The latest front in a battle between liberal Democrats serving the American people and those who are loyal to the billionaires and corporate interests that finance their campaigns is playing out in a dispute featuring New Jersey’s leading progressive and a conservative congressman who has been called a ‘human fundraising machine.’
In a stark contrast of positions on election reform, Lisa McCormick, a prominent advocate for transparent and fair elections, criticized Rep. Josh Gottheimer’s unwavering support for New Jersey’s controversial and corrupt ‘county line’ system.
The county line system has long been criticized for allowing political bosses to manipulate primary elections by giving their preferred candidates preferential placement on the ballot.
Gottheimer recently expressed his fervent endorsement of the county line system, calling it a “democratic approach” but McCormick countered that it empowers power brokers and political bosses while excluding rank-and-file Democrats.
Gottheimer defended the system’s role in selecting candidates and claimed it gave local Democrats a voice, but the progressive said the congressman is “a corporate Democrat who serves the interests of Wall Street and could not recognize the public because it rarely shows up at $1000-per-person political fundraisers.”
“It’s a democratic approach that I’ve long supported,” Gottheimer told the New Jersey Globe. “It gives rank and file Democrats at the local level a strong voice in selecting their best candidates who then make their case to the voters.”
However, Lisa McCormick, who has been a champion of electoral fairness for two decades, vehemently disagreed with that assessment.
“It is not ‘democratic’ when a small group of people, and often one powerful person alone, decides who gets an advantage by having their name in a better spot than anyone else,” said McCormick. “I suspect that the Congressman is confusing the meaning of democracy with cheating, just as redistricting is used to cheat, and vast financial discrepancies that create unfair superiority in politics is cheating.”
“Democracy is a system of government in which the people have the authority to make decisions, not power brokers,” said McCormick, who is a plaintiff in a pending case aimed at abolishing county lines and ensuring a more equitable electoral process that is headed to the US Supreme Court.
McCormick highlighted her commitment to electoral reform by declaring her support for legislation authored by her representative in the state legislature, Sen. Shirley Turner, who proposed a bill that seeks to revoke the county line system.
McCormick pointed out that throughout his political career, Gottheimer has benefited from the county line system, which allowed him to win Democratic primaries uncontested.
“Uncontested elections are particularly ‘undemocratic’ because they deny people a choice,” said McCormick. “
Gottheimer secured the county line in multiple elections, including his first run for Congress in 2016, and all of his re-election campaigns. Critics argue that this system gives incumbents like Gottheimer an unfair advantage, stifling competition and limiting the choices available to voters.
While Gottheimer may value the county line, which allowed him to preserve his campaign resources and usually win the Democratic nomination uncontested, the lack of any alternative on the ballot means voters do not have a choice.
Former Working Families Party state director Sue Altman, who is running for Congress, asserted that county organizations should be completely removed from influencing ballot positions. However, the candidate has not indicated that she would refrain from seeking backing from party bosses.
McCormick, on the other hand, has repeatedly been instrumental in orchestrating insurgencies that directly challenge those power brokers. In 2010, McCormick got 47 percent of the vote leading a slate under the banner Democrats for Change that came close to unseating Union County’s sheriff of 30 years and the county clerk who at the time had 27 years in the position.
As a contender for US Senate in 2018, when she earned four of ten votes cast in the Democratic primary, McCormick offered a place on her line to any Democratic congressional candidate who wanted to join her.
McCormick was guaranteed a preferential ballot position on one of the first two lines or columns in the June Democratic primary, as one of only two Democrats running statewide.
“This fact of ballot placement is a long-time trick used by the establishment to injure candidates who are independent of their control and it is an unconstitutional disadvantage imposed on anyone who runs for the Democratic Party nomination,” said McCormick campaign manager, James J. Devine, who extended the candidate’s invitation. “If you were offended by the undue influence of ‘super delegates’ at the last presidential nominating convention, then you should agree with us on this matter. This unconstitutional law allows some candidates to be put on the ballot in places hard to find for some voters.”
“If you choose to challenge this disadvantage in court, Lisa McCormick will support any Democratic Party primary election candidate who files a lawsuit to secure better placement on the ballot,” Devine said in an open letter to Democratic candidates. “The political insiders do not have an inherent right to rig the ballot and this issue is one that Lisa McCormick has previously said is contrary to Democratic Party principles. Since she will be in the first or second position, she is not harmed by this and thus has no standing to file a lawsuit.”
“If you undertake such a complaint, Lisa will give her full support to the cause and ask the court to open such a case to all candidates who are not ensconced on a ‘regular’ organization line in each county, since those entities deserve no legitimacy among voters choosing our candidates for nomination,” said Devine. “Mounting a legal challenge to this unjust law would be an attack on the heart of illegitimate power of New Jersey political bosses, and a good chance to show why you deserve the nomination of the party of the people. Win or lose in the election, this is a legal fight worth waging and winning for the people.”
At the US Supreme Court, McCormick is challenging the slogan statutes, which she says are “perfectly designed to entrench political machines that employ New Jersey corporations and face realistic threats only in the primaries.”
“New Jersey gives primary candidates six words to communicate directly with voters on the ballot—the most critical point of the election—but not the six words they want,” according to Paul D. Clement, the former Solicitor General of the United States who is representing McCormick before the nation’s top court. “Instead, the slogan statutes discriminate based on content and viewpoint and in favor of entrenched political machines.”
McCormick said whether the process is changed by legislation or through the courts, she is certain that it would be unAmerican to leave the door open for continued manipulation of the electoral process by power brokers and party bosses.
Gottheimer, who quickly became known as President Donald Trump’s favorite Democrat in Congress, is reportedly considering a run for governor in 2025. This potential move could pit him against other Democratic insiders who also seek to secure county lines, further reinforcing the influence of power brokers and party bosses over the democratic process.
McCormick said Democrats should stand united as a vocal force championing the principles of transparency, fairness, and true democracy in the electoral process.
Nearly two-thirds of New Jerseyans say county political parties should not favor candidates in primaries, endorsing some and allowing them to receive preferential ballot treatment, according to a 2022 Fairleigh Dickinson University poll.
This practice, known as the party line, is unique to New Jersey and is the subject of a pending federal lawsuit filed by six unsuccessful primary candidates and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance against a half-dozen county clerks.
That suit contends the practice of bracketing party-endorsed candidates together on the ballot is unfair and seeks to have it declared unconstitutional, while the case filed by law professor Eugene Mazo and McCormick is taking aim at one aspect of the system that they consider the weakest leg.
The FDU poll found 65% of residents — 61% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans — oppose the system that both lets county parties endorse primary candidates and enables county clerks who design the ballots to bracket these candidates together, often in the first row or column of the ballot, while non-endorsed candidates appear alone and often in an end row or column. Just 19% of all those surveyed support the system, which studies have found provides a distinct advantage to those endorsed and featured on the line.