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U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Sanders questions N.J. primary organization lines

Campaign lawyer seeks guidance on bracketing laws

By David Wildstein, February 19 2020 3:06 pm

Lawyers for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign have asked local election officials to clarify how ballots are will be designed for the June 2 Democratic presidential primary as they consider the option of bracketing with other candidates to combat organization lines.

The Sanders campaign is questioning whether county clerks will draw presidential candidates for ballot positions ahead of U.S. Senate, something that could force them to bracket with Cory Booker’s primary opponent to avoid being placed in a sort of ballot Siberia.

“While we assume that the absence of rigid rules makes the ballot design process easier and more fluid for those responsible, it also introduces an element of unfairness and uncertainty for candidates, who may be avoidably injured by their failure to affiliate with down-ballot candidates, without fair warning or opportunity to compete on equal footing,” wrote Malcolm Seymour, an attorney for the Sanders campaign. “This is antithetical to the spirit of the election laws.”

Like many New Jersey election laws, there is no clear answer.  And in a letter to election officials obtained by the New Jersey Globe, the Sanders campaign says that they are getting different answers depending on which county that speak to.

“Prior efforts to obtain county clerks’ rules or guidance on these points have generally been met with the deflective responses that no guidance exists, that the clerks will comply with the ballot design rules of Title 19 where applicable, and that they will exercise their discretion in some unknown and unpredictable way, where Title 19 does not provide an affirmative answer,”  Seymour wrote. “These are circular nonanswers that only compound the confusion surrounding bracketing practices.”

Several election officials who spoke to the Globe say that the statute requires candidates for statewide office – specifically U.S. Senate and governor – to be drawn first.  They candidates for other offices can bracket with the statewide contenders.

But New Jersey law doesn’t clear address the issue of whether president is a statewide office.

Indeed, the consensus seems to be that each of the state’s 21 county clerks have considerable discretion over the design of their own ballots.

In 2016, when there was no U.S. Senate race, most county clerks drew presidential candidates first.  The organization line candidates were then bracketed with Donald Trump, who at the time of the ballot draw was still facing primary challenges from Ted Cruz and John Kasich.

Four years earlier, it was the “if you’ve seen one county, you’ve seen one county” mindset.

That year, there were four candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination and four running for the U.S. Senate nod to challenge Democrat Bob Menendez.
In Ocean County, county clerk Scott Colabella drew U.S. Senate first.

Joe Kyrillos’ name came up third and was given Column C.  Since Kyrillos had the organization line, that’s where Mitt Romney and the rest of the Ocean County Republican organization candidates went,

After the four Senate candidates were drawn, the next name picked was presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.  He ran in Column E.

In the same primary election, Essex County opted to draw presidential candidates before Senate candidates.

New Jersey judges have protected the right to bracket with other candidates on the primary ballot in past rulings.

It’s also unclear whether counties which decide against awarding organization lines in the presidential race can force all candidates to abide by that decision.

Sanders, for example, could choose to eschew the open primary and run on his own line.

Lawrence Hamm, a 1970s era Newark school board member who chairs Sanders’ New Jersey campaign, is challenging Booker in the Democratic Senate primary.

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