Too late to change ballots NJ’s political bosses use to sway elections? Judge pushes back.

March 19, 2024

A federal judge questioned the claim that New Jersey’s county clerks don’t have time to reprint ballots before this year’s June primary elections — as he considers a case that could rob the state’s political machines of a tool that researchers say can decide an election before a single voter goes to the ballot box.

But Judge Zahid N. Quraishi gave no timetable to rule on arguments he heard Monday from Rep. Andy Kim — who says the so-called “county line” ballot system used by 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties violates his right to compete in a fair election. Kim testified that he is treated as an “underdog” compared to First Lady Tammy Murphy in the race for U.S. Senate, even as he enjoys a sizable lead in polls. Kim is seeking an injunction to get the unusual ballot system changed before the election is held.

The “county line” has become the central issue in the Democratic primary for Senate. The little-understood quirk of New Jersey politics helps Democratic and Republican political organizations tip primary elections by awarding their endorsed candidates preferential placement on ballots — sometimes only on the say-so of those party organizations’ leaders. Research by academics from Princeton, Rutgers and Oxford says the line protects entrenched interests, giving endorsed candidates an advantage that outsiders rarely overcome.

If the court were to find the county line unconstitutional, it would undo a system that has given the political machines tremendous power to influence which candidates ultimately win elected office as well — especially in areas that favor one party heavily, so there’s little competition after primaries. The same system once helped insulate incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez from political fallout after a 2015 corruption indictment, and turned against him amid another one in 2023. New Jersey hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate in a half-century.

To make their case that the county line gives an unfair advantage, Kim’s attorney’s entered a report by Rutgers Professor Julia Sass Rubin, who has published several studies on the county line, into the court record. Her research has found that congressional candidates who ran on the county line won on average by 35 points across dozens of races.

The defense cross-examined Sass Rubin, asking her whether she could specify whether the races she analyzed could have been affected by name recognition of the candidate, or the amount of money spent on the race.

“Potentially,” Sass Rubin said. “But you’re seeing the same pattern being on the county line and having the same results across 45 races.”

Gothamist, March 19, 2024

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