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The Democratic primary ballot in Camden County for the June 2021 primary election. (Photo: NJ Globe.)

Progressives fight to keep county lines suit in federal court

Clerks, Grewal seek to dismiss ballot design suit

By Nikita Biryukov, May 25 2021 1:46 pm

A swath of progressive candidates and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance are fighting to keep a suit to eliminate the use of organizational lines in ballot design in federal court.

Opponents of the line on Monday filed a brief opposing motions filed to dismiss by numerous county clerks targeted by the suit. The filing will decide whether the legal challenge moves ahead to discovery, when the plaintiffs can begin deposing witnesses.

The plaintiffs argue a position on the party line lends candidates a measurable — and significant — advantage over off-the-line challengers, further charging that advantage forces candidates without such a position to associate with candidates they would otherwise ignore.

The suit was filed by 2020 House candidates Arati Kreibich, Christine Conforti, Zina Spezakis, Mercer County Democratic Committee candidate Joseph Marchica, Neptune Township Committee candidate Kevin McMillan and Atlantic County Clerk candidate Mico Lucide.

They were joined by New Jersey Working Families, an issues advocacy non-profit that stands in opposition to machine Democrats in Camden County and backs progressive Democrats across the state.

Their filing argues that candidates who do not choose to bracket with others can be ineligible for the most preferential spot on the ballot. If they’re not running with a candidate in a pivot position — an office chosen by clerks during the ballot draw — they’ll never be placed in the first column.

“Candidates must seek and associate with candidates up and down the ballot to increase their likelihood of success,” the suit said. “If they do not engage in this game, then their association may be forced anyway with candidates they have nothing in common with and whom they may even oppose.”

Some counties group bracketed candidates by row instead of column.

The practice can sometimes lead to absurdity, the plaintiffs said. Conforti had to bracket with a rival congressional candidate while seeking a County Committee seat in Neptune to gain a better position on the ballot.

The plaintiffs said the need to associate ran afoul of the right to free association provided by the First Amendment.

The suit argued clerks select the pivot position inconsistently, with different offices selected in different counties and election cycles. Kreibich ran with a slate of two Bergen freeholder candidates last year, but the ballot draw used U.S. Senate as the pivot position, leaving two blank columns between her and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff).

Pivot positions are sometimes inconsistent within a single cycle. Atlantic County this year used the county clerk as the pivot position for the Democratic primary, while the Republican ballot used gubernatorial candidates.

It’s worth noting both of those offices were the highest to see a contest in their respective primaries.

New Jersey is the only state to use organizational lines when selecting ballot positions. The practice allows down-ballot candidates to appear in the same column as candidates for higher office.

For example, Lisa Jiampetti, Atlantic County Democrats’ pick for the county clerkship, will appear in the same column as Gov. Phil Murphy, while Lucide will appear by himself in his own column. That advantage can extend down to candidates for local office.

Most other states group candidates by the office they’re seeking.

The plaintiffs said the suit targeted county clerks because they were the officials responsible for drafting the ballots at question. Previous cases over ballot design were traceable to the office that drafted them.

They charged their suit was not moot because most of the elections at question had already passed, as some clerks’ motions to dismiss claimed, because the use of organizational lines would recur in New Jersey elections held every year.

The power of the line will be drawn into sharp relief during next month’s primaries. Longtime Assembly running mates Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) and Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood) are competing to succeed Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who is not seeking re-election this year.

Bergen County Democrats awarded Johnson the party line in what Vainieri Huttle has derided as a rigged process, an accusation Bergen County Chairman Paul Juliano denies.

Though the assemblywoman regularly ran on organizational lines in years past and declined to rule out running on them again in the future during a debate in April, she has since called for the line to be abolished.

The two candidates have exceedingly similar voting records and have earned nearly identical numbers of votes in every election since 2005, save a 2007 race where Vainieri Huttle finished two points ahead of Johnson.

After losing organizational support in the 31st district, Assembly Majority Whip Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne) launched an off-the-line bid but later suspended it, citing the insurmountable challenge of running against organization-backed candidates with Gov. Phil Murphy at the top of the ticket.

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