Protesting With Sign

Stories Off the Line

“Abolition of the Ballot Line would make elections fair and competitive. Residents could have these conversations at dinner tables. Our constituents are the people who are there to measure our success, to give us constant feedback. Abolishing the line will bring about more support, awareness. It will allow us to weigh the good and bad aspects of the system. Growing up in this city and learning about the various challenges we face, I am convinced the line has everything to do with the system that holds people back.”
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Felisha Reyes-Morton
Office: Camden City Council
Year: 2021

Councilwoman Felisha Reyes-Morton received a strange call last year when Camden’s Mayor resigned. A political operative called her to instruct her on whom she should support as his replacement. Reyes-Morton was shocked. As a sitting councilwoman who previously served for 8 years on Camden’s school board, the notion that she endorse a particular person for Mayor because the party establishment ordered her to was insulting. She knew then that she would launch her own campaign, a campaign she knew would feature her name off the Ballot Line. 

 

Reyes-Morton did this for Camden - a city where residents’ interests are always shut out of the decision making processes. Fed up with the lack of attention to Camden’s needs including improved roads, park safety, good recreational programs, new community centers, Reyes-Morton ran determined to educate her neighbors about a system designed not for the people, but for the party establishments to protect their power. 

 

A one-time beneficiary of the party establishment, Reyes-Morton recalls how the local political machine stunted a true democratic relationship from emerging between herself and her soon-to-be constituents. “When I asked questions about field organizing, about fundraising, about petitioning, all they said was don’t worry, we will take care of that for you. We appreciated that but it made us feel like we couldn’t do our best as leaders of our community.”  

 

After this experience, Reyes-Morton is determined to bring transparency to the local elections process. She wants vibrant conversations to take place at dinner tables. She wants every resident to feel they can be part of their city’s future. Abolishing the line is essential to making this happen. 

See Felisha's recent Opinion Editorial here: https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/new-jersey-ballot-establishment-candidates-democrats-20220425.html

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“Speaking about the realities of machine politics was an unsavory topic that made people feel hopeless while also trying to give voters hope that things could be different.”
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Will Cunningham
Office Sought: U.S. House of Representatives, NJ CD2
Year: 2020

Will Cunningham ran for the 2nd Congressional District knowing that he was not the preferred candidate as a gay black man going against the democratic machine. Having overcome homelessness to become an Ivy League graduate, he was inspired to run to represent and fight for his community. The difficulties faced by Cunningham included his treatment by the media as they tended to favor the machine candidates. The articles written about Cunningham weren't getting to the readers or omitted his presence in the race altogether despite significant fundraising and substantive Hill experience. Cunningham found that much of the general public is not aware of and/or does not want to discuss machine politics. Cunningham describes his experience speaking directly to voters as a double-edged sword.

 

“Speaking about the realities of machine politics was an unsavory topic that made people feel hopeless while also trying to give voters hope that things could be different.”

 

Engaging with voters, especially in the midst of the beginning of the pandemic, proved gruesome as many don't tune in until very close to election day where the majority of voters gravitate to what is visually the group they feel they need to vote for, hence the built-in advantage that exists.

Read Cunningham’s Opinion Editorial here.

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“Another hardship faced while getting signatures for the petition was the public's fears of having their name somewhere public, on the petition, in support of anyone against the machine. Many have jobs in the county that are contingent on the Camden machine”
Susan Druckenbrod
Office Sought: State Committee, Camden County
Year: 2021 

Susan Druckenbrod decided to run for State Committee in Camden County in the Spring of 2021 and quickly learned how difficult it is to run. There is both a lack of information and instructions on the process of running, this information is not easily accessible to the general public, making it even more challenging to run. She made several in-person visits to the Camden County Board of Elections headquarters in Blackwood for information and to obtain petitions which are not available online and must be picked up in person. As a safety net, Druckenbrod collected double the signatures required due to the county's reputation of disqualifying people and accusing others of fraud.

“Another hardship faced while getting signatures for the petition was the public's fears of having their name somewhere public, on the petition, in support of anyone against the machine. Many have jobs in the county that are contingent on the Camden machine”.

In the recent past, candidates running off the line in Camden County have been accused of fraud and had smear campaigns run against them. While campaigning, Druckenbrod had not only to convince voters to choose her, but she also had to educate voters on how the ballot works and how to find her way over in Column 4. For candidates running off the line, the election process is fraught with uncertainty as it is run by the county clerk, an elected official who is also part of the Camden County machine. 

Read Druckenbrod's Opinion Editorial here.

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"I received many Election Day messages from voters who reported difficulty voting for me. Some voters solved the problem by unchecking their votes for Kabir, but others did not.  Instead of being able to message ‘Vote Column 4,' we had to convey ‘Vote Column 4 except for Kabir,’ whereas the machine’s message was simple: 'Vote Column 1.' Their message was easier to communicate on lawn signs, banners, and other fast forms of voter education. My message trying to explain ballot placement disadvantaged me and advantaged the incumbent Clerk, who won re-election."
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Rena Margulis
Office Sought: Camden County Clerk
Year: 2019

Rena Margulis ran off the line in Camden County as a Democratic primary candidate for Camden County Clerk. The County Clerk is responsible for the layout of the ballot, and in 2019, the Clerk’s office created a Democratic primary ballot that favored the incumbent Clerk running for re-election. 

