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How New Jersey’s line disempowers Asian Americans

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How New Jersey’s line disempowers Asian Americans

Feb 13, 2024 | 6:39 am ET
By Special to the New Jersey Monitor
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How New Jersey’s line disempowers Asian Americans
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The 2020 primary ballot in Monmouth County shows how Neptune Township committee candidate Kevin McMillan was placed in the sixth column, stranded in what critics of this ballot design have called “ballot Siberia.”

 By Amber Reed, Jeffrey Chang, Patrick Stegemoeller, Ronak Patel, and Bob Sakaniwa

During the pandemic, 32-year-old Hoan Huynh, a son of Vietnamese refugees who had built a successful career in social impact investing, was troubled by the way communities like his were being left behind.

When a legislative district seat in Illinois became vacant, Huynh quit his job and started campaigning from dawn until dusk, greeting people outside train stations, visiting senior centers, and knocking on doors in every street in his district. He won a five-way primary whose runner-up was a well-financed candidate endorsed by the Illinois governor and leading Democrats. Easily winning the general election, Huynh became the first Vietnamese American and first refugee in the Illinois Legislature.

Would Huynh’s story have been possible in New Jersey? Sadly, the answer is probably no.

If Huynh had been in New Jersey, instead of spending 14 hours a day connecting with voters, his time would have been better spent convincing a handful of unelected party leaders to award him “the line.” Uniquely in New Jersey, rather than arranging candidates simply by the office they are seeking, primary ballots in 19 of 21 counties string candidates selected by the Democratic and Republican parties’ county leadership together in a favorably placed vertical or horizontal line (generally the first line on the ballot). Conferring an average advantage of 38 percentage points, “the county line” pushes primary candidates not favored by the party to more distant, less populated rows or columns on the ballot, giving otherwise competitive and viable candidates a dubious appearance that is difficult to overcome.

New Jersey’s party leaders would have been unlikely to favor Huynh, as they would already have had a list of hand-picked favorites (or even family members) who had been waiting years for their “turn.” He might also have been chided for aspiring to a state-level office, and advised to “work his way up” from a municipal role. Perhaps Huynh would have run “off the line,” as a few courageous candidates of color in New Jersey have done, usually without success. More probably, not seeing a fair chance to serve the way he aspired to, he would have been too disenchanted to run at all.

There are over 1.1 million AAPIs in New Jersey — the fastest growing demographic — but how many potential elected leaders are there who could make a difference for our communities, but are never allowed the chance? Only 11% of primaries are contested in New Jersey, one of the lowest percentages nationwide. Candidates who run off the line are dogged not only by a massive disadvantage due to their ballot position, but by a general air of futility that makes it difficult to fundraise, a particularly serious barrier for candidates from immigrant and other marginalized communities.

The party leaders who predetermine the outcomes of our primary elections are generally older, whiter, and more male than New Jerseyans as a whole, as is the political representation their choices create. Illinois, like New Jersey, is not widely renowned for its lack of gatekeepers or corruption. But its ballots — like those of 48 other states — are designed fairly, giving communities of color a better chance of achieving proportional representation. Five percent of Illinois General Assembly members are Asian, a share roughly proportional to their overall population (6%). If New Jersey AAPIs’ representation in the Statehouse were proportional to our population (11%), there would be 13 AAPI legislators. Instead, there are 6.

While these legislators work hard to make what change they can, the AAPI community lives with the harmful effects of underrepresentation every day. Other states with large AAPI populations responded to the crises these communities faced during the pandemic by supporting them with AAPI “equity budgets” in the tens of millions of dollars. New Jersey’s AAPI curriculum mandate was a historic milestone, yet scant resources have been dedicated to this mandate, and two years in, the state commission meant to support it has not yet been seated. And we continue to be shut out of important policy conversations, as exemplified by our lack of representation on a high-profile maternal health commission, despite high rates of maternal mortality among AAPI women.

A healthy democracy is transparent, competitive, and leaves the most serious decision-making to those our Constitution entrusts: the voters. New Jersey must join the rest of the nation in having fair ballots and give AAPIs, and all of our communities of color, a fighting chance.

Amber Reed & Jeffrey Chang are Board Members of the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of New Jersey; Ronak Patel & Patrick Stegemoeller are attorneys at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Bob Sakaniwa is the Director of Policy & Advocacy at APIA Vote