End of ‘the line’? Judge strikes down county line ballot design

In a watershed decision that likely forever changes the nature of primary elections in New Jersey — for better and for worse — U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi on Friday struck down the county organizational line, a unique ballot design that puts enormous power in the hands of the county leaders of a party.

The decision, which certainly will be appealed, will have an immediate impact during the June 4 primary, when ballots no longer will favor the preferred candidate of the county organization.

Oddly, the ruling figures to have little impact on the candidate who brought the suit, U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (D-3rd Dist.), since his biggest opponent for the Democrat nomination for U.S. Senate, first lady Tammy Murphy, has dropped out of the race. Kim had said Murphy unfairly benefited from the county line.

But, it could have a great impact on numerous races at other levels.

Quraishi was strong in his decision.

“The integrity of the democratic process for a primary election is at stake, and the remedy plaintiffs are seeking is extraordinary,” he wrote. “Mandatory injunctive relief is reserved only for the most unusual cases. Plaintiffs’ burden on this motion is therefore particularly heavy. Nevertheless, the court finds, based on this record, that plaintiffs have met their burden and that this is the rare instance when mandatory relief is warranted.”

To be clear, the ruling specifically applies to this year’s primary. And it certainly will be appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where there could be a stay.

Should the decision withstand an appeal — meaning the elimination of the county line system holds up under appeal — elections in New Jersey figure to never be the same.

So said Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.

“This is a seminal moment in New Jersey political history if this continues in future elections,” he said. “It marks an entirely new era.”

Dworkin, reacting quickly to a ruling that came out hours ago, tried to put it all in perspective.

“For years, the line has been one of the most powerful tools used by county party organizations to reward their favorite candidates in a primary election — and punish others,” he said.

“It certainly will open up the process, but that’s a double-edged sword. Reform-minded candidates will certainly have a better shot at winning a party’s nomination, but so will popular candidates who might be too extreme to win in a general election.”

Reform is never perfect, Dworkin said.

“When parties get weaker, there are often negative effects,” he said. “We’ve seen this with campaign finance reform. We limited the money that the parties were able to spend. That allowed money to move elsewhere — often into unregulated and far less transparent PACs and moneyed interests.

“That could happen here, as well.”