Getting elected to political office in New Jersey is usually never easy, but if you are a woman the task appears to be more difficult than if you’re a man.

According to Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, only two of New Jersey’s 12 Congressional representatives are women — Mikie Sherill in the 11th Congressional District and Bonnie Watson Coleman in the 12th. Both are Democrats.

At the same time, 34.2% of the state Legislature is women, more than half of whom are minorities.

New Jersey ranks 18th in the nation for the percentage of women serving in the state legislature.

More locally, women make up about 36% of county office holders, 30% of municipal councils or committees and 12% of mayors.


Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 50.8% of New Jersey is female.

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So why are women continuing to be under-represented?

Walsh said part of the problem is the system used for picking candidates for political office in New Jersey is “less than transparent.”

She explained in many states primary elections are quite open and the political parties do not weigh in any kind of formal or informal way, but in Jersey “the county parties really do play an outsized role in the selection of candidates who will run in the primaries.”

She said in most counties there is what is known as the party line, and if you’re not on that line “your name may appear very far away from the first column on the primary ballot.”

"The resources that come with that party line is the operation and the apparatus of the party with get-out-the-vote efforts and financial resources," she said.

Walsh said we don’t see this kind of setup in many states and “it is one of the reasons that it has been harder for women to break in and that’s true at the state legislative level but also at the local level.”

Who's calling the shots

She also pointed out that in New Jersey only 10 of the 42 county party chairs are women, and there are also people “some who are elected, some who are not elected, who are very powerful men, who control a lot of what happens in politics in our state.”

She said this has been “a process that has discouraged some women from running for office, if they don’t get that party line they know it’s going to be a real uphill battle.”

As to how this impacts the average New Jerseyan she said “I think it can have a chilling effect on people being engaged, but I also think for a lot of people they’re not that aware of it.”

She added the more open the political process is “the better chance we all have of having government that’s more representative, that’s more transparent.”

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at

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