Andy Kim defeats NJ’s ‘county line’ boss system in court

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New Jersey’s controversial ballot design that gives party-backed candidates an advantage will be scrapped in the June primary, a federal judge ruled on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi granted the preliminary injunction sought by Rep. Andy Kim and two Congressional candidates to eliminate the so-called county line, a feature unique to New Jersey elections that’s given local party bosses inordinate influence over elections, in the June primary. In 19 of 21 counties in the state, candidates backed by county political parties appear in a single column or row, placing them more prominently on primary ballots and giving them a nearly insurmountable edge.

The judge ordered the use of office block ballots for the June primary, where candidates are placed together by the office they are seeking. His ruling applies to all offices on the ballot.

“The integrity of the democratic process for a primary election is at stake and the remedy Plaintiffs are seeking is extraordinary,” Quraishi wrote in his opinion. He added that the plaintiffs “have met their burden and that this is the rare instance when mandatory relief is warranted. “

In a filing late Friday evening, Rajiv Parikh, an attorney representing county clerks that Kim sued, asked the judge to delay implementing the court order pending an appeal with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Barring a successful appeal, the judge’s ruling takes away a key tool wielded by political bosses in the state for the primary. And while its impact is limited in the Democratic Senate primary since first lady Tammy Murphy has dropped out, it will upend contested primaries across the state — including the House race for the seat held by Democratic Rep. Rob Menendez, who is facing a competitive primary challenge from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla.

Menendez’s father, Sen. Bob Menendez, is under indictment and will not run in the Democratic primary but is considering an independent run in November if he is not convicted of corruption charges.

The county line — and how it is awarded — became the focal issue in the Democratic Senate primary to replace Menendez. In some parts of New Jersey, a single party boss can award the favorable primary ballot spot while in others, hundreds of low-level party officials vote by secret ballot on who will get the county line.

“Today's decision is a victory for a fairer, more democratic politics in New Jersey. It's a victory built from the incredible grassroots work of activists across our state who saw an undemocratic system marginalizing the voices of voters, and worked tirelessly to fix it,” Kim said in a statement. “While fixing this unfair ballot system is a massive step forward towards perfecting our democracy, there is still work to be done. Both in New Jersey and nationwide, we need to regain the trust of the voters we serve."

Murphy — who abruptly suspended her Senate campaign on Sunday — entered the race in November as the front-runner since powerful Democratic party leaders in the state backed her candidacy. Murphy would have had the line overseeing approximately two-thirds of the Democratic electorate, a strong advantage in a statewide primary.

But Kim was able to win the line in all but one county that awarded it in secret ballot conventions. His margin of victory at those contests were large and underscored the grassroots energy behind his candidacy. He turned what should have been an advantage for Murphy into a political foil on the campaign trail, bemoaning the state’s “broken” machine politics.

Kim filed the suit in February — along with House candidates Sarah Schoengood and Carolyn Rush — when Murphy was still in the race and had a commanding advantage in county lines. The lawsuit names county clerks in the 19 counties that use the line as defendants.

Once Murphy dropped out, party leaders agreed to allow Kim to run on the county lines she would have had, although that is now moot because of the judge’s ruling. 

Attorneys for the county clerks argued that Murphy dropping out of the race undercut much of the alleged injury that Kim was suing over. Quraishi’s ruling, however, referred to testimony Kim gave saying that he did not want to be forced to associate with other candidates just for an electoral advantage.

“Kim’s harms are not alleviated because his main opponent withdrew from the election,” Quraishi wrote.

Quraishi also wrote that while defense attorneys focused largely on Kim, his two co-plaintiffs, Schoengood and Rush, would also face harm under the county line system. Schoengood is not running on any county lines and Rush is sharing the county line with other congressional candidates in some parts of the district she is running in.

“Rush will be bracketed with her opponents in the same column, creating the perception that Rush is associated with these candidates although she is not,” Quraishi wrote.

The Camden County Democrats also intervened in defense of the county line, the only political party to do so (ballots in Camden County are often used as the poster child of the abuse of the line, with non-endorsed candidates appearing several columns away on the primary ballot). In a filing Friday evening, the Morris County Republican Committee asked the judge to clarify if the order applied to the Republican primary in June and to delay it if it did so the Morris County Republicans can intervene in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit has moved at lightning speed, especially compared to a similar legal challenge filed in 2021 against the line that has moved at a glacial pace. Attorney General Matt Platkin submitted a letter in this suit saying the county line was unconstitutional and his office would not defend the law, a decision Gov. Phil Murphy publicly denounced.

The Senate race has sparked debate over redesigning ballots in the state. State lawmakers have promised to address ballot design laws in the state but have not committed to any proposals (the Senate president, who also runs a county party, has been a supporter of the line).

New Jersey's top leaders have said they intend to hold hearings on ballots and suggested long-term changes to them should happen legislatively.

"Nothing in the decision — or any subsequent legal decision — will change the commitment we have made to a transparent process that will include a review of ballots in other states and input from the public," said a joint statement by Assemblymember Craig Coughlin, Senate President Nick Scutari and the Republican minority leaders, Assemblymember John DiMaio and Sen. Anthony Bucco.

"We remain convinced that if there are Constitutional problems with our balloting process, the Legislature is the appropriate body to remedy those issues."

Phil Murphy also supports the line, but has told reporters that he is open minded to changes in the law.

“I frankly think the line has worked pretty well, and if progressives are out there trying to look at whether or not they got a good government over the past 6½ years, I’d like them to find a more progressive government in America ... with yours truly elected twice on the line in both cases,” he told reporters earlier this week.

Murphy’s office declined to comment.

Kim’s efforts to dismantle the county line received backing from good government groups and legal advocates like Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic and the ACLU of New Jersey, who filed briefs in support of the preliminary injunction.

“Thanks to today’s ruling, when New Jersey voters go to the polls this primary season, they will be casting ballots that fairly reflect their political preferences – not the preferences of party insiders,” ACLU of New Jersey Staff Attorney Liza Weisberg said in a statement.

Read the ruling and order here.