As we enter a volatile time in U.S. politics, it is important to make sure the voices of our community — your voices — are heard. While this starts with making sure that every one of us goes to the polls on Nov. 3, the political rhetoric you are hearing — that the elections are “rigged” — is somewhat true. Effective participation begins well before the day of the election, with crucial decisions being made in primary elections and, before that, in local county parties. 

Two key factors have shaped recent elections — the polarization of the electorate and the further gerrymandering of voting districts in 2010. Pew reported that only 14.3 percent of House districts were competitive in the 2012 elections. As an increasing number of districts become noncompetitive, primaries become an even more important part of the political process because they are often where winners are chosen. 

Furthermore, as the two main parties move further from the center, incumbent candidates increasingly fear attacks from their fringes — think of Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, who lost his primary to a candidate to his political right. This polarization effect has forced incumbents to pay more attention to their primary challengers. 

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Why does this matter? Candidates know who votes. Campaigns know the name, address, phone number, and registered party affiliation of every voter. They also know when you vote — in the general or the primary, in midterm years or just during presidential elections , in special and state elections. Campaigns analyze who votes and appear to weigh policy positions on who they determine their “base” to be. By voting regularly, our voices are heard not only at the polls, but every day as our representatives weigh their decisions with our policy preferences. 

However, there is an even deeper factor to consider: the ordering of candidates on the primary ballot.

It sounds as if I may be getting too far into the weeds now, but I promise this may be even more important than the primary itself. County parties determine which candidates receive the “party line.” The party line is the column or row (depending on which county you live in) displayed for the endorsed candidate of the affiliated party. The majority of voters simply vote down/across their party line. This is true in both primary and general elections. Given that, the party line is extremely important in determining who wins a primary. However, the party line is decided almost solely by the county party chair, an individual who clearly holds a lot of power given the importance of the party line. The only way to influence these decisions is to be an elected party district leader within your municipality, who in turn votes for municipal and county party chairs.

I hope the above convinces all of you to regularly participate in the process, especially in primary elections. And remember that voting is easy. You do not have to leave work, drag the kids, or even figure out where your local polling location is. Simply visit the website of your county government and fill out a vote by mail form. Then you can vote from the comfort of your home in every election. Make sure you also check the box to receive primary ballots.

Mark Dunec is chair of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. He campaigned in 2014 to represent New Jersey’s 11th congressional district.