Some Democratic campaigns cry foul over proposed primary rules

On Thursday, all 21 of New Jersey’s county clerks will draw for ballot positions for the February 5 presidential primary.

Since this is the first time that New Jersey has had a primary so early – and the first competitive primary here since 1984 – county clerks are scrambling to figure out how they’re going to design the ballots. But the way the Democratic State Committee has requested that ballot positions are assigned has caused alarm with members of the Barack Obama and John Edwards campaigns, who decry their lack of input in the method and feel that it inherently favors Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday, Democratic State Committee counsel William Northgrave sent a letter to Assistant Attorney General Donna J. Kelly and copied it to all of the county clerks and several campaign officials, requesting a method for ballot construction in the Democratic primary.

The request was made up of three parts: that a candidate endorsed by each county’s Democratic organization appear on the first line and column of every ballot; that in counties where there is no endorsement, an initial draw takes place between Clinton and Obama for the first spot, since they were the only candidates to field a full slate of delegates; and that delegate slates are chosen along with the presidential candidate through the push of one button.

Democratic State Committee Chairman Joe Cryan supports Clinton, as do and the bulk of the state’s prominent Democrats.

If county clerks abide by Northgrave’s request, Clinton will get top billing the 17 counties where the county chair has endorsed her. Obama and Edwards each have only one county chair backing them.

Since this is a party primary, all indications are that the Division of Elections and county clerks will allow the party to conduct the primary as it sees fit. A memorandum written by Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey counsel Jack Carbone to the county clerks stressed their role as “umpires not players” in the election process.

“We want to respect what happens at the grass roots and not let this be a game of what the power elites have to say,” said Obama campaign State Director Mark Alexander. “I’m just concerned about that question – about whether this is an attempt to put more power in the hands of the elite and that would be a concern of course of ours, and I think it should be a concern of all Democratic voters.”

There is some confusion, however, as to whether all of the county parties’ bylaws would allow chairs to speak for the whole organization – that some may require the committee to hold a formal convention to vote on a preferred candidate, as Cumberland County did this past weekend.

Alexander said that he’s trying to piece together the implications of Northgrave’s letter, but is concerned.

“If this is an attempt to have 17 county chairs make a unilateral decision – if that’s consistent with the rules of the party that’s one thing but if it’s not I’ll be particularly concerned in that regard.”

Some Democrats supporting other candidates believe that while Clinton’s lead remains huge in New Jersey, a poor performance by her in the four early primary states could open the door for another candidate. The state party’s insistence on giving Clinton prominent placement could mean that they’re trying to give her whatever electoral advantage she can get.

“It’s just completely counter to the kind of process you think our state party would want to foster, which would be an open process. Nobody wants to feel as thought the state party is getting involved in a primary and is lending its weight behind a particular candidate,” said one Democrat, who asked not to be identified.

Mike Beson, a top Edwards volunteer, said that he can live with Clinton getting the first ballot position in most counties, but took issue with Northgrave’s second request. Beson said that Edwards shouldn’t be disqualified from being considered in the first drawing in non-committed counties just because he didn’t field a full slate of delegates.

“I would say that clearly this is an attempt to help Senator Clinton, but I think it’s almost undemocratic in the sense that I don’t think it should be drawn that way,” he said. “I understand if a preference is given by a county, that’s fine, but where there’s no preference by a county, why should the amount of delegates matter in terms of standing on the ballot?”

Democratic State Chairman Joseph Cryan said that the new rule suggestions had nothing to do with bolstering Clinton’s campaign, and that county chairs have the authority to make the endorsement on behalf of their organizations.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with (helping Clinton). I think it’s for voters to have the opportunity, if so desired, to let them know who their county organization has endorsed, and I think that’s only appropriate,” said Cryan, who pointed out that Jersey City Mayor/Hudson County Democratic Chairman Jerramiah Healy could give Obama the first spot in that teeming Democratic county.

In response to Beson’s complaint, Cryan said that fielding a full slate of delegates makes a candidate more credible than one who hasn’t, and that such rules are necessary. He brushed off complaints that other campaigns weren’t consulted in the process.

“I think it’s a fair and thought out process, and if they have some info we’d certainly welcome it.”

Although the Republican state committee did not issue any requests to the division of elections or county chairs, at least some counties are likely to give Rudy Giuliani the first spot on the ballot.

But unlike Democrats, Republicans won’t have delegates on the ticket as well. Moreover, primary voters who make their way to the polls this frigid February won’t likely pick a candidate based on ballot placement, said GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson, who backs John McCain.

“On our side I don’t think it matters as much, because it’s just the names of the candidates who’ve qualified,” he said.

Some Democratic campaigns cry foul over proposed primary rules