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New Jersey ballot design scrapped by judge in win for Andy Kim

A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting New Jersey from using its “county line” ballot, a ruling that could significantly reshape the state’s political system.

U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi issued the order Friday, ruling that Rep. Andy Kim’s (D-N.J.) lawsuit, in which he argues the system used in 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties to decide where a candidate’s name is placed on a ballot is undemocratic and unconstitutional, is likely to succeed on its merits.

The order will require a different structure to be used for the ballot in the state’s June 4 primary, after decades of party bosses having significant influence in deciding nominees.

The ruling is a big win for Kim, who has sought to buck the establishment as he runs for Senate.

For years, New Jersey has designed its ballot unlike any other state in the country. The ballot is set up as a grid, with the rows being for different offices like president and U.S. Senate, and candidates’ names placed in different columns from left to right.

A candidate’s placement on the ballot had varied by county based on who received the coveted county line, usually the first column on the left side of the ballot. A county party would award the spot in the line to a candidate that it endorses.

The county line is the most optimal position for a candidate to be in, because they would be in the same column as other major candidates for other offices. A voter could then go right down the county line to vote for all the candidates that the county party endorsed without straying to another column where an opposing candidate’s name is placed.

Candidates who do not receive the county endorsement would be placed one or more columns away, in a spot known as “ballot Siberia” because it can be far away from the county line.

Kim, who is running for the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Bob Menendez (D), filed the lawsuit along with House candidates Sarah Schoengood and Carolyn Rush, arguing that the county line leaves other candidates at an unfair disadvantage.

In his preliminary order, Quraishi agreed, finding that testimony from experts at a hearing last week demonstrated that candidates on the county line “receive a distinct advantage.”

Quraishi said in his conclusion that he understands the “magnitude” of the ruling but believes it necessary.

“The integrity of the democratic process for a primary election is at stake and the remedy Plaintiffs are seeking is extraordinary. Mandatory injunctive relief is reserved only for the most unusual cases. Plaintiffs’ burden on this Motion is therefore particularly heavy,” the ruling says. “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.”

The ruling does not permanently settle the issue of whether county lines can be used in the future. The judge’s decision blocks the system for this year’s primary, but it is not his final ruling in the case, which will dictate the future of the county lines beyond this year.

The order only affects the state’s primaries this year in June, and county clerks named in the lawsuit reportedly plan to appeal the order.

But the ruling would be a landmark change in how New Jersey runs its elections if it holds.

Kim celebrated the ruling in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, tweeting, “YES! For the people!”

The issue of county lines particularly became a focus as Kim opposed New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy for the seat held by Menendez, who has been indicted on a wide range of charges and declined to run in the Democratic primary for his seat this year.

Kim and Murphy battled over the past month for county endorsements, and Kim was able to hold his own in them despite Murphy’s ties to the top Democrat in the state — her husband, Gov. Phil Murphy — and top party bosses. The two candidates split the county endorsements roughly evenly, though Murphy won in the more populous counties, potentially giving her an advantage.

The primary appeared likely to be intense and difficult, but Murphy surprised observers Sunday when she announced she was dropping out of the race. Murphy called for unity in her speech announcing the decision, saying she did not want to “waste resources tearing down a fellow Democrat.”

Her departure left Kim as the only major Democrat in the race, putting him on a clear path to the Senate seat. He faces two relatively minor challengers.

Kim said following Murphy’s decision that he would continue his lawsuit and maintained that the system was unfair, even though several of the county parties switched their endorsement to him after Murphy left the race.

Quraishi ultimately agreed that the county line system likely violated the Constitution’s First Amendment protection of freedom of association with other candidates or not by forcing them to run in the same column as others for different offices. He also found that it likely violates the Constitution’s Elections Clause, which restricts state regulation of federal elections.

Updated at 1:51 p.m. ET

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