People don't vote because they know it doesn't matter

By Dr. Murray Sabrin

The New Jersey Legislature recently proposed legislation that is supposedly designed to make it easier to vote.  They act as if voting required some herculean effort in the first place, which of course it doesn't.  Nothing will change all that much and in a year or so, Trenton politicians will be looking for other "solutions" to declining voter turnout. 

That's because they have bought into the lie that New Jersey is a representative democracy when, in fact, the elected members of the Legislature count for very little.  The average person understands this.  That is why he and she have given up on anything ever being done to lower property taxes.  They understand that taxes will only go up and jobs will continue to be tougher to come by.  Things are never going to get better -- and so they don't vote.

Let's say you are an idealistic citizen who wants to do something to improve your community.  You decide to run for the State Assembly, the lower house in the New Jersey Legislature.  The first thing you have to do is talk with your local party boss, because most of the county party organizations, Democrat and Republican alike, have something called "a line".  It's a thumb on the scale that is actually part of the official legal ballot -- explaining who among the primary candidates has been approved by the party organization.  It's done so all the party insiders -- those who depend on government for their living -- know who to vote for.  It wouldn't pass muster in any third world election run by the United Nations, but it's how things are done in New Jersey.

When approaching party bosses, do not think in terms of the old paradigm of Republican = conservative and Democrat = liberal.  Instead, do some research because many party bosses are lobbyists and get paid by clients to push legislation that doesn't always fit the assumed ideologies of their party.  Others act as informal lobbyists at the county and local level.  Still others are vendors holding contracts directly with county and local governments.

A great many party bosses are members of business organizations (legal, lobbying, corporate, consulting) with affiliates in both parties.  Take South Jersey Democrat party boss and insurance magnate George Norcross as an example.  His business was formed through a merger of two companies that sell insurance to county and local government.  One was Norcross' personal company, which controlled the insurance business in Democrat towns, the other was the company of a Republican Party boss who controlled the insurance business in GOP towns.  Now they are all one company. 

This is why you have Democrat Party bosses lobbying for Wall Street bankers and Republican Party bosses lobbying for same-sex marriage.  And it's why the NJGOP has never formally endorsed the National Republican Platform.  Why close off options?  Without principles, a party boss is free to work for whomever will pay.

These party bosses have relationships in Trenton and they raise the money their chosen candidates spend to get their name known.  Others, off-line candidates, are pretty much on their own -- unless they attract the attention of another party boss who is looking to expand his territory.  Ideology isn't usually a factor because most of the nationally-connected ideological groups are controlled locally by a party boss.  Those that aren't controlled -- those that believe in anything besides the almighty dollar -- are generally shunned by the establishment bosses.

So here you are, an Assembly candidate.  You have managed to get the endorsement of your party boss.  He's taken you to Trenton, raised you some money, and you have his party "line" on the primary ballot.  You haven't been asked for anything yet, so you don't realize how in hock you are to this boss, who is also a lobbyist.  You easily win the primary and because most of the state's legislative districts are gerrymandered to be either Democrat (in most cases) or Republican, and you live in one of these, you win the General Election too. 

Congratulations, you are now a member of the Legislature.  Now you are going to do big things, right?

Wrong.  The party bosses have chosen the Assembly Speaker and the Senate President and they control all the legislation that comes to a vote.  Some of the other 118 legislators are also party bosses -- like Nick Sacco or Ray Lesniak -- but if you are just a legislator, you don't count for much.  This isn't Congress or like most of the other legislatures in America -- there is no such thing as a discharge petition to bring  votes to the floor that leadership doesn't want.  You had better practice crawling and asking "please" and maybe you will get a bill posted (but more likely they will take it away from you and hand it to one of their friends).

So you can't get an idea debated and voted on, so how about blocking things you don't like?  You can try, but remember that the legislative leaders of both parties control special PACs that allow them to raise ten times the amount you can raise from a single source and it allows them to spend an unlimited amount against you should you get out of line.  They also can take away your committee assignments and even block you from traveling outside the state.  That's right, you actually lose freedom as a member of the New Jersey Legislature.  And if you complain to the ethics panel about it -- well they control that too.

This is why all the Republicans in the Assembly vote for the Democrat Speaker.  GOP legislators in other states wouldn't consider it, but in New Jersey they are too afraid not to.  That's also why the Senate Republican Caucus won't talk about the Democrat Senate President being paid to lobby while holding the top job in the Legislature's upper chamber.  Too afraid. 

But let's say you organize an incredible grassroots effort -- with phone calls, emails, and letters coming in to drive the bosses crazy.  Let's say that you force the Legislature to consider something.  The bosses still have the Courts -- the failsafe of the establishment -- unelected, each and every judge proposed and appointed by politicians.  They will simply overturn what the Legislature does, what the people voted for, what the voters want, what the law reads.  They don't care.  In New Jersey the Judiciary represents the people who put them there.

New Jersey is an organized kleptocracy structured to appear like a representative democracy.  It requires a veneer of decency to provide a cover for its operations. Bribery is called "access".  The buying and selling of political favors is "advocacy". 

The people understand this and don't feel a need to take part in the political process. It doesn't matter and besides, it is dirty.  Until New Jersey makes up its mind to enact real reforms, that won't change.  People will vote when they know in their hearts that the process is open, fair, and democratic.  Then it will matter.

Dr. Murray Sabrin, a libertarian author and lecturer, is professor of finance in the Anisfield School of Business, Ramapo College of New Jersey.