US federal judge orders New Jersey to stop using unique ballot design in primary elections News
© JURIST / Jaclyn Belczyk
US federal judge orders New Jersey to stop using unique ballot design in primary elections

A federal judge in New Jersey on Friday ordered the state to replace its current ballot design for the upcoming June primary elections. Judge Zahid N. Quraishi ruled that the state’s design raises freedom of association concerns under the First Amendment to the US Constitution¬†because candidates need an endorsement from their party to get a good position on the ballot, which tends to attract more votes. That system makes it costly for candidates to disagree with the party and its members, Quraishi said.

In a primary election, voters choose which candidates in one party will run against candidates from other parties in the general election. US Representative Andy Kim (D-NJ) brought this suit against local officials who are in charge of primary elections in New Jersey. The officials objected to the suit as a “last-minute election case,” but Quraishi rejected that characterization, calling his decision “timely in relation to the 2024 Primary.”

The preliminary injunction orders the local officials to stop using ballots that are “designed by columns or rows” and “place candidates such that there is an incongruous separation from other candidates running for the same office,” which leaves unendorsed candidates “out in Ballot Siberia.” Quraishi noted that “New Jersey is the only state in the country that organizes its primary election ballots” this way.

The injunction also orders the local officials to use ballots “organized by office sought” and to apply “a randomized ballot order system (e.g. random draw) which affords each candidate for the same office an equal chance at obtaining the first ballot position.”

Quraishi reflected that “[t]he integrity of the democratic process for a primary election is at stake” and that the “extraordinary” step of ordering New Jersey to change its ballots was a necessary one.

Commenting on the decision, Kim said that “[t]oday’s decision is a victory for a fairer, more democratic politics in New Jersey” and that “fixing this unfair ballot system is a massive step forward towards perfecting our democracy.” He is running for the Senate seat held by US Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who has been charged with various crimes involving an alleged bribery scheme. The general election will be held in November.

But New Jersey State Senate President Nicholas P. Scutari warned that now, “[m]oney will be more important than ever before” because “[p]eople with money will have more of a chance to win without getting the endorsement of the party members who have been around for a long time.”

Many states are experiencing litigation and shifting voting rules ahead of the upcoming 2024 elections. Aside from this latest change, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy recently signed a bill to allow 17-year-olds to vote in the state’s primaries.