New Jersey's 2017 gubernatorial race is a battleground for independent and third party candidates who feel the election system is rigged against them, and toward Republicans and Democrats.
Greens, Libertarians, and disenfranchised progressives are railing against a system they say locks them out and suppresses their voices in public debate.
Jill Stein, Green Party presidential candidate in the 2016 election, released a statement against "the 'Sopranos' state’s 2-party mafia," referencing the state of New Jersey, three months before the 2017 gubernatorial elections.
Touting her party's candidate, Seth Kaper-Dale, as a "giant of social justice" Stein said that New Jersey's main parties are "strong-arming Seth into raising $430,000 by August 31st in order to get into the debates and to receive matching funds."
"That’s more than four times the $100,000 I had to raise to qualify for federal matching funds in my run for president!" Stein said in her press release.
Stein's reference to 'The Soprano State" is from a 2008 book, turned film that highlighted alleged pay-for-play corruption in New Jersey.
Most states require party status or a percentage of support from voters (which NJ also requires) to get into debates. However, the $430,000 financial requirement is seen by some independents and third parties as a pay-to-play scam, held up by the most powerful political groups in the state.
"In NJ, the two "Old Parties" have shared control of the state for the past 150 years, and they will do whatever it takes to keep it that way," said Pete Rohrman, the 2017 Libertarian gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey, in an interview for IVN.
"The last time someone other than a member of one of the "Old Parties" participated in a NJ gubernatorial debates was 1997. Dr. Murray Sabrin ran as a Libertarian that year. Shortly after Dr. Sabrin qualified, the state raised the requirements for debate access to near impossible levels for emerging parties."
In the last election cycle, candidates for governor in New Jersey only had to raise $380,000. A spokesperson for the New Jersey division of elections was not immediately available for comment on why there is a financial threshold, or why the threshold continues to increase.
According to Stein, just getting into the debates can catapult their candidate, Kaper-Dale, into gubernatorial victory.
"If we can get Seth into the debates, we Greens can win this high visibility race and open the door to Green upsets across the country," she said in the press release.
"Debates are very important," said Scott McLarty, the Greens' national media coordinator. "They catch the most attention in a particular state."
He continued, "Debates in which rules are so strict that they close out those except Republicans and Democrats is rigging debates. It's comparative to rigging elections."
Who is eligible to participate in gubernatorial debates? Under NJ code 19:25 16-3, qualified party candidates must appear on a primary ballot, and meet the $430,0000 threshold -- or meet filing rules and the $430,000 financial requirement.
It is not so hard to get access to a primary ballot -- only 1,000 signatures, but most independent and third party candidates don't qualify for public support to run primary elections, like Republicans and Democrats do.
In order to get party column status, and get support from the state, a group must garner at least 10% of the votes from the previous election cycle.
So why can't independent and third party candidates meet these requirements?
According to the parties, they need access to the political infrastructure, including media coverage, and debate access, that gets their message out to the people.
"People don't know that they have options," said Kaper-Dale's Operations Director.
"The majority of people in NJ want someone other than a Democrat or a Republican to vote for. The only way most of them will learn about other candidates is a fair and open debate," said Rohrman.
Republican Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey, Kim Guadango, is also running for governor in the in New Jersey's 2017 election, though political pollsters suggest that the Democratic candidate, Phil Murphy, is likely to win.
"The governor of New Jersey was decided in June. Phil Murphy will be our next governor, elected by 243,000 people," says Dana Wefer, a lifelong Democrat, progressive, and Bernie Sanders supporter, turned Republican.
Wefer is referencing the primary election, where she says elections are already decided before the general election.
A nonpartisan coalition led by the Independent Voter Project filed a lawsuit in 2014 that challenged the constitutionality of New Jersey's closed primary election law.
The plaintiffs, including 7 New Jersey voters, argue that closed primaries give the Republican and Democratic Parties a monopoly over the election process at the expense of voter rights, including the over 40% independent voters who are forced to join a party to participate in taxpayer-funded elections.
The case was argued before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld a lower court's decision to dismiss the lawsuit. The Independent Voter Project filed a petition with the Supreme Court to take up the case.
Throughout the course of the lawsuit, Lt. Governor Guadango (who is also the secretary of state) didn't dispute the plaintiff's argument that closed primaries give the Republican and Democratic Parties and their members an unfair advantage in elections. She argued that if voters felt disenfranchised by the process, they "should simply join a party."
As a candidate, that is what Dana Wefer felt she had to do. Closed primary elections don't just affect voters, but candidates as well.
Wefer ran in the 2017 Republican primaries for NJ governor. She didn't win, but said that she runs for many offices she knows she will lose.
"[Elections] are not just where we select our leaders,it is where we deliberate. The actual process is the most important part," Wefer said.
Parties are not inherently progressive or conservative, she said. She sees the parties simply as platforms to "organize politically, and thereby influence our government."
Running in a primary is key, according to Wefer, because that is where elections are really decided.
"If you are not competing in that election, you are not competing in an election at all," she said.
Her decision to get into the Republican gubernatorial election was also about visibility.
"It makes more sense to run in a primary and not just the general election," she said, because she gets more coverage. And the higher the office -- like the office of governor -- the more visible she is.
Institutional barriers are in place at every level to keep out alternative voices in the primaries, on the campaign trail, and in the debates.
But third parties and independent reformers are not giving up.
New Jersey has more unaffiliated voters -- 2,343,739 -- than voters registered with a single party. Libertarians are the most popular party outside of Republicans and Democrats, with 7,170 registered voters. Greens only have 4,496 registered voters in the state.
Greens are counting on their strong ground campaign.
"It is not just Greens," said Fishman, "but 51% of unregistered voters" that the party is after. They are focusing on "issues, and people, who are being neglected by the major parties," he said, and courting mostly poor and minority communities.
Wefer's strategy to gain popular momentum is to call on disaffected Democrats to "meet in the primaries," (the Republican primaries that is) and "participate in the primaries like the general election."
Wefer founded two political organizations to encourage voters to innovate the Republican Party, FIRE (Fighting the Institutional Republican Establishment), and New Jersey Awakens which is focused on electoral reform.
"If only 20% of Democrats joined FIRE, or 8% of unaffiliated participated in the [Republican] primaries, we could take over," she said.
A majority of voters are dissatisfied with the political status quo, and that is something third party candidates can tap into. The trick is getting around the significant barriers put in their way, to change politics in New Jersey -- barriers defended by those in power.