New Jersey Attorney General Says State Primary Ballot Design is Unconstitutional

WASHINGTON, D.C. — New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin (D) said in a legal filing on Sunday that his office won’t defend a state law that allows for a controversial “party column design” on county primary election ballots. 

The filing is the latest development in a federal lawsuit filed by U.S. Senate candidate and current Rep. Andy Kim (D), along with U.S. House of Representative candidates Sarah Schoengood and Carolyn Rush, challenging the state law, which they say gives certain candidates an unfair advantage in a primary election. The candidates argue that the challenged ballot design violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

In his letter, Platkin explained that one of the chief reasons for declining to defend the law is because “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.”

Kim, Schoengood and Rush’s lawsuit takes aim at a New Jersey law that allows counties to design their primary election ballots in such a way that groups together candidates who were endorsed by party leadership in the same column, known as the “county line.” Those candidates who didn’t get endorsed by the county party leadership are then grouped together in a different part of the ballot, usually in a separate column that’s separate from the “county line” by blank columns. 

This ballot design, which is used in 19 of 21 counties in New Jersey and is the only state in the country that uses such design, gives endorsed candidates an edge in that it “encourages voters to select them, even when they otherwise might not,” according to the plaintiffs. 

Platkin’s letter comes as a federal judge holds an evidentiary hearing today on the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, which seeks to block further use of the “county line” ballot design prior to the state’s June 4, 2024 primary election. Platkin’s position on the issue is also significant because it puts him at odds with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who appointed him to the position. 

Murphy has defended the “broken ballot design,” as it’s sometimes called, and in a statement to Politico said that Platkin should defend the provision. “It is well-established that Attorneys General have a general obligation to defend the constitutionality of statutes, regardless of their own personal views,” the statement said. “The Governor believes that a legal defense of the statute permitting bracketing would have been appropriate and consistent with the actions of prior Attorneys General.”

Platkin’s position is significant in a competitive primary election for the Senate seat currently held by embattled Sen. Bob Menendez (D), who was charged in September of 2023 for accepting bribes. Menendez is considering running for reelection as an independent, according to NBC News. Kim and Tammy Murphy, the wife of Gov. Murphy, are the two candidates in the crowded Democratic primary election for Menendez’s seat most likely to earn the nomination, according to polling

Several New Jersey Democrats, political groups and advocates have called for the end of the “broken ballot design,” including Sue Altman, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the state’s 7th Congressional District. In a statement, she said that, “as Attorney General Matt Platkin pointed out just yesterday in a game-changing legal filing in this case, the county line clearly violates the constitutional rights of voters across New Jersey and is an outlier in the country.” 

Antoinette Miles, the state director of the New Jersey chapter of the progressive Working Families Party, also praised Platkin’s letter, saying in a statement that his “brave filing in this case made just yesterday, that underscores many of the arguments that have been made and demonstrate just how indefensible the current system is.”

Read Attorney General Matthew Platkin’s letter here. 

Learn more about the lawsuit here.