Is NJ’s ‘one man, one woman’ party committee rule outdated & sexist?
They can put whoever they'd like on the ballot next month, breaking Middlesex County's rules, but a grassroots organization plans to continue its fight against the county in hopes of scrapping those rules altogether — rules they call outdated and sexist.
The county, though, is one of many adhering to a state statute that dates back to the middle of last century, requiring that each of the Republican and Democratic party's county committee seats be filled by one man and one woman in each district.
The county committees for the two major parties are not government entities but they play an important role in deciding which candidates get the official nod for their party, from local to national races. That endorsement brings along with it resources and a following that rarely lead to a loss at the polls.
The state's gender law applies not only to individual seats, but leadership as well. The chairman and vice chairman must be individuals of the opposite sex. But a memo sent in early April by Division of Elections Director Robert Giles reminded county clerks of a state Superior Court decision in 1997 that declared the gender rule as unconstitutional as it relates to the chairmen.
"What was once a floor is now a ceiling for women, and an outright ban for nonbinary individuals," according to a lawsuit filed by the Central Jersey Progressive Democrats. "Notably, this type of sex quota is an outlier, and does not exist in the election administration of races across Middlesex County across the state."
The lawsuit, according to lead plaintiff and CJPD member Kamuela Tillman, came after multiple failed requests to the County Clerk to allow candidates run without regard to gender identity. A handful of counties, including Mercer and Hunterdon, no longer implement the state statute.
"We were trying to use precedence that was already out there to be able to run," Tillman told New Jersey 101.5.
While the progressive group's goal is to allow more women on the committees, their effort is opposed by the state chapter of the National Organization of Women, who said that in the counties that have dropped the one-man/one-woman rule — Cumberland, Essex, Hunterdon, Mercer and Passaic — the committees have seen more districts with two men rather than two women.
"To state that this rule is ‘antiquated’ and ‘is no longer needed’ or that '[g]ender should not play a role in politics in this day and age’ is absurd," the women's rights group said. "This buys into an assumption that women have achieved equality and no longer need reinforcement by statute to ensure equal representation."
In late April, a court hearing decided that ballots in the county this coming June would not include the one-man/one-woman rule. The pending lawsuit aims to overturn the rule in the county altogether.
Tillman is one of the several women who will run as part of a two-woman pairing. Em Phipps, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and an individual who does not identify with either gender, will also be on the ballot.
Middlesex County Clerk Elaine Flynn said the the county respects the judge's recent decision and will abide by the order, but she would not comment on the lawsuit.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said the gender rule has been one of the only methods in place to ensure that women's voices are part of the political process.
"I think it would be a shame to lose that, and I think that women would lose ground," Walsh said.
However, Walsh added, a conversation is needed on how to accommodate individuals today who don't identify as either male or female.
"They don't fit in either category, and therefore there is no place for them, and that is a challenge," she said.
The lawsuit filed by CJPD also names the Middlesex County Board of Elections as a defendant, and Secretary of State Tahesha Way as an interested party.
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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.