‘County line’ lawsuit could be a game-changer in NJ elections. Here’s why.

A federal judge will hear arguments on Monday over New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim’s lawsuit to stop state ballots from using the “county line,” a unique system that gives preferential treatment to primary candidates endorsed by political parties.

The county line system has come into sharp focus in the Democratic primary between frontrunners Kim and first lady Tammy Murphy for the U.S. Senate seat held by Bob Menendez, who faces a federal corruption indictment.

“This Senate race has become in many ways a key pivotal moment in the fight to address New Jersey’s broken politics,” said Antoinette Miles of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, one of the plaintiffs in a separate case also challenging the county line system.

Many political activists and rank-and-file members of the party organizations united behind Kim after the powerful chairs of the state’s largest Democratic Party county organizations quickly endorsed the governor’s wife.

The county line system is used in 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Kim’s lawsuit names their clerks as defendants, and he’s seeking a court injunction to block use of the county line format before ballots are printed in this year’s primary.

If U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi rules in Kim’s favor, a controversial feature of New Jersey elections and the power of the state’s political machines will likely change dramatically. But even if the judge rules against the congressmember, Kim’s Senate campaign has already put pressure on party bosses to reform the system.

“This is probably the most consequential legal case related to New Jersey’s elections, or New Jersey politics, in quite some time,” Miles said.

What is the county line?

In the 19 counties that use the system Kim is challenging, Democratic and Republican party committees decide which candidates to endorse. Then, county clerks place the endorsed candidates for different offices all together in one column or row on ballots.

The endorsed candidate for Senate appears on the same line as the endorsed candidate for mayor and township council, instead of all the Senate candidates appearing in one group, all the mayoral candidates appearing in another, and so on.

Because well-known elected officials, such as President Joe Biden, are at the top of the line, many voters tick off every box that follows. Research shows it can confer a huge benefit to down-ballot candidates.

The county parties have different ways of deciding whom to endorse and thus give the county line.

Counties with smaller numbers of registered Democrats have less-powerful party organizations. They tend to award endorsements through blind votes among their members, with each individual vote remaining secret.

Kim has won seven of the eight county conventions where delegates voted by secret ballot, taking victories in Monmouth, Hunterdon, Ocean, Sussex, Mercer, Burlington and Warren counties.

In most of the state’s Democrat-heavy counties, party chairs decide endorsements themselves — and that’s generally given Murphy the county line. In some counties, like Somerset, members vote openly in front of their chairs. Many say this makes it difficult to vote their conscience, as chairs have broad influence over ballot placement, campaign funding and county jobs.

The most notable exception is Bergen County, home to the second-highest number of Democrats in New Jersey. Murphy won a secret-ballot vote there after the chair — a close ally of the governor’s who was recently appointed to a lucrative state job — lobbied hard for her.

“It was difficult for me to tell [Kim],” Rep. Bill Pascrell told the Daily Beast about his decision to endorse Murphy over his congressional colleague. Pascrell’s district includes dozens of towns in Bergen County.

“But don’t forget,” he added. “That’s the line in every county and eight counties have already jumped in the pool. Do I fight my county chairman?”

What does Kim’s lawsuit argue?

A hearing in Kim’s lawsuit is scheduled for Monday morning before Quraishi in Trenton. Kim argues New Jersey’s ballot design harms his constitutional right to run for office, and is asking the judge to require the kind of ballot every other state uses.

It’s the second lawsuit against the county line in the state. Several former candidates and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance sued the state’s county clerks beginning in 2020, and more plaintiffs have since been added.

Kim’s complaint only addresses the upcoming primary for the Senate seat, whereas the original lawsuit asks federal courts to ban the practice going forward. That suit is in the discovery and deposition phase.

Why is it such a big issue now?

Sen. Bob Menendez was indicted last September in a shocking case of alleged bribery and corruption that involves stacks of cash, gold bars, a Mercedes-Benz convertible and representatives of two foreign governments. Kim announced his candidacy the next day. The three-term congressmember became widely known after a photo of him cleaning up the United States Capitol on the night of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection went viral on social media.

Murphy jumped into the race two months after Kim announced his candidacy. Within days, she sewed up endorsements from the Democratic chairs in the eight largest county party organizations.

Gov. Phil Murphy is the leader of the state Democratic Party. Concerns that his power would effectively crown his wife — combined with what many activists saw as a broken ballot system — galvanized opposition.

Many observers have also noted that New Jersey only has three statewide elected offices: governor and two U.S. Senate seats. If Tammy Murphy wins the Senate race, a married couple will account for two of those three roles.

“This was overreach, and extreme overreach causes extreme backlash,” said Yael Niv, a member of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey and a professor at Princeton University. Her nonpartisan group has been working to stop the county line for seven years. “So what we see here is a huge contrast between what is seen as the side of corruption and nepotism and taking advantage of the system, versus the voters and democracy and really listening to what people want,” she said.

Who opposes to county line?

A key moment in the fight against the county line occurred in December, a month after Murphy announced her candidacy. A new umbrella group of progressive organizations — Fair Ballots Alliance — called for every Senate candidate to support an “office block ballot,” the format used in every other state. It groups candidates together for each position.

Kim and fellow Senate candidates Patricia Campos-Medina and Larry Hamm wrote a letter to the county clerks, asking for the office block ballot. Murphy, who was well on her way to obtaining the county line in the most-populous counties, said she will participate in the current system until it changes.

Scores of New Jersey organizations and individual politicians have come out against the line in the last month.

“It really looks like the dominoes are falling and finally everybody is saying the same thing,” Niv said. “And we see things that we never expected. We see elected officials who basically depend on the line for reelection coming out publicly against it.”

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop recently said he opposes the line, as did Rep. Mikie Sherrill and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman. A group of 38 women in New Jersey politics, including former Assemblymember Sadaf Jaffer and dozens of mayors, signed a letter opposing the line.

“The concentration of political power in the hands of a few unelected party elites has a chilling effect not only on political involvement, but also on legislation and state budget priorities as incumbents are pressured not to speak their minds nor vote their conscience lest they risk losing their favorable ballot positioning,” they wrote. “This has a particularly negative impact on women candidates and elected officials, especially working class and minority women, who historically have had the least political clout.”

One of New Jersey’s most powerful party chairs, Leroy Jones Jr. — who chairs the Essex County Democratic Committee and State Democratic Committee — wrote in a column this week that he would like to see change. Without saying he opposes the county line, he called for a “uniform ballot.”

What’s next?

Quraishi said he would rule on Kim’s request for an injunction by April 6, before each county prints its ballots. That decision is expected to be limited to the June primary. The lawsuit challenging the county line is ongoing.

Regardless of any legal decisions, the issue has broken into a much wider political conversation and could have long-term effects on New Jersey politics.

“I think that this is really the first time where the momentum has grown amongst the electorate,” said Miles from the New Jersey Working Families Alliance. “There’s reform-minded liberals and progressives alike [who] are coalescing into this anti-line coalition, if you will. And I think that is what’s different now in this political moment.”

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