to expand on our horizons and do the best thing for the party,” DeGise said.
And here’s another:
“This is very important presidential election, so we want to gear up for November. That’s the main goal, so we don’t want to create any type of situation for June that will hurt us in November,” DeGise said. “Because the main goal has to be building up this party, removing Donald Trump and pushing a progressive Democratic platform forward at the national level.”
I’m going to save a discussion of the merits of this argument for another post. But I do want to highlight three final things:
- Typically “the line” favors establishment candidates who align with popular state-wide or national politicians and receive a boost because of it.
- We can tell this is constructed to serve this purpose — because people explicitly tell us that they are considering changing it (as in the example above) when it does not serve the purpose of protecting establishment candidates!
- This year, there may be a unique situation in which the Democrat Presidential Primary actually flips this dynamic, and progressives getting on the line with Sen. Bernie Sanders (or, in a less-likely scenario, Sen. Elizabeth Warren) would have a structural advantage. Progressive organizers should probably be acting on this possibility now — lining up strong candidates and training them, doing initial outreach to the Sanders campaign regarding the line and more — because the possibility of the scenario exist. By the time it’s clear the scenario is happening, it will probably be too late (and there is risk that establishment candidates endorse Sen. Sanders and try to put him on County lines).