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New Jersey’s unique ballot design struck down by judge

New Jersey’s unique way of displaying county-endorsed candidates on the ballot has been struck down by a federal judge, after a lawsuit by Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), who is running for Senate, and two other Democrats running for Congress, who called the design unfair and unconstitutional.

New Jersey’s ballot design process is unlike any other in the nation, and it allows parties to place their endorsed candidates in a specific portion of the ballot known as “the line.” Candidates running without their party’s endorsement appear in a different section of the ballot, farther down from where voters can see their names.

In his lawsuit, Kim claimed that design “cynically” manipulates voters and are “anathema to fair elections.”

U.S. District Judge Zahid N. Quraishi sided with Kim and the other plaintiffs and said the system of “bracketing” county-endorsed candidates gave them an unfair advantage over their challengers. The ruling will force New Jersey to redesign its ballots ahead of the June primary.

“Unbracketed candidates tend to occupy obscure parts of the ballot that appear less important and are harder to locate, and may be grouped in a column with other candidates with whom they did not want to be associated,” Quraishi wrote in his 49-page ruling, released Friday.

He also wrote that the harm caused by the ballot design — which is used in 19 of the state’s 21 counties — far outweighs the challenge of changing the ballot before the primary. Quraishi noted that of two people who testified, one for the plaintiffs and one for the defendants, both said changing the ballot could be done in time for voting.

“Today’s decision is a victory for a fairer, more democratic politics in New Jersey,” Kim said in a statement Friday. “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.”

Ezra Levin, co-founder and co-executive director of Indivisible Action, a progressive organization, suggested the ruling could have sweeping impact.

“This is a brand new day in New Jersey, one where the people, not political machines, decide the best candidate to carry the banner for their party,” Levin said. “For decades, the New Jersey political system was rigged in favor of ‘line’ candidates and made it nearly impossible for candidates to primary incumbent party-favorites. It was a thorn in democracy.”

The ruling came after the office of New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin last week called the ballot design “unconstitutional” and declined to defend the state against Kim’s lawsuit.

“This is an exceptional case, justifying the Attorney General’s exceptionally rare decision not to defend the constitutionality of the challenged statutes,” a letter to Quraishi said.

He added: “These features of grid balloting and bracketing also have allowed unbracketed candidates to be placed at the end of a ballot with multiple blank spaces separating them from their competitors, which creates the phenomenon known as ‘ballot Siberia.’”

Kim is running for the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat held by embattled Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez. The senator has been accused by federal prosecutors of extortion, obstruction of justice and receiving bribes in exchange for helping the governments of Egypt and Qatar. Menendez pleaded not guilty and has not publicly announced whether he will seek reelection.

On Sunday, one of Kim’s leading opponents in the primary, New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy, suspended her campaign, significantly boosting Kim’s prospects.

Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University who filed an expert brief to the court, said in an interview last week that a ruling forcing a change in ballots would be “an earthquake” and create “a fundamental shift in how New Jersey politics operates.”

“We are the last of the [political] machine states, and the machine relies on the county line to stay in control,” Rubin told The Washington Post last week. “If you displease the people who decide who gets the line,” you could lose your office, she said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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