New Jersey Democratic Congressional Candidates Allege Unfair Primary Ballot Design in New Lawsuit

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Earlier today, a group of New Jersey Democratic congressional candidates filed a federal lawsuit challenging the primary election ballot design utilized by 19 out of the state’s 21 counties.

Led by Andy Kim, a U.S. Senate candidate and current representative for New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District, the lawsuit alleges that the challenged ballot design is unfairly preferential towards candidates who are supported by party leaders. 

Under the idiosyncratic primary ballot design challenged in the lawsuit, candidates who are endorsed by party leadership at county-level conventions are typically featured on the ballot as a bracketed group in a shared column known as the “county line.” On the other hand, candidates who are not endorsed by county party leadership are usually displayed in a separate column oftentimes in a list with other candidates who are not all running for the same office. 

As the complaint puts it, “candidates for the same office are listed in different columns which may not even be adjacent, and candidates for different offices are listed in the same column.” New Jersey’s anomalous primary ballot configuration stands in stark contrast to most other states where candidates are grouped together according to the office they are seeking.

Image of a sample New Jersey primary ballot.
Image of a New Jersey primary ballot from the Mercer County Clerk’s Office for the July 7, 2020 Democratic Primary Election in Robbinsville Borough. (Source: Complaint filed Feb. 26, 2024)

Kim’s complaint asserts that the allegedly discriminatory ballot design that places certain candidates on the “county line” violates the U.S. Constitution and must be abolished prior to New Jersey’s June 2024 primary elections. “The Constitution demands a fair election, not necessarily a perfect one. But when the choices of primary voters, who by law are the sole judges to determine a party’s nominee for the general election, are cynically manipulated by the Defendants, the result is anathema to fair elections,” the complaint reads. 

According to the lawsuit, numerous studies conducted by experts demonstrate how the “county line” provides a “substantial and consistent advantage” to party-supported candidates compared to their opponents. One study 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.”

In addition to “stack[ing] the deck for certain candidates at the expense of others,” New Jersey’s primary ballot design “undermin[es] the integrity of elections, hindering democracy, and confusing voters,” the complaint continues. 

In seeking to illustrate how the county line unfairly benefits “highly-recognizable names, and party elites,” Kim’s complaint points to his own primary race against Tammy Murphy — the wife of current New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D). 

Kim — a three-term congressman who is vying against Murphy for the Democratic nomination for the seat currently held by twice-indicted U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D) — explained how New Jersey’s ballot design is to blame for why news outlets are calling him the “underdog,” despite his 12-point lead over Murphy in the polls. 

The complaint states that upon announcing her U.S. Senate bid, First Lady Murphy “was quickly endorsed in rapid-fire succession by the Democratic Party Chairs of various counties,” thereby ensuring her preferential placement on the ballot in heavily populated Democratic areas where she has garnered support from party leadership. 

In addition to today’s lawsuit, an ongoing federal lawsuit filed in 2020 on behalf of candidates and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance similarly challenges the anomalous primary ballot design used by the vast majority of the state’s counties. 

In a statement issued in response to today’s lawsuit, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance wrote: “The case filed today is a monumental challenge of the system that has ruled New Jersey primaries for decades. And it is another indictment of the pernicious role the county line plays in giving county party bosses the ability to use the government to tip the scales in favor of political insiders and disenfranchise voters.”

Read the complaint here.

Learn more about the case here.