Fran is a Member of the NJ State Democratic Committee from Middlesex County and a labor activist. Promoted by Rosi – I agree thoroughly.
Open Letter to New Jersey’s County Clerks, Party Chairs and State Leaders
Last November, I joined millions of other Americans in celebrating the election of the most diverse Congress in our country’s history. Voters across the country elected more women, and women of color, than ever before to Congress. Arizona elected an openly bisexual woman to the U.S. Senate. Finally, we have a national legislative body that begins to look like our nation. Yet, here in New Jersey, we have an antiquated system that keeps women as well as members of the LGBTQIA community from fully participating in our democratic process. Although not all do, some NJ counties still adhere to an outdated law that requires County Committee candidates to serve based on their gender identity. But we can fix this.
Some background: Existing state law says that Committee elections must be apportioned by gender. That is, each election district must be represented by one man and one woman. In 1997, this law was challenged in Burlington County and the judge in that case, Hartman v. Covert, issued a landmark opinion that the gender-based delineation in county committee leadership under the statute is unenforceable as it is both “unconstitutional and invalid.”
Gender Litmus Test: Since then, many other County and municipal Clerks, and County and Municipal chairs have relied on that ruling and have allowed anyone seeking the office of County Committee to run without passing a gender litmus test. Officials in Mercer, Passaic, Essex, Cumberland and Hunterdon Counties simply allow candidates to run for and serve as County Committee members. In these places, people are permitted to serve in these committees without regard for their gender. In other places, though – in the rest of New Jersey’s counties – the parties still require gender identity as the basis for participation. This disparity has created different rules for different places and allows for an uneven opportunity to participate in the county committee process, based solely on locality. Democracy should be available everywhere, to everyone.
Outdated: While the apportionment rule may have served a purpose decades ago, to encourage women to participate and ensure their parity with men in political office, it has clearly outlived its usefulness. It now does the opposite. It actually limits women’s participation in counties that adhere to the gender rule, as they cannot comprise more than 50% of a political party committee. This is true even though they may make up more than 50% of the voters. This is certainly true for my party, where 52.6% of Democrats in NJ are women and 58% of Democratic primary voters (the only voters choosing committee people) are women. We have municipal councils and Freeholder Boards that are majority female. Two women can – and have – represented the same Assembly district. Yet, at the very grassroots level of the parties, female voters are being denied their right to choose candidates who represent them. And women are who wish to serve are being denied the opportunity simply because of their gender.
People are being disenfranchised: Adherence to the gender rule has an even greater chilling effect for the transgender community, as it draws attention to gender assignment in public and serves as a prerequisite for seeking office. It completely disenfranchises non-binary individuals, as it precludes their democratic participation if they do not identify as either male or female. Just over a third of transgender individuals identify as non-binary, a number that is significantly higher among those under age 25. New Jersey already has one non-binary person serving on a local school board. The idea that they can serve on a school board, but not as a committee person, defies logic. Even as we celebrate the hard fought victory of removing the requirement of gender identity on birth certificates, non-binary and other individuals are still prohibited from fully participating in public life under the gender apportionment rule.
Here’s how we can fix this together: Many County Clerks, and county and municipal party chairs have shown great courage and commitment to ending gender and identity discrimination by relying on the Burlington ruling. They simply allow candidates to file, run and serve as Committee members. I urge all of 21 County Clerks and party chairs to stand up for women’s rights and LGTBQIA rights by publicly committing to accept petitions from anyone to run for County Committee in the upcoming June 4 primary, regardless of gender, and instruct municipal clerks to do the same.
We can do it now, with your help: It would be helpful to have guidance from the state in some fashion, but it is not essential; justice delayed is justice denied. I believe that our elected clerks and party leaders can do the right thing, right now. There is no time like the present to stand up for equality and diversity. In 2019, the least we can do is to make sure that women and LGTBQIA individuals like myself can fully engage in civic life, and not be limited to 50% or be constrained by another box to be checked. Our democracy and our future deserve nothing less than full participation of all our citizens.
Another example, below. This is Hunterdon County, where voters in several precincts have elected women to serve the Democratic County Committee.