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Appeals court won’t block order that halts use of county line in June’s Dem primaries

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Appeals court won’t block order that halts use of county line in June’s Dem primaries

Apr 03, 2024 | 3:31 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Appeals court won’t block order that halts use of county line in June’s Dem primaries
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Wednesday’s decision comes as clerks say they are not prepared to begin using a new type of ballot for June’s Democratic primaries. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

A trio of federal judges on Wednesday rejected county clerks’ entreaty to block a preliminary injunction that bars the use of the county line in June’s Democratic primaries, the latest blow to party leaders in a case that could end the use of New Jersey’s unique ballot design.

The decision is another win for Rep. Andy Kim and others who allege that the line — a ballot design that lends party-endorsed candidates an advantage in primaries by grouping them on the ballot — violates constitutional protections on free association and the elections clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“The stay application was a critical phase in the case, and we are immensely gratified that the federal appeals judges agreed with the candidates we are representing,” said Flavio Komuves, an attorney for Kim and his co-plaintiffs. “Today we are another step closer to ensuring constitutional, fair primaries without the county line.”

The circuit court ruling will keep in place the preliminary injunction U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraishi issued last week, but county clerks’ appeal of his order will continue under an expedited schedule that will see oral arguments take place just eight days before officials are due to begin sending out mail-in ballots for June’s elections.

Counsel for the clerks declined to comment on the ruling. Clerks in Morris and Warren counties told the court they will be withdrawing from the appeal, and the clerks in Bergen and Hunterdon told the New Jersey Monitor they would also withdraw. The clerks in Burlington and Hudson had already withdrawn.

Kim, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in June, filed the suit in February when he and his then-chief rival, first lady Tammy Murphy, were competing over the county line in the 19 counties that use them. Murphy dropped out of the race last week.

The preliminary injunction orders the use of office-block ballots — which group candidates by office sought rather than by using the county line — and instructs clerks to conduct ballot draws for every candidate, not just those at the top of a ticket as they do now.

The injunction also bars the use of grid ballots that support organizational lines or bracketing, or those that allow candidates to be secreted away in the distant corners of a ballot, a place commonly called ballot Siberia.

Quraishi earlier this week denied a request from clerks to withdraw the injunction, finding they had raised no new arguments that suggested they would succeed on the merits.

After issuing the injunction on Friday, Quraishi later narrowed its scope to the Democratic primary after Morris County Republicans sought clarification on whether their primary would also require the use of office-block ballots.

Wednesday’s order schedules oral arguments before the appeals court on April 12.

The timeline will take the case through at least one election deadline. Clerks are meant to finish preparing primary ballots for printing on April 5 and must begin sending out mail-in ballots by April 20, though courts can and have delayed those deadlines in the past.