Federal Judge Blocks New Jersey’s “County Line” Ballot Design for 2024 Primary 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A federal judge this morning ruled in favor of U.S. Senate candidate and current Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), who sued alongside other Democratic congressional candidates last month to block New Jersey’s controversial “county line” ballot design ahead of the state’s June 4 Democratic primary elections. 

Under the now-prohibited and largely idiosyncratic primary ballot design, candidates who were endorsed by party leadership at county-level conventions were typically featured on the ballot as a bracketed group in a shared column known as the “county line.” 

Conversely, candidates not endorsed by county party leadership were usually displayed in a separate column oftentimes in a list with other candidates who were not all running for the same office.

Kim and his co-plaintiffs — U.S. House of Representative candidates Sarah Schoengood and Carolyn Rush — underscored in their February complaint how New Jersey’s anomalous primary ballot configuration stands in stark contrast to all other states where candidates are grouped together according to the office they are seeking.

Up until today’s ruling, 19 out of 21 total New Jersey counties utilized the “county line” for primary election ballots — a system that Kim’s lawsuit alleged was “discriminatory” and “unfair[ly] preferential” towards party-supported candidates compared to their opponents. 

“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 response to the ruling. 

In arguing that the ballot design violates the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit cited numerous studies from experts, one of which found that in some races, a candidate’s “share of the vote varied by as much as 50 percentage points, based on whether or not they were on the county line.” 

Ahead of a March 18 evidentiary hearing on the candidates’ motion to preliminarily block the challenged ballot design, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin (D) declined to defend the “county line” — an unusual move for a state’s principal legal officer who typically enforces state law. 

Platkin wrote in a letter to the court that “the traditional need for the Attorney General to defend the results of the democratic process does not apply neatly to a case where the plaintiffs produced substantial record evidence to challenge the statutes as undermining the democratic process.”

In today’s 49-page opinion issued on the heels of last Monday’s nine-hour evidentiary hearing, Biden-appointed Judge Zahid Quraishi held that the “[p]laintiffs have put forth credible evidence not only that their constitutional rights are violated by the present ballot design used in New Jersey, which is used in no other state in the country… but that Defendants would suffer minimal harm in implementing the ballot design requested by Plaintiffs.”

In concluding that Kim, Rush and Schoengood are likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claims, Quraishi rejected the county defendants’ argument that it is too close to the primary election to disrupt the status quo: “The problem with Defendants’ position is that this case is not last-minute. It was filed 100 days before the primary election on June 4th, and well over a month before the April 5th deadline for preparing official primary election ballots for printing.”

Antoinette Miles, the state director of the New Jersey chapter of the progressive Working Families Party, said in a statement that “[t]oday’s historic ruling to abolish the line will strengthen New Jersey’s democracy by putting voters back in charge of selecting the candidates that will represent them in nearly every level of government.” 

Just last Sunday, Tammy Murphy — Kim’s top primary opponent and the wife of current New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) — announced that she will drop out of the Democratic primary race for the seat currently held by twice-indicted U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D), further solidifying Kim’s likelihood of winning the Democratic nomination. 

Following today’s preliminary ruling, litigation will continue in Kim’s lawsuit. Multiple sets of county defendants have already appealed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and are requesting a pause of Quraishi’s decision.

On Friday evening, Quraishi clarified in response to an inquiry from the Morris County Republican Committee that his order “is limited to the 2024 Democratic Primary Election only.” However, he added that the ruling does not “prevent the Republican Party and its leadership from appreciating this Court’s preliminary injunction and taking steps to amend the ballot system for its primary election.”

Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit filed in 2020 on behalf of candidates and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance that similarly challenges the “county line” remains ongoing. 

This post was updated on Monday, April 1 at 12:46 p.m. EDT to reflect the fact that numerous county defendants appealed the preliminary injunction order to the 3rd Circuit and to note that Judge Quraishi issued clarification regarding the scope of the preliminary injunction. 

Read the opinion here.

Learn more about the case here.