In the June 2019 ballot, the incumbent Clerk appeared in Column 1, while Margulis and another candidate for Clerk, Kabir, appeared in Column 4. Margulis and her allies did not appear in Column 2 because, as reported by Matt Friedman in Politico and Jan Hefler in the Philadelphia Inquirer, four "phantom candidates" ran for Freeholder, and those candidates took up Columns 2 and 3 on the ballot. The “phantom candidates” shared many ties to the Camden County Democratic Committee, Inc., known locally as “the machine.” These “phantom candidates” did not have websites or even free Facebook pages, and they were generally unwilling to speak to reporters. 

The 2019 ballot layout further disadvantaged Margulis in both Vote-by-Mail (VBM) voting and in voting using an electronic voting machine. New Jersey voters have been trained to vote down entire columns of candidates running together as a slate. Any voter who voted for all the Column 4 candidates on a 2019 Camden County Democratic primary VBM ballot would double vote for Margulis and Kabir, causing both votes to be uncounted. On the electronic voting machine, any voter who tried to vote for Margulis would not be permitted to do so after voting for Kabir, whose name was positioned above hers in Column 4.

Read Margulis's Opinion Editorial here.

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“Mechanisms such as the ballot line are in place to keep people in control and gatekeep others out. Running off the line meant we are seen as outsiders – enemies even- and therefore, insiders definitely did not want our input.”
Hector Oseguera 
Office Sought: US House of Representatives, NJ CD8
Year: 2020

Hector Oseguera, an attorney and community organizer, was inspired to run by outsiders like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez who ran and won against powerful longtime incumbents, and fight the corporate status quo. However, Oseguera quickly discovered how things are different in New Jersey. Throughout the campaign, longtime electeds and others with connections to the Party, reacted negatively to him. Because he was running off the line, voters viewed him as less legitimate, fundraising was more difficult, and there was confusion from voters about which party he represented. Oseguera found that few voters were tuned into the machine politics of the primary election, and while they were not satisfied with the current Congressman, were unaware they had other choices.

Read Oseguera's Opinion Editorial here.

“I had this lofty ideal of what democracy was supposed to be—Candidates put their ideas in front of the public and the idea that the people agree with the most is going to win. That is not what I found because of the line. There is a set of people who are in control, who want to stay in control, that don’t want to let other voices in that might in any way change the system of control."
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“One of the great examples of the capricious nature of the democratic machine occurred in the 2020 elections. Because they were afraid of splitting the down ballot votes and creating space for progressives to gain power, the party decided to not have any presidential candidate on any of the line choice voting as it would be possible that progressives would bracket with popular progressive challengers such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. However, a week after the ballot was due, once Biden had captured the nomination- they changed the rules again and proudly put Biden on the Democratic machine line, positioning him against the rest of us running. The ballot is all about preserving establishment power and snuffing out progressive momentum in any form.”
“Our team canvassed the city, but over and over again we had to spend time at the doors of people, VBM ballot in hand, explaining to folks how to find us- and not overvote- on the ballot. It took a great deal of time and resources and was a major obstacle. There are no General elections to speak of in Camden: the Primary is our only shot at democracy.”  
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Carmen Lozada Cooper
Office Sought: Camden City Council
Year: 2021

Carmen Lozada Cooper, a well known community leader in Camden, described her experience of running off the line as "surreal" and “frustrating.” Cooper and her team were forced to spend time and resources explaining to voters how to find them on the ballot, which put her team at a great disadvantage. “Particularly in Camden, the community is unaware of the systemic ballot disadvantage candidates off the line face.” Cooper was forced to spend more time on ballot issues in conversations with voters, rather than issues that matter to the City. Even with the explanation, many had a hard time locating Cooper and her running mates. 

“Our team canvassed the city, but over and over again we had to spend time at the doors of people, VBM ballot in hand, explaining to folks how to find us- and not overvote- on the ballot. It took a great deal of time and resources and was a major obstacle. There are no General elections to speak of in Camden: the Primary is our only shot at democracy.”  

Cooper’s team had a doubly confusing ballot position: they were in a separate line from their running mate, Elton Custis, AND shared a line with an opponent. As such, Camden City had a high “overvote” rate in the 2021 election, disqualifying votes due to voter confusion.

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“I learned 2 very big lessons: #1 The confidence of the people is worth more than money and #2 In life you have two choices- the road of least resistance or battle against the odds. My choice was to do the battle”
Tanzie Youngblood 
Office: US House NJ’s 2nd District 
Year: 2018

Tanzie Youngblood’s story underscores the limits of party wisdom. Youngblood originally entered the campaign to take on the Republican incumbent Frank LoBiondo. However, the party bosses already knew in advance he was going to retire and Jeff Van Drew was their choice candidate. It was Youngblood who first recognized that Jeff Van Drew was not in keeping with Democratic principles due to his record in the state senate, and primaried him. Later that year, VanDrew switched parties. During her campaign, Youngblood, a retired teacher, realized how fearful people were to go against the political machine because of their job position or family. Voter disengagement and discouragement run rampant in CD2, one of the most under-resourced areas of NJ. But still, a primary was not tolerated by the party; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was at one point engaged to stop her campaign. Youngblood retains hope that people will become more aware of machine politics and that soon people will make their own decisions for their future.“ A fair primary is the only way to ensure problematic democrats like Jeff Van Drew – now a Republican - don’t work their way up the system.”

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