New Jersey’s Controversial “County Line” Is Likely Out for 2024 Democratic Primary

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Faced with imminent deadlines for finalizing and printing primary ballots, multiple New Jersey county election officials have withdrawn their appeal of a recent ruling that blocked the controversial “county line” ballot configuration for the state’s upcoming Democratic primary election. 

County election officials’ move to drop their appeal comes less than 24 hours after the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals left in place last week’s highly consequential decision that upended New Jersey’s longstanding primary ballot design.

The now-prohibited “county line” ballot design specifically bracketed endorsed candidates together and featured them in a separate shared column. Meanwhile non-endorsed candidates were usually displayed in other columns, oftentimes in a list with other candidates who were not all running for the same office.

As a result of this week’s actions from the 3rd Circuit and county clerks, New Jersey voters who are participating in the state’s June 4 Democratic primary election will in all likelihood cast ballots without the contentious “county line” for the first time in nearly seven decades. Instead, New Jerseyans will cast conventional “office-block” ballots, which group candidates together according to the office they are seeking and place them in a randomized order to ensure each candidate has an equal chance at obtaining the first ballot position.

The ruling at the center of the 3rd Circuit appeal came as part of a lawsuit led by U.S. Senate candidate and current Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), who alleged alongside other Democratic candidates that the anomalous “county line” system unfairly favors candidates endorsed by county party leadership. 

Penned by Biden-appointed Judge Zahid Quraishi, the March 29 decision held that Kim and his co-plaintiffs “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.” Following the opinion, Quraishi later clarified that the ruling only applies to the state’s Democratic primary election, but noted that county Republican parties may opt to follow suit. 

Clerks from 18 of the state’s 19 counties that previously utilized this controversial line immediately sought an emergency pause of last week’s order in an appeal to the 3rd Circuit, but a three-judge panel yesterday declined their request. By leaving Quraishi’s order in effect as litigation continues, the 3rd Circuit panel effectively guaranteed that the “county line” will not be in place for the state’s upcoming Democratic primaries. 

In light of the state’s fast-approaching April 5 deadline to finalize primary ballots for printing, the county clerks who dropped their appeals in the 3rd Circuit have agreed to proceed with implementing a traditional “office-block” ballot in compliance with Quraishi’s order. 

When asked about her decision to withdraw the appeal, Cape May County Clerk Rita Rothberg explained to Democracy Docket that it “was about timing and my ability to meet the statutory deadlines to prepare, print and mail ballots to voters.”

Rothberg elaborated on the tight deadlines under which she and her counterparts are operating, noting that “[t]oday at 3:00 p.m., New Jersey County Clerks will be drawing for candidate position on the June 4 Primary Election Ballot. Tomorrow the ballot data is due to the printer.”

Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami stated today in a press release that she is withdrawing the appeal to the 3rd Circuit because it refused to stay the district court’s initial ruling, adding that her office “will move forward in preparing ballots for the upcoming NJ Primary Election.” 

Federal and state law mandates that primary ballots must be sent out to military and overseas voters on April 20, thereby exerting further pressure on county clerks to finalize primary ballots in a timely manner.

As of this afternoon, some parties still remain active in the 3rd Circuit appeal, including the Camden County Democratic Committee, which intervened in the litigation to defend the “county line,” and a handful of other county clerks who have not yet withdrawn their appeals. Should these remaining parties continue to litigate the appeal, the 3rd Circuit will hold oral argument on April 12 — long after tomorrow’s ballot printing deadline. 

Although the “county line” is most likely out for the 2024 Democratic primary, litigation will continue in Kim’s case, as he ultimately seeks to permanently strike down the idiosyncratic ballot design for all future elections. 

Read more about the case here.