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New Jersey Ballot Design for Senate Primary Challenged by Federal Judge

In a landmark ruling, a federal judge on Friday ordered New Jersey to redraft its ballot ahead of the June primary, upending a long-standing source of voting power for the state’s Democratic and Republican political machines.

The decision by Judge Zahid N. Quraishi of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey is expected to fundamentally reshape New Jersey politics.

“The integrity of the democratic process for a primary election is at stake,” Justice Quraishi wrote in a 49-page decision.

Candidates who filed suit seeking a redesign of the ballot have proven that “their constitutional rights are violated by the current design of the ballot,” he added.

The problem lies in the unique way New Jersey designs its primary election ballots, a system that gives a significant advantage to establishment candidates at the expense of outsiders. In most counties, ballots group candidates in the same column based on support from political party leaders, rather than grouping candidates based on the office they are running for.

The implications of Judge Quraishi’s decision weigh on a high-stakes race to replace Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat accused of accepting bribes in exchange for political favors.

Rep. Andy Kim, a Democrat running for Mr. Menendez’s seat, had made concerns about the fairness of the vote a defining theme of the race, and last month he joined two other candidates in filing a lawsuit. lawsuit that led to Friday’s court decision.

“This is a victory built on the incredible grassroots work of activists across our state who saw an undemocratic system marginalizing voters’ voices and worked tirelessly to fix it,” Kim said. about the decision.

For months, Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Philip D. Murphy, was Mr. Kim’s primary opponent in the Senate. Ms. Murphy’s path to victory depended heavily on the support of influential Democratic Party leaders who had ties to her husband and enough influence to ensure that her name would appear prominently in the June 4 primary vote in the Most populous state. counties.

Ms. Murphy withdrew from the race on Sunday, but the legal battle over ballot design — a mundane but fundamental part of voting power in New Jersey — continued to dominate political debate in the state.

Judge Quraishi’s decision sparked a chorus of cheers and congratulations selfies and at least one pop-up cocktail party New Jersey residents who fought for years to abolish the voting model.

Yael Bromberg, one of the lawyers who filed the first lawsuit in 2020 seeking to overturn the current voting model, called Judge Quraishi’s decision “a historic victory for fair elections.”

“Voters will finally have a meaningful choice,” said Antoinette Miles, who heads the national chapter of Working Families, a left-leaning group that collected donations from supporters to help pay for the original lawsuit. “Candidates, whatever their origin, will finally be able to enter politics on their own terms.

“And we will finally have a system in which officials are accountable to voters rather than to the preferences of party members. »

In 19 of the state’s 21 counties, local political leaders have for decades grouped their preferred candidates for each office into a prominent row or column during primary ballots — a position that in New Jersey is known simply as of the line “. The names of the primary challengers appear on the side or edge of the ballot, what candidates call “the Siberian ballot.”

Candidates whose names appear on the county line usually win. This allowed county political leaders to use their electoral position to reward or punish candidates, thereby encouraging their loyalty. It also gives them outsized control over policy decisions, government jobs and contracts, while simultaneously diminishing voters’ ability to influence elections and hold elected officials accountable.

Mr. Kim had asked Judge Quraishi to instead require election officials to post the names of all candidates running for each vacancy together in a separate section of the ballot, as is done in the other 49 states.

On Friday, the judge agreed to do just that.

The county’s political parties and elected officials, responsible for designing and printing the ballots, had hired dozens of lawyers – most of whom were paid with taxpayer money – to fiercely defend this practice that Mr. Kim considered it unconstitutional.

Jack Carbone, a lawyer who was among those defending the practice, said clerks fear they won’t be able to comply with the judge’s order in time for the June 4 election. By law, mail-in ballots must begin being distributed in less than a month.

Mr. Carbone said he and other defense attorneys were “evaluating” whether to appeal the decision.

“With ballots expected to be printed in a week and voting to begin in 20 days,” he said in a statement, “many county clerks have serious concerns about the feasibility of complying with the order of the court”.

Testifying during a daylong hearing in Judge Quraishi’s courtroom, Mr. Kim, 41, said he faced irreparable harm if the vote was not recast before the primaries. .

Hours before the March 18 hearing, state Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin, a Democrat and longtime ally of the governor, wrote to Judge Quraishi that he agreed the ballot design was unconstitutional.

Ms. Murphy dropped out of the race a week later.

Lawyers for the county’s political leaders, hoping to maintain their vote-design advantage, argued that the urgency of Mr. Kim’s request disappeared with Ms. Murphy’s decision to leave the race.

Justice Quraishi called this argument “specious at best.”

The move is expected to lead to seismic changes in New Jersey, where political leaders have often seemed insensitive to voter sentiment.

Just this week, Sal Bonaccorso, the Republican mayor of Clark, New Jersey, who was recorded in 2020 using racial slurs and later accused by Mr. Platkin of unrelated crimes, was assigned the party’s prominent position as he runs for re-election.

Studies by professors at Rutgers and Princeton universities have shown that the county line gives candidates an often insurmountable advantage.

An analysis by Julia Sass Rubin, associate dean at Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Policy, found that being on the county line gave congressional candidates a 38 percentage point advantage.

Mr. Kim’s trial also included a real-time experiment showing the effect of ballot design by Josh Pasek, a professor at the University of Michigan who has written books on voter behavior. Dr. Pasek distributed sample ballots to more than 600 Democratic voters in New Jersey, but alternated where the names of Mr. Kim, Ms. Murphy and other candidates appeared.

He concluded that the county line “strongly pushed” voters toward specific candidates.

The Democratic mayors of Newark and Jersey City, the state’s two largest cities, had called for an end to the county line voting system. Both mayors are campaigning for the Democratic nomination for governor next year and applauded the judge’s decision.

“This line is and always has been undemocratic,” said Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka. “As a party we always knew this was a mistake and yet we lived with it for decades. »

Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City, called the judge’s decision a “victory for the people.”

“New Jersey today took a major step forward toward a fairer, more representative electoral system and away from the political patronage and corruption that have plagued our state for too long,” Fulop said.

News Source : www.nytimes.com
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