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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Ingemi

Time to get rid of the party line


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What makes a nation, state, or region successful? After reading, George Washington’s Journey by T.H. Breen, I have come to believe that success occurs through the active participation of the population in politics, government, the economy and society. The book chronicles Washington’s visits with the people throughout the new states as president-elect and as president. George Washington made these visits to build popular support for the new Constitution and hear ideas from ordinary citizens. These journeys proved successful as people from all walks of life gathered to celebrate the new Republic and discuss the new government with the president. It is not an exaggeration to say that these journeys set the tone for the young United States both politically and economically.


Reflecting beyond the book, it seems that the most successful presidents were those that expanded this idea of participatory democracy. Lincoln ended slavery and worked to give the freed slaves political rights to allow for full participation in government affairs. He also signed the first immigration bill in U.S. history and the only one to encourage immigration. He signed the Morrill Act that designated Land Grant Universities (such as Rutgers and Penn State) to spread innovation and learning in agriculture and engineering throughout the United States. These actions allowed more people to participate in economic growth.


The New Deal under FDR was not simply a matter of welfare but included programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration (through which our local Hammonton Post Office was built). Through these programs, ordinary citizens were able to actively participate in government projects and thus, increase faith in how government functions.


What can we do here in New Jersey to increase this idea of participatory democracy? One immediate, simple step would be to eliminate the party line in primary elections. The party-line is a primary ballot position (generally, the left-most column) that gives candidates a distinct advantage. It is awarded to candidates by county political party committees through conventions, where either county committee members vote or party members credentialed by committee members vote, or by the county committee chairperson, who is elected separately by county committee members. Committee members are elected at the municipal or county-level every two to four years in party primaries. Technically, one can argue that committee members are selected by voters. However, county committee elections are rarely seriously contested and candidates for committee are usually asked to run by current party leadership. Therefore, it is a stretch to say that the advantage of the party line is awarded in a way that reflects the will of the party membership.


A better solution would be to do away with the party line through a redesigned primary ballot that gives no candidate for office an advantageous position. This would allow for fully contested primaries where a victorious candidate have had to put in a serious effort into fundraising, organizing and GOTV (Get Out the Vote). Rather than victory being a function of convincing party insiders, winning candidates will reflect a broader cross-section of party members. A party line-free primary can also increase transparency. Special interest groups and factions would back their respective candidates openly in an election rather than by simply trying to influence county committee members. Finally, robust primaries can generate excitement and momentum going into the general election.


Doing away with the party line does not eliminate the need for county committee. It actually makes the committee more relevant in that members could focus on developing platforms, fundraising, grass-roots organizing and building infrastructure for the general election. This reorientation may also be an incentive to run for county committee in order to have a part in strategic planning. Fairer primaries will deter more extreme candidates. Party extremism is more a result of partisan gerrymandering of legislative/congressional districts (another problem for another discussion).


In his Gettysburg Address during one of the darkest moments of our nation’s history, Lincoln called for a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Expanding participatory democracy is neither a conservative issue nor a progressive one. It is neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue. It is about empowering all citizens in the best traditions of our nation. New Jersey should do its part and end the party line.


Joseph F. Ingemi, Jr. resides with his family in Hammonton, where he works as a technology consultant and serves as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University. He is a U.S. Army veteran and holds a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University. Joe is active in regional non-profits. The opinions expressed are strictly his own.


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