Appeals court upholds ruling killing controversial ballot design in NJ Democratic primary

New Jersey must use office-block ballots in the June Democratic primary after a federal appeals panel said it’s keeping in place a lower court’s preliminary injunction, doing away with the state’s controversial ballot design that sparked a grassroots revolt.

The Wednesday precedential ruling is a win for Rep. Andy Kim, who leads the legal challenge as he seeks to replace indicted Sen. Bob Menendez.

“This movement pushing for fair elections in NJ is powerful and is changing politics in NJ for the better,” Kim wrote in response to the ruling on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Kim and his co-plaintiff's attorneys called the ruling "monumental."

"It ensures fair ballots in the applicable upcoming primary elections, and makes clear that New Jersey's anti-democratic practice of the county line places an unconstitutional 'governmental thumb on the scale' and will not be tolerated by the courts," the attorneys, Yael Bromberg, Brett Pugach and Flavio Komuves, said in a statement.

While the preliminary injunction only applies to this year’s Democratic primary, the appellate court’s ruling bodes poorly for the county line’s survival in future primary elections for both parties. A decision on that is still pending in the lower court.

Wednesday's decision from the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals preserves a lower court’s preliminary injunction that changes New Jersey’s unique ballot design from what’s known as the “county line” to office-block ballots — where candidates are grouped together by the office they are seeking. All other states use such ballots. But for about a century, New Jersey has grouped candidates by party-backing, a system that critics say gives local parties unique influence over elections.

“[T]he record before us supports the District Court’s ruling. It shows that the county-line system is discriminatory — it picks winners and punishes those who are not endorsed or, because of their political views, want to disassociate from certain endorsed candidates,” Judge Kent Jordan wrote for the court. "Those disfavored candidates are put in undesirable ballot positions and, by random coupling, can end up paired with potentially objectionable candidates. Those outcomes amount to a severe burden on the Plaintiffs’ rights.”

Kim and two Democratic House candidates, Sarah Schoengood and Carolyn Rush, filed a lawsuit in February seeking to eliminate the county line. Studies have shown candidates being on the line gives them a nearly insurmountable electoral advantage, while candidates “off the line” seldom win. Kim’s lawsuit named 19 county clerks as defendants.

The lawsuit was filed when Kim was in a hotly contested Democratic primary for Senate against New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy. At the time, she had the backing of Democratic party bosses, meaning she would have had the favorable ballot positioning in a majority of the state, but she dropped out amid backlash to her candidacy that largely focused on her institutional support that seemed to give her an advantage.

While most county clerks initially appealed the preliminary injunction, all of them quickly dropped their appeals after the 3rd Circuit declined to block the preliminary injunction. The Camden County Democratic Committee, which intervened in the lawsuit, was the only appellant remaining. Bill Tambussi, an attorney for Camden Democrats, said the organization "respects the decision" of the court but did not explicitly say what the committee’s next steps would be in the lawsuit.

Kim’s lawsuit still seeks a permanent end to the county line — the preliminary injunction applies only to this year’s primary election — and a separate federal lawsuit from 2020 also seeks to do so. The 3rd Circuit judges said the plaintiffs “have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their First Amendment claims.”

The lawsuit has attracted attention outside of the initial parties in the case. The New Jersey Republican Chairs Association and Middlesex County Democratic Organization — one of the state’s leading political machines — submitted legal filings in defense of the county line. Civil rights and good government groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, League of Women Voters and others have submitted filings against the county line.

(The preliminary injunction ordered by U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi in late March only applied to this year’s Democratic and not Republican primary).

New Jersey politics has been dominated by talk of the county line in recent months, in large part because of the Senate race. Top Democratic and GOP state lawmakers have said they will address ballot design (they have not committed to what that would look like). And it has spilled over into the 2025 governor’s race, with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop’s campaign submitting legal filings against the line.

New Jersey’s primary elections have long been defined by who does and does not receive the line. Each county in the state differs in how the county line is awarded. In some counties, hundreds of low-level party officials vote by secret ballot. In others, a handful of party leaders — or a single party boss — decides who gets the line.

The Camden County Democratic Committee had argued that eliminating the county line would breach its own First Amendment rights to association. The appellate judges dismissed that claim.

“Nothing in the preliminary injunction prohibits the CCDC from including county parties’ slogans on the ballot, endorsing candidates, communicating those endorsements, or associating by any other constitutional means. The injunction simply means that the CCDC does not get to bracket its preferred candidates together on the ballot,” Jordan wrote.

The county party also invoked the Purcell Principle, a U.S. Supreme Court precedent that generally advises courts to not change election rules close to an election so as not to cause confusion among voters.

But Jordan wrote that the lower court’s decision wold “reduce, if not eliminate voter confusion” and said that the arguments of the Camden County Democrats in court and the Middlesex County Democrats in their amicus brief “appear contrary to the record and based on nothing but speculation.”

Read the court’s opinion here.