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New Jersey attorney general says county ballot system is unconstitutional

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(The Center Square) — Breaking with other Democratic leaders, New Jersey’s attorney general says he won’t defend the state’s county ballot line in a legal challenge, calling the system unconstitutional.

In a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraish, Attorney General Matthew Platkin said his office won’t defend the system in court because his office has determined that New Jersey’s county organization line violates the constitutional rights of candidates running for elected office.

“The attorney general will not otherwise provide a defense of the challenged statutes on the merits in that case,” Platkin, a Democrat, wrote in the letter.

The federal judge is considering a request from critics of the county line ballot to grant a preliminary injunction to abolish the system ahead of this year’s primary election.

Under New Jersey’s election laws, candidates nominated for primaries by local Democratic or Republican organizations are listed at the top of a ballot on a party or county line. Critics say that gives them preferential treatment. Other candidates, including independent write-ins, are listed in other columns that are jokingly referred to as “ballot Siberia.”

A lawsuit filed by Rep. Andy Kim, a Democrat who is running for a U.S. Senate seat, alleges that the county line system violates candidates’ constitutional rights because office seekers who choose not to be grouped with others face an automatic disadvantage on the ballot.

“It is hard to imagine how ballots can ‘dictate electoral outcomes’ in a greater way than rewarding an opponent with an ‘enormous handicap,’” Kim’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.

Kim is in a four-person race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate seat — which embattled Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez currently holds — that includes first lady Tammy Murphy.

The issue of the county line system has dominated the Senate race, and Murphy argues that election rules shouldn’t be changed ahead of the June primary.

In his letter, Platkin pointed out that New Jersey’s county line system is “unique” among states and “the result of intersecting statutes, judicial decisions, and discretionary practices that have developed over time.”

“New Jersey stands alone across the nation in the use of bracketing for primary-election machine ballots, which further undermines the claim that these laws are necessary to advance the government interests on which the attorney general would have relied,” he wrote.

A spokesman for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy issued a statement saying the governor has “consistently and accurately noted that the bracketing of candidates is permitted by duly enacted laws that have been on the books for decades.”

“It is well-established that Attorneys General have a general obligation to defend the constitutionality of statutes, regardless of their own personal views,” Murphy spokesman Mahen Gunaratna said. “The Governor believes that a legal defense of the statute permitting bracketing would have been appropriate and consistent with the actions of prior Attorneys General.”

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