New Jersey Centrists Try to Legalize Their Dream: The Moderate Party

When Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the Supreme Court majority in a landmark 1997 case, rejected a minor party’s demand to nominate candidates already on the Democratic ticket, he argued that states have a large have an interest in “the political stability of the two-party system.”

Nearly 25 years later, Rehnquist’s fundamental premise is now widely questioned. Signs of extreme polarization and voter unrest are everywhere, from this week’s congressional hearings on one party’s bare-bones bid to undo a presidential election to the rising number of Americans refusing to register as Democrats or Republicans. .

Past efforts to establish viable third parties, however, have repeatedly floundered in the United States — whether it’s because they cling to quixotic causes at the expense of more mainstream appeals, or because of the obstacles the two major parties routinely put on their hands. place path.

A new New Jersey political party hopes to break that pattern by embracing the technique Justice Rehnquist despised — fusion voting — with the ambition to get the idea national. And while the party’s founders recognize that the odds of success are slim, supporters say they’ve found a formula that holds more promise than more sweeping but ultimately unworkable ideas for overhauling America’s sclerotic political system.

The party, led by a core of local Republicans, Democrats and independents, alarmed by the GOP’s right-wing drift under former President Donald J. Trump, has given itself a name that makes its ideological middle ground positioning crystal clear: the moderate Party Party.

The party’s goal is to empower centrist voters at a time when, the group’s founders say, America’s two major parties have drifted to the political margins. But unlike traditional third parties, the Moderate Party hopes to push the Democratic and Republican Parties to the center, not to replace or compete with them.

One of the party’s co-founders is Richard A. Wolfe, a partner at the law firm Fried Frank and former small-town mayor, who says he loathes the Republican Party’s embrace of conspiracy theories and allegiance to Trump.

“Starting around 2020, my wife and I started to feel that the Republican Party no longer represented our views,” Wolfe said in an interview. “We started to feel very uncomfortable with the extremism.”

But he couldn’t bring himself to support the Democratic Party, which he sees as too dependent on leftist economic ideas and cultural goals. Feeling politically “homeless,” he began having quiet conversations with like-minded individuals about starting a new political party and stumbled upon the concept of merger voting, he said.

In merger voting, several parties can nominate the same candidate, who will then appear on the ballot more than once. Proponents say voters who are uncomfortable with one of the major parties can express their preferences without “wasting” votes on candidates without gaining hope.

The practice is common in New York, which has two prominent merger parties: the Working Families Party, which supports progressive candidates but mostly aligns with Democrats; and the Conservative Party, which supports center-right candidates but mostly aligns with Republicans. In Connecticut’s 2010 governor’s race, 26,000 votes cast on the Working Families Party ballot for Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, made the difference between victory and defeat.

However, forty-three states, including New Jersey, prohibit merger voting. The Moderate Party hopes to change that by challenging those bans in state court.

The first test case is Representative Tom Malinowski, who prefers to win the Democratic primaries to continue to represent New Jersey’s seventh congressional district. The district, an upscale suburb that includes Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club, became significantly more Republican-oriented after a bipartisan redistricting commission redrawn the state’s maps last year.

Malinowski’s likely Republican opponent, Tom Kean Jr., is the scion of a powerful New Jersey political dynasty. His father, Tom Kean Sr., is a moderate former state governor who achieved national recognition as co-chair of the September 11 commission. Malinowski narrowly beat the younger Mr. Kean in 2020, winning by just 5,329 votes.

New Jersey political analysts expect an even tougher race this year for Malinowski, who carefully weighed his chances before deciding to seek a third term.

In an interview, Mr. Malinowski that he welcomed the support of the Moderate Party.

“I think this is an answer to a question that many Americans have been asking,” Malinowski said. “People in the middle of the political spectrum feel powerless by parties playing their bases, especially on the Republican side.”

Though dominated by the Democratic Party in recent years, New Jersey has a history of rewarding centrist politicians. Of the nearly 6.5 million registered voters in the state, just over four million are registered as Democrats or Republicans, leaving 2.5 million unaffiliated with any of the major parties.

A poll of New Jersey voters conducted in April by the Monmouth University Polling Institute found that 52 percent of adults in the state prefer or tend to keep Democrats in control of Congress, while 41 percent prefers to bring Republicans to power.

Fusion voting was once widespread in the United States. But most state lawmakers banned the practice after it became a popular tool of minor parties and movements during the progressive era, threatening the exclusive hold of the two major parties over voters.

Under Governor Woodrow Wilson, New Jersey passed a law in 1911 expressly permitting merger tickets. Wilson praised the measure for putting “every choice process in the hands of the people,” according to a contemporary New York Times account. But ten years later, the New Jersey state legislature, alarmed by the growth of small parties, banned candidates from appearing on the same ballot more than once.

On Tuesday, the Moderate Party filed petitions on behalf of Mr. Malinowski with New Jersey’s Secretary of State Tahesha Way, along with a memorandum and other material outlining why voting for a merger should be legal. The cabinet of the State Secretary has rejected a request for comment.

If, as expected, Ms. Way refuses to allow Mr. Malinowski to join the moderate party ticket, the party and some of its supporters plan to challenge her decision in the appeals court of the state.

Beau Tremitière, an attorney at Protect Democracy, a nonprofit representing a voter who plans to challenge Ms. Way’s likely ruling, said New Jersey had strong protections for voting rights and freedom of expression, assembly and association. covering the age-old ban on merger tickets.

Protect Democracy got involved, Mr Tremitiere said, because the group believes voting for merger “can help provide a meaningful way out of escalating extremism and polarization.”

The state-focused strategy could allow the party to bypass the Supreme Court, whose 1997 ruling that states have the power to ban merger tickets under the federal constitution is considered untouchable, especially given the court’s current conservative majority.

But the Moderate Party legal team plans to argue that political polarization has not only reached unsustainable levels since the 1990s, but that merger votes have contributed to the stability of states like New York and Connecticut.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle,” said Jeffrey Mongiello, a New Jersey attorney who has written critically of the state’s ban on merger voting. Mr. Mongiello noted that it is up to the plaintiffs to demonstrate that the ban on merger voting is unconstitutional under New Jersey law, despite the Supreme Court ruling.

Mr. Malinowski, a former State Department official and longtime analyst for Human Rights Watch, was an influential voice on foreign policy during his time in the House. He was an outspoken advocate of arming Ukraine to defend itself against Russian invasion and sponsored a bill to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs and reassign them to the Ukrainian government.

For now, the Moderate Party is focused on changing the law in New Jersey, with the courts being the most promising avenue. But the party’s allies, backed by wealthy national donors, have identified eight to 10 other states that have a similar combination of a favorable constitution and a potentially sympathetic Supreme Court.

The Working Families Party attempted a similar move in Pennsylvania in 2019, resulting in a 4-to-3 decision by the state’s Supreme Court in favor of the state’s argument that merger votes would unleash “election chaos.”

Merger vote supporters see a model that can be used to amplify centrist voices across the country and break through what they believe to be the “dooms of zero-sum part warfare” that is endangering American democracy.

“There is a heartbreaking distaste among many Republicans who say, ‘I could never vote for a Democrat,'” said Lee Drutman, an analyst with the New America Foundation who wrote an expert letter in favor of the Moderate Party petitions. . “Fusion voting allows people to express their true preferences in a way that the two-party system does not.”

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