In a case that could dramatically alter how candidates get on the ballot in New Jersey, a challenge to the nominating petitions of three Republicans running for the Howell Township Council is moving forward even though they already won the June 7 primary election.
An appeal of Superior Court Judge Kathleen Sheedy’s ruling in April to allow Fred Gasior and Susan Fischer on the ballot opens the door to the court invalidating the primary election results and ordering a new election, if the state appellate court finds that she misread the statute.
But if Sheedy’s decision in upheld, it will essentially set aside requirements that candidates get a minimum number of petition signatures in order to have their name appear on the ballot.
The issue involves the merging of three separate nominating petitions into one joint petition after they were circulated to allow Gasior and Fischer, who didn’t get enough signatures on their own, to get on the ballot.
“In misapplying clear statutory requirements, the lower court’s decision has fundamentally altered our state’s nominating petition process and created a mechanism for fraud and misrepresentation that must be rectified,” wrote David Minchello of Rainone Coughlin Minchello in his court submission on Friday.
Hany A. Mawla, a state appellate court judge, inexplicably declined to expedite the appeal in April, instead putting off the legal challenge until after the primary election had already been held. Mawla had initially stayed Sheedy’s ruling.
Several elected officials viewed the Mawla’s decision as farcical.
All three of the candidates endorsed by the local Republican organization circulated separate nominating petitions, but only one, Ian Nadel, obtained the 50 signatures required to get on the ballot. But two others, Gasior and Fischer, were certified with 49 and 43, respectively.
But the township clerk, Allison Ciranni, allowed Gasior and Fischer to merge their petitions with Nadel, even though the signatories had not agreed to back them.
Minchello said that Ciranni’s decision “will clear the way for the obliteration of the legislative safeguards for placing persons onto election ballots and allow government actors to disregard the voices of petition’s signors.”
“Despite the clear evidence that the petitions were separate and distinct, the clerk illicitly combined them under the guise that they had been filed together at the same time by the Howell Township Republican party chairman,” Minchello stated in his brief. “According to the Clerk’s logic, if a Republican voter supports one Republican candidate, they support all Republican candidates.”
The appellant claims that Sheedy’s ruling “overturns decades of election law.”
“It opens the door to potential fraud and misrepresentation,” Minchello said in his brief. “Based upon this decision, nominees who have not obtained the requisite number of signatures required by statute can nonetheless band together post hoc to insert themselves onto ballots on which they do not belong.”
Fischer (2,685), Nadel (2,608) and Gasior (2,434) defeated Michael Bernstein (951) in the June 7 Republican primary.
“The nominating petition process for primary elections has been described as the pivotal event in a party’s process. Our election laws empower voters to participate in our representative democracy by giving them a key role in this central event,” Minchello said in his court filing. “Voters’ evidence their support for candidates for a particular office by indorsing each through a signed nominating petition. The system ensures accountability and protects against fraud and abuse.”
The briefing schedule ends on July 21 and it’s not clear if the appellate court will want to hear oral arguments.
If the appellate court rules for Hughes, the results of last week’s primary could be invalidated and a new primary ordered.
Mawla and another appellate judge, Michael J. Haas, will have very little time to issue a ruling, even if they leave no window for an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
A new primary would need to be scheduled by the end of August so that the results could be certified – not including time for a recount or legal challenges to that race– in time to begin mailing general election ballots on September 24. It is estimated that election officials need five weeks to prepare for a do-over primary, including the printing and mailing of vote-by-mail ballots and three days of early voting.
The new primary, if there is one, would have just two names on the ballot for three seats – Nadel and Bernstein. Nadel would run without the benefit of the Monmouth GOP organization line. Fischer and Gasior would need to mount write-in campaigns, as could any other potential candidate.
The appeal was filed by John Hughes, a Democrat from Howell.
In his court filing, Minchello argues that Ciranni “had no grounds to assume or guess that the signors of the various petitions must have intended to support every Republican candidate,” and that Sheedy was wrong to was conclude that the clerk had the discretion to do so.
Three Democrats mounting an off-the-line challenge for Union County Commissioner have decided not to appeal Superior Court Judge Alan Lesnewich’s ruling that tossed them off the primary ballot because they fell three signatures short of the 100 needed to qualify, the New Jersey Globe has learned.