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Mercer County among NJ counties being sued for party-line ballots

<h5>Camden County, NJ, 2018 Democratic Primary Ballot, one that uses the party line.</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of Joe Marchica&nbsp;</h6>
Camden County, NJ, 2018 Democratic Primary Ballot, one that uses the party line.
Courtesy of Joe Marchica 

A group including past, current, and future candidates for office in New Jersey — as well as the New Jersey Working Families Alliance — has filed a lawsuit against several New Jersey counties, including Mercer County, in an attempt to change the practice of party-line ballots in primary elections.

The party-line ballot puts candidates, who have been endorsed by a party or who have affiliations with other candidates, on the same column, or “line,” in the ballot, along with the endorsing entity’s slogan or moniker. Other candidates for the same office are placed in columns to the side — a space that the lawsuit deems “Ballot Siberia.” New Jersey is the only state that implements such a system.

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According to people who oppose this system, the main problem is that it allows the party to choose which candidate will win the primary election instead of the voters — and because New Jersey often votes blue, this method decides who wins the general election as well. 

“The combination of these two completely invalidates New Jersey democracy,” said Joe Marchica, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and a co-chair of advocacy group Our Revolution Trenton Mercer.  

Marchica said that multiple people have told him that “the line is good because that’s how I know where the Democrats are, and I can just vote down the line.” However, everyone on the Democratic primary election ballot is a Democrat. 

“They believe that a person is a Democrat if they have the party’s endorsement. This gives a huge amount of power to the party,” he said.

Misunderstanding how the party-line ballot system works has detrimental effects on the voters, too: They can accidentally invalidate their ballot. Because candidates running for the same office can be in the same column if they are all endorsed by the party, some voters will absent-mindedly vote down the column, therefore voting for two candidates in the same office, which invalidates the rest of their votes. Marchica cited a case in the 2020 primary election in Mercer County in which nearly one-third of the voters voted for two candidates for the same office that were both on the line.

Faris Zwirahn, a University professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, ran in the Democratic primary for the New Jersey Assembly for the 16th District but did not get the party’s endorsement. He was placed in “Ballot Siberia.”

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Zwirahn said that he would have had “a much better chance at winning” if he had been on the line, or if the ballot were structured differently. 

“I didn’t get access to much of the resources [such as voter addresses needed for canvassing] that successful candidates have,” he said.

Brett Pugach, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, mentioned the group is suing on a constitutional basis, arguing that the current system goes against the voters’ right to vote and the candidates’ equal protection and right to associate. 

“Basically, a candidate is being forced to associate with a group they don’t necessarily agree with just to have a better position on the ballot — and they can be punished if they decide not to associate,” Pugach said.

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The plaintiffs argued that the ideal ballot is a “bubble ballot,” also known as an “office block ballot” — “basically like any multiple-choice test you took in grade school” according to Pugach. 

The order of the choices in each office could be randomized too, “either with candidates drawing who gets the first spot or each candidate getting it in a different district,” Pugach explained. The plaintiffs hope this lawsuit will force both the counties and the state to redesign the ballot to a form that they see as fairer to all candidates as well as easier for voters to read. 

The lawsuit is currently pending a ruling on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.

Due to the lawsuit being currently in litigation, the Mercer County Clerk, Paula Sollami Covello, deferred comment to her attorney, Angelo Genova, who declined to comment.

The Mercer County Democratic Party Chair, Janice Mironov, and the Mercer County Republican Party Chair, Lisa Richford, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

More information can be found here

Charlie Roth is a news contributor for the Prince. He can be reached at charlieroth@princeton.edu or @imcharlieroth on Twitter or Instagram.

Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to clarify Covello’s deferral of comment.

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