TRENTON – Voting-rights advocacy groups filed a legal brief Tuesday asking to participate in a lawsuit that seeks to end use of ‘the line’ to benefit party-backed preferred candidates in designing ballots for primary elections.

The underlying federal lawsuit, Conforti v. Hanlon, was filed last July. The new supporting brief was filed by the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and Salvation and Social Justice, represented by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and Campaign Legal Center.

No matter the result of the lawsuit, it won’t affect the design of the ballots for this year’s June 8 primary, which are already printed.

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Advocates for the legal challenge say New Jersey is the only state that organizes primary ballots by bracketing together candidates that have been endorsed by the Democratic and Republican county committees in a column or row, rather than listing candidates for each office in separate sections.

Having ‘the line’ is considered so important that candidates who are dropped from it – such as Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson, in next week’s primary – sometimes drop re-election bids rather than run off the line.

Other candidates are seeking re-nomination next week despite losing party support for another term and the preferred ballot position, such as Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth.

“Fair voter access is about more than just drop boxes and early voting hours. New Jersey’s primary ballot layout confuses voters, leading to decreased participation and keeping voters from having their voices heard,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

“During a time when democracy is under attack and we must do everything possible to strengthen and expand it, New Jersey is instead subverting it by maintaining an outmoded primary ballot design that misleads and confuses voters and interferes with their right to vote,” said Henal Patel, director of the Democracy and Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

The original lawsuit was brought by individual voters and candidates and the New Jersey Working Families group. County clerks in Monmouth, Ocean, Mercer, Bergen, Atlantic, and Hudson counties are defendants. The clerks and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal are seeking to have the case dismissed.

Fifteen of New Jersey’s 21 counties group candidates with common slogans, such as that for the county political party, by column. Four group candidates by row. Another two counties – Salem and Sussex, the state’s smallest and fifth-smallest by population – list all candidates by office already.

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The lawsuit cites ballot design studies that have concluded minority voters are disproportionately affected by principles such as ‘the line,’ as incumbents and party operatives generally get the preferred treatment but aren’t reflective of the state’s overall population, which is 45% nonwhite.

“In order to achieve fair representation, there must be fair ballot design,” said Jade Ford, an attorney for the Campaign Legal Center. “Ballot design impacts voters, not just candidates for office. These types of defects also disproportionately affect voters of color and lower-income communities. It is time for New Jersey to address these systemic threats to the democratic process.”

“Without a fair opportunity to run for office, our entire state suffers. The time is now for New Jersey to do what’s right. Our democracy depends on it,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, founding director of Salvation and Social Justice.

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