Landmark NJ ballot redesign ruling asked to be put on hold

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A lawyer representing county clerks in New Jersey has requested that a judge delay his landmark decision of scrapping the state’s county-line ballot design, a system that critics say has given tremendous weight to establishment candidates at the expense of outsiders.

Most of the state’s counties’ ballots are designed by grouping the candidates with party support in a single column. That means the names of those running without establishment backing could be left in places on the ballot that are difficult to find. Judge Zahid N. Quraishi of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey ruled on Friday that the state must scrap the system, which has been widely criticized as boosting the prospects of party-backed candidates.

Rajiv D. Parikh, wrote to Judge Quraishi late Friday calling on him to halt its implementation, pending an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

A lawyer representing county clerks in New Jersey has requested that a judge delay his landmark decision of scrapping the state’s county-line ballot design, a system that critics say has given tremendous weight to establishment candidates at the expense of outsiders. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

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“Implementing an entirely new style of ballot in five business days presents an undue risk to the administration of this year’s primary elections,” Parikh wrote to Judge Quraishi on behalf of 15 of the state’s county clerks, according to The New York Times.

The clerks were defendants in the suit and had already argued that they didn’t have enough time to redesign the ballots before the June primaries. 

Quraishi ruled on Friday that New Jersey must scrap the system, which has been widely criticized as boosting the prospects of party-backed candidates.

The landmark ruling means that New Jersey ballots will have to be redesigned before its June primary, upending a longstanding balloting practice that has been a source of immense electoral power for the state’s Democratic and Republican political machines.

In his ruling, Judge Quraishi said that candidates who sued to request a redesign of the ballot had proved that their constitutional rights had been violated by the current ballot design, which brackets party-backed candidates in the same column.

“The court wishes to make clear that it recognizes the magnitude of this decision. The integrity of the democratic process for a primary election is at stake,” Judge Quraishi wrote in a 49-page decision.

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and First Lady Tammy Murphy attend the National Governors Association summer meeting, July 15, 2022, in Portland, Maine. Tammy Murph (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

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Critics have long argued that the current design can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing, as established candidates can be listed in the same column as the President of the United States, while a rival or those without such an endorsement are listed to the side in what’s commonly called “ballot Siberia.”

One analysis by Julia Sass Rubin, an associate dean at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Policy at Rutgers, found that being on the county line gave congressional candidates an advantage of 38 percentage points, the New York Times reports. 

The ruling will have far-reaching implications for this year’s elections.

Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., who for Bob Menendez’ U.S. Senate seat, filed the suit with two other candidates and had argued that the system favored the state’s first lady and fellow Senate candidate in the race, Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Phil Murphy. However, Murphy dropped out of the race on Sunday.

“YES! For the people!” Kim posted on X yesterday after hearing news of the ruling. 

“Today has been a surreal experience to say the least,” Kim wrote in a later post. 

Andy Kim

Rep. Andy Kim, a Democrat from New Jersey, challenged the ballot design. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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“Seeing something ‘impossible’ happen leaves you with that feeling. We still have obstacles and challenges ahead, but I promise you I will keep fighting to do everything I can to permanently fix our broken politics. We fight not just for fair elections but all other important reforms needed to heal our democracy. So let’s use the progress today to recommit ourselves to fighting for the change we need in NJ and our country.”

Voters will now see candidates listed under the offices they are seeking in a discrete section of the ballot, as is done in the 49 other states, with no shared columns or rows between candidates for different offices.

The ruling was also met with pushback by the Morris County Republican Committee, which wrote to Judge Quraishi indicating that it interpreted his ruling as applying only to Democratic primaries on June 4, according to the New York Times. 

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