July 1 2015 12:18 PM

New Jersey's closed primaries favor parties over the people

Chris_Christie_April_2015
Chris Christie
Photo by Michael Vadon / wiki commons

The average voter turnout in New Jersey's primary elections is just 8 percent, and it costs taxpayers $12 million to administer each election cycle. Despite these facts, Governor Chris Christie's administration defends its taxpayer-funded, exclusive and private, closed-primary election process against a legal challenge asserting the right of all voters to be treated equally.

In its brief, the Christie administration argued: "a voter who feels disenfranchised because of a regulation that conditions participation in primary elections on party membership should simply join the party[No courts] have recognized that unaffiliated voters have a fundamental right to participate in primary elections even when those elections are an integral part of the electoral process."

(Full disclosure: The columnist is an attorney for a plaintiff in the case challenging the constitutionality of New Jersey's closed primary system.)

Primary elections in New Jersey serve an explicitly private purpose; namely, to elect candidates for the Republican and Democratic parties. This gives two private corporations an exclusive advantage over the election process. Conversely, in California, our top two primary serves a nonpartisan purpose; namely to select candidates for the public at-large. All candidates and voters participate on a single primary ballot, giving the advantage to voters rather than political parties.

Recently, Hillary Clinton made voting rights a key issue in her campaign. In doing so, she challenged voter suppression laws supported by Christie.

Clinton is right on two counts:

(1) Chris Christie supports laws that make it harder for voters not likely to support him to vote, and (2) Voting rights should be at the forefront of the national debate.

Legally, there is nothing more fundamental to our democratic form of government than the right to vote. It is the right that determines who is represented by our government.

In Arizona, for example, the Republican Party controls every branch of the legislature. With this control, Republican legislators have drawn [read: gerrymandered] legislative district lines to insulate themselves from the competitive election process over the last several decades, thus insulating themselves from competition in the election process.

As a consequence, Democrats have had little chance in recent memory to influence public policy in Arizona, despite the fact that less than 35 percent of voters in the state are Republicans.

To resolve this, Arizona voters passed Proposition 106 in 2000, creating an independent redistricting commission. California voters adopted a similar commission in 2008.

On Monday, the Supreme Court decided on a constitutional challenge to the redistricting commission by, you guessed it, the Republican controlled Arizona legislature. The legislature argued that under the United States Constitution, only the "state legislature" has the power to draw district boundaries. Therefore, "the People" cannot enact a law that takes away that authority from the legislature itself.

Importantly, it was uncontested that Arizona's Constitution allows for "the People" to enact or disapprove of laws by way of popular initiative or referendum. In other words, the same Republican Party that often speaks to the importance of "state rights," and has derided the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage as federal overreach, asked the federal courts to invalidate a law that was enacted by its voters under their rights guaranteed by the Arizona Constitution.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court refused to strike down Arizona's independent redistricting commission law. But what does this have to do with Chris Christie?

In defending New Jersey's closed-primary election system, Governor Christie has put the rights of his political party ahead of his state's citizens. Rather than treat all voters equally, he argues that nonpartisan voters should "do the hard work" it takes to compete with the political parties, without further explanation.

In other words, at a time when the President of the United States has suggested that increasingly disaffected voters be forced to vote, Governor Christie suggests that his administration has a legitimate interest in making democracy more difficult.

But we shouldn't just pick on Governor Christie simply because he is the one being put on the stand.

If you asked any presidential candidate whether every voter, regardless of political party affiliation, should have equal opportunity to express their preference for presidential candidates at every stage of the election process, they are likely to avoid the answer.

The political parties control the nominating process and, in turn, decide who the "viable" candidates are. That's why "credible" candidates are not inclined to buck the party establishment. In short, parties want you to vote—but only if they have your allegiance.

Clinton should be applauded for recognizing that voter apathy, voter suppression and voter participation are of significant national importance.

The problem is, however, that there is no attempt by anyone on the national stage to connect the duopolistic nature of our election laws as the reason WHY voters are participating in record low numbers.

Voters of all races, genders, ages, economic statuses and religions are leaving the political parties because they don't feel like either party adequately represents them. By self-identification, these voters now outnumber Republicans and Democrats.

As a lifelong independent, maybe Bernie Sanders should join Clinton's call for a discussion on voting rights from this perspective.

But he won't. For the same reason he had to join the Democratic Party to be considered a "viable" presidential candidate.

It is a little-known fact that the purpose of the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries is, by law, to select a nominee that represents the party on the general election ballot.

The interests of political parties are so embedded in our laws and our national discourse that we don't ever ask the simple, but fundamental question: should elections serve the parties, or the people?

Chris Christie had an opportunity to choose the people. Instead, he chose his political party.

Perhaps this position will serve him well in his pursuit for the Republican nomination, but it won't help him in the November election when nonpartisan voters matter. 


Chad Peace is managing editor of the San Diego-based news website Independent Voter Network.


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