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Glen Rock Councilwoman Arati Kreibich. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Progressive groups expand suit against party lines

Kreibich among new plaintiffs charging practice deprives candidates of constitutional rights

By Nikita Biryukov, January 25 2021 5:28 pm

A swath of progressive groups joined a lawsuit seeking to do away with organizational lines used in the state’s primaries Monday, joining a push started by former congressional candidate Christine Conforti.

“This antiquated practice is truly indefensible.” New Jersey Working Families State Director Sue Altman said. “If we learned anything over the last four years, it’s that our democracy is fragile and requires a vigorous effort maintain. This expansive coalition is fighting to make democracy stronger in New Jersey. Up and down the state advocates agree: It is long past time for real, competitive primary elections. Our democracy is at stake. This is a matter of equity and whose voice counts.”

Unlike every other state in the union, New Jersey arranges its primary ballots using organizational lines. Most Democratic and Republican county organizations in the state employ a line, which is awarded in an often perfunctory vote by county committee members.

A small number of states mark party-backed candidates with a symbol but bracket candidates by the office they’re seeking.

The line comes with a favorable ballot position. Democrats running on the line at the bottom of the ticket this year, for example, will find themselves bracketed with and legislative candidates and Gov. Phil Murphy, who on Monday said he would seek re-election on the line.

The progressives argue that bracketing helps to entrench incumbents and supports establishment candidates while quashing primary challengers.

“The line gives party insiders far too much power, helping them pick primary election winners,” said Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective. “This robs voters of their full power and influence and prevents new and diverse voices from running successful campaigns at every level of government. Until we have sensible ballot design, New Jerseyans cannot be confident that our elections are open, competitive and fair.”

While candidates sometimes win off-the-line in races for lower office, it’s the exception rather than the rule, and those running often find themselves separated from their opponents by inches of blank space, relegated to a place known as “ballot Siberia” among the state’s politerati.

“New Jersey’s use of the line is a voter suppression tactic, used to pre-determine elections outcomes and diminish the voice of voters,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “Our ballots disregard all established and proven best practices for ballot design, causing voter confusion and apathy. We applaud this historic lawsuit for seeking to give voters, not county party chairs, the democratic power to elect candidates of their choosing.”

Previous suits seeking to do away with party lines met little success. Conforti’s original suit, filed in July, charged the line was unconstitutional because it infringed on candidates’ rights to free speech and free association, among some others.

The amended complaint adds five new plaintiffs, including one-time Green Party Assembly candidate Mico Lucide, former Neptune Township Committeeman Kevin McMillan, former Glen Rock Councilwoman Arati Kreibich, who last year unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff), and environmental activist Zina Spezakis, who primaried Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) in 2020.

Like the previous suit, it argues party lines run afoul of constitutional rights, including Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

U.S. District Court Judge Freda Wolfson is presiding over the case.

Ballot lines amended complaint
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