March 12, 2024

NEWARK – The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (the Institute) and Campaign Legal Center (CLC) today – on behalf of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, Salvation and Social Justice, New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice and New Jersey Policy Perspective (collectively, “Amici”) – filed an amicus curiae brief in Kim v. Hanlon, a case challenging New Jersey’s use of the unconstitutional and discriminatory “county line” on its ballots. A copy of the amicus brief can be found here.

In Kim v. Hanlon, U.S. Senate candidate Andy Kim and U.S. House of Representatives candidates Sarah Schoengood and Carolyn Rush seek a preliminary injunction to halt use of the county line for the June primary elections in order to avoid imminent and irreparable harm – and ask that counties instead use the ballot design used by Salem and Sussex Counties and many other states. The parties largely make their claims based on the burdens the county line imposes on candidates and the electoral process. In their amicus brief, Amici make the case for how the county line disproportionately violates the rights of voters and candidates of color and women.

Amici are all non-partisan organizations that do not endorse or oppose candidates. Their brief is submitted to protect the rights of voters and our democracy – not in favor of or against any candidate’s interest.

“The county line is a sophisticated form of voter suppression and a frontal assault on democracy that diminishes voting power, particularly of voters of color, as well as candidates of color and women. It essentially decides the result of a race before ballots are even cast and makes candidates and elected officials accountable to party bosses instead of the people they represent,” said Henal Patel, Law & Policy Director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “The county line also ensures that elected representatives do not reflect the diversity of New Jersey, which is almost half people of color.”

New Jersey is the only state in the country that organizes its primary election ballots by bracketing together candidates endorsed by party leaders in a column or row, rather than listing each office and the candidates for that office in separate sections from one another. This antidemocratic design, due to a phenomenon known as “positional bias,” awards chosen candidates, on average, a 38 percent advantage at the polls – a usually insurmountable advantage bestowed by county party leaders.

“Fair ballot design is a core part of a functional democracy,” said Kevin Hancock, Director of Strategic Litigation for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “Ballot design impacts voters, not just candidates for office – and an unfair ballot design disproportionately silences voters of color and lower-income communities. For the sake of New Jersey voters and the health of their democracy, it is time to address this threat to the democratic process.”

Ballot design studies demonstrate that when fair principles are ignored, as is the case with use of the county line, the affected voters will disproportionately be Black, Latina/o, Asian and other voters of color.

In addition, because candidates on the county line are most often incumbents or party operatives, who in New Jersey are overwhelmingly white, it is more difficult for candidates of color and women to win electoral office, negatively impacting fair representation. While New Jersey is almost half people of color and women make up 51% of the population, the New Jersey State Legislature is currently 70% white and almost two-thirds male.

“The line is a stain on our democracy, stripping power from New Jersey voters, particularly voters of color,” said Jesse Burns, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “It’s time for this convoluted and antiquated system designed to manipulate election outcomes to crumble.”

“Fair and clear ballot design is vital to a healthy democracy so that voters can confidently choose who best represents them,” said Celina Stewart, Chief Counsel and Senior Director of Advocacy and Litigation at the League of Women Voters of the US. “When ballot design is not done thoughtfully, it disproportionately affects Black voters, voters of color and new voters entering the franchise, which undermines our democracy by harming fair representation.”

“Salvation and Social Justice is committed to ensuring fair and just elections in New Jersey. For Black voters and communities of color who have been historically marginalized, this commitment extends beyond merely access to the ballot, but includes a fair opportunity to run for office speaking to the issues and needs that uniquely impact their community. This case is an opportunity for New Jersey to truly stand for and bolster democratic principle, not only in rhetoric but in action,” said Racquel Romans-Henry, Policy Director at Salvation and Social Justice.

“Since our inception, NJAIJ has fought for policies that empower and protect immigrants. But our fight is often overshadowed by the structural discrimination imposed by the county ballot line, an antiquated system where candidates court the favor of political insiders over the diverse electorates they seek to represent,” said Amy Torres, Executive Director of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “The county ballot line in New Jersey stands as a relic of voter suppression tactics akin to poll taxes and literacy tests against newly naturalized citizens, Black, Latino/a, Asian and other voters of color. No voter should be required to have advanced, outside education or privileged access to the endorsement process just for their vote to have the same weight as others. We are proud to join as Amici and hope to see this archaic method of voter disenfranchisement ended once and for all.”

“No other state has primary ballots like New Jersey, and for good reason,” said Louis Di Paolo, Vice President at New Jersey Policy Perspective and a former Dumont councilman who ran on the line. “The line allows a select few party insiders to decide who gets elected while voters are shut out of the process. This is not what democracy looks like.”

In 2021, the Institute and CLC filed a previous amicus brief on behalf of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and Salvation and Social Justice in the case of Conforti v Hanlon, which also challenged the constitutionality of the county line. That case is still pending.