New Jersey’s unique primary ballot design seems to face skepticism from judge in lawsuit

Unique in the country, New Jersey brackets candidates together who run on the same party slogan, often with those who get the county political party backing in prime position.

press conference

Antoinette Miles, state director of New Jersey Working Families, speaks at a rally outside U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J., Monday, March 18, 2024. Miles and others at the demonstration oppose New Jersey's method of awarding ballot preference to candidates backed by the county political party. The court was hearing a case brought by Rep. Andy Kim and others seeking to stop the practice. (AP Photo/Mike Catalini)

New Jersey’s one-of-a-kind method of drawing primary ballots prompted some apparent skepticism from a federal judge Monday as he considered a legal challenge claiming the system favors preferred candidates of establishment party leaders.

The hearing Monday in federal court in Trenton unfolded a day after the state attorney general said he considered the longstanding system unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed by Democratic Rep. Andy Kim and others seeking to stop the state’s so-called county line system of primary ballot design. The outcome could determine whether that ballot design is carried into a contentious June 4 Democratic Senate primary pitting Kim against first lady Tammy Murphy.

Unique in the country, New Jersey brackets candidates together who run on the same party slogan, often with those who get the county political party backing in prime position.

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Kim appeared in U.S. District Court and testified Monday.

His contest against the first lady came about after U.S. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez was indicted on federal bribery charges last September, prompting Kim to declare his candidacy a day later. Murphy, a first-time candidate and the spouse of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, joined the contest in November.

Menendez hasn’t announced his plans, but many Democrats have abandoned him, calling for his resignation. He’s pleaded not guilty and vowed to fight the charges.

Meanwhile, shortly after Murphy’s entrance to the race party leaders in several populous counties including Bergen and Essex backed the first lady in a signal that she would get the county line.

Tammy Murphy has said she’s competing in the system that’s in place in the state. Kim began calling for the end of the system, which has been reviled by a number of influential progressive groups in the state.

U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraishi set aside Monday to decide whether to grant an emergency injunction to end the county line system. March 25 is the filing deadline for the primary, and he told defendants’ attorneys in court that he wouldn’t take too much time “so you can force the court to be able to say, ‘It’s too late, Judge’.”

It’s unclear when he would rule on the matter, but he gave attorneys until later in the week to address the attorney general’s statement.

At times, he sounded skeptical of the attorneys for the defendants — most of the state’s county clerks whose job it is to design and implement ballots.

He responded tersely to a defendant’s attorney who argued that the current system had been in place for 100 years.

“The argument that because this is how we’ve always done it is how it should be done is not going to work in this court,” he said.

At one point, when an attorney for the defendants said political parties have a right to associate and endorse their candidates, Quraishi responded with a question.

“Why does it have to be they also control the ballot,” he asked.

The attorney, William Tambussi, responded that the law allows for slogans, which is how parties identify themselves, on the ballot.

Kim, a three-term congressman, watched hours of testimony and cross-examination of an elections expert his attorneys brought as a witness before taking the stand himself.

He said that while first considering a run for office in 2018, he was told of the importance of getting the county line and that it was “seen as very much determinative of if I would be successful.”

But Kim had reservations about the system, he said, pointing out that he did not always know all the candidates he was bracketed with on the ballot.

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“I felt like I had no choice (but) to participate,” he said.

The defendants had argued there isn’t enough time to overhaul the ballots in time for the primary, and their attorneys cast the elections expert Kim’s attorney’s put forward as a witness as lacking knowledge and experience in New Jersey.

A day before the testimony, Attorney General Matt Platkin lobbed what one defendant’s attorney called a “litigation grenade” into the case, submitting a letter to the judge concluding that the state’s primary ballot system was “unconstitutional” and that he wouldn’t defend it.

Quraishi seemed irked by the letter, saying that he wasn’t sure he should consider it. He added that the attorney general could simply have said he wasn’t going to intervene in the case.

“He’s lobbing his opinion from the cheap seats,” the judge said. “He’s not here today.”

The attorney general’s office declined to comment beyond Platkin’s letter.

Outside the courthouse, a couple of dozen protesters carried signs reading “abolish the line” and chanted: “This is what democracy looks like.”

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