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Some Princeton Democratic leaders call on Mercer County Clerk to drop county-line ballot appeal

More than two dozen Democrats in Princeton have signed on to a letter to Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello calling on her to withdraw from an appeal challenging a judge’s decision requiring the use of a block ballot in the June 4 Democratic primary election in New Jersey.

Two New Jersey counties and all 49 other states in the U.S. use what is known as the block ballot system in which candidates are grouped by the office they are running for. In New Jersey, 19 of 21 counties use a system known as the county line that gives incredible power to party leaders at the county level. Candidates endorsed by county delegates, county political leaders, and party bosses in the primary receive preferential placement on the ballot. The placement is commonly known as the county line. Studies have shown it is very difficult for candidates who do not receive the line to win in the primary. That’s because the other candidates’ names appear to the right of the line, sometimes several inches to the right in what U.S. Rep. Kim has described as “Ballot Siberia.”

Kim and two candidates for the House of Representatives filed a federal lawsuit last month challenging the constitutionality of the county line while he was in a primary battle with First Lady Tammy Murphy for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. The seat is held by Sen. Bob Menendez, who may run as an independent in November. Murphy has since dropped out of the race. Three candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraishi issued a preliminary injunction ordering that ballots used for the June 4 Democratic primary election must use the block ballot design that groups candidates by office sought.

The deadline for candidates to join New Jersey’s June 4 primary passed last week. Ballots for the primary election are scheduled to be mailed to voters at the end of April.

Seventeen of the 19 county clerks named as defendants in the federal lawsuit challenging the ballot design have filed an appeal, including the Mercer County Clerk. The clerks also filed an emergency motion to stop the enforcement of the judge’s order. The judge denied the motion to stop the enforcement of the order on Monday.

The clerks for Hudson and Burlington counties have withdrawn from the appeal, but on Monday, Sollami Covello doubled down on her decision to take part in the appeal, claiming there isn’t enough time to prepare the ballots and educate voters.

“I am appealing along with many other county clerks based on the timing of the judge’s decision. We are appealing the ‘injunction’ and not his ultimate ruling on the ‘line’. The county’s ballot drawing is on Thursday, April 4th and there is much preliminary work that has already taken place to set up ballots and voting machines,” Sollami Covello wrote Monday afternoon.

Paila Sollami Covello

“Also, there is not adequate time to educate the voting public about this ballot change. There are many unanswered procedural questions as well,” Sollami Covello wrote. “I will refrain from futher comment as we are in litigation and I have attorneys representing me, but I wanted to make it clear that this is about the timing, at least, for me Mercer is also currently preparing as best as possible to comply with the judge’s order.”

On social media, Sollami Covello’s comments drew criticism, with residents questioning how hard it is to prepare a block ballot and educate voters. They also noted that by challenging the judge’s decision, the clerks were creating more work for themselves.

The judge in the case Monday said the fact that two county clerks have withdrawn their opposition undermines arguments made by appealing clerks.

The judge’s decision in the Kim case applies to the Democratic primary, not the Republican primary. The New Jersey Republican Chairs Association wants to intervene to defend the county line, but a handful of GOP candidates running off the line want to expand the preliminary injunction to have a line-free GOP primary as well.

In Princeton, the county line has been an important factor in election outcomes and in deterring residents from running for local office. For the past four years, Princeton has had an uncontested Democratic primary because many potential candidates don’t want to deal with the local political machine. Some potential candidates have told Planet Princeton they have been told not to run and to “wait your turn.” The club no longer publicizes and hosts open houses at a member’s home where new candidates are encouraged to run for office. This spring, former council members Jenny Crumiller and Jo Butler created a website and wrote letters to the editor in an effort to fill the void and encourage more people to run for office.

The Princeton Community Democratic Organization holds an endorsement meeting for local candidates. Residents who sign up to join the club by a certain date can vote at the endorsement meeting. Candidates often recruit their friends and acquaintances to become members of the club for the endorsement meeting, and most of those people never return to club events after that meeting.

The Princeton Democratic Municipal Committee, which is comprised of two representatives from each voting district in Princeton, then holds an endorsement meeting and votes to endorse candidates that will be recommended to the county party chair for the county-line preferential ballot placement. The committee rarely goes against the vote of the Princeton Community Democratic Club. A candidate who didn’t receive enough votes to win the club endorsement was endorsed by the municipal committee only once in the past two decades in the election before the two Princetons consolidated.

in the Monday letter to Sollami Covello, the 29 Democrats who signed on said they were writing as individuals and not as representatives of organizations. They included the mayor, the former mayor, every council member except David Cohen, two former council members, the head of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization, and several current and former club officers and municipal committee members. Notably absent from the list of signers was Felicia Spitz, the head of the Princeton Municipal Democratic Committee.

In 2019, the Princeton Community Democratic Organization adopted a resolution in favor of better ballots.

“We have watched the cases of Conforti v. Hanlon and Kim v. Hanlon with great interest and anticipation and looked forward to confirmation from the federal courts of our belief that the existing County Line system is unconstitutional and should be abandoned. This belief was underscored by Attorney General Platkin’s decision not to intervene in Kim v. Hanlon to defend that statute that allows for the County Line because he has concluded it is unconstitutional,” reads the letter to Sollami Covello.

“We are therefore deeply concerned and disappointed that the Mercer County Clerk is spending our tax dollars to participate in an appeal of Judge Quraishi’s decision,” reads the letter. “While we appreciate that the switch to office block ballots will disrupt your operations, we firmly believe that it is possible, as well as imperative, that the Mercer County Clerk comply with the decision. Office block ballots were in use by Mercer County for paper ballots through 2016. It is simpler by nature to design an office block ballot than a county-style ballot. The timing of the decision should not be impossible, given that the filing deadline took place just a week ago.”

The full letter to the Mercer County Clerk

Re: Participation in Appeal of Judge Quraishi’s March 29 Decision Granting Injunction in Kim v. Hanlon

Dear Clerk Covello,

The undersigned are writing to you as individual residents of Princeton, not as representatives of our respective organizations. We appreciate your efforts over the years to manage our elections fairly and efficiently.

Many Princeton residents have long been proponents of moving to office block ballots. The Princeton Municipal Democratic Committee (PMDC), with the blessing of the Mercer County Committee Chair, has for the past decade recommended and received placement of all candidates for municipal office
together on the “County Line.” The Princeton Community Democratic Committee (PCDO) formally adopted a resolution in favor of “Better Ballots” in 2019. We have watched the cases of Conforti v. Hanlon and Kim v. Hanlon with great interest and anticipation and looked forward to confirmation from the federal courts of our belief that the existing County Line system is unconstitutional and should be abandoned. This belief was underscored by Attorney General Platkin’s decision not to intervene in Kim v. Hanlon to defend that statute that allows for the County Line because he has concluded it is unconstitutional. We applauded Judge Quraishi’s decision in Kim v. Hanlon on Friday, granting the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction and requiring that the County Clerks of New Jersey use office block
ballots for the upcoming Democratic primary election.

We are therefore deeply concerned and disappointed that the Mercer County Clerk is spending our tax dollars to participate in an appeal of Judge Quraishi’s decision.
While we appreciate that the switch to office block ballots will disrupt your operations, we firmly believe that it is possible, as well as imperative, that the Mercer County Clerk comply with the decision. Office block ballots were in use by Mercer County for paper ballots through 2016. It is simpler by nature to design an office block ballot than a county-style ballot. The timing of the decision should not be impossible, given that the filing deadline took place just a week ago on Monday, March 25, and your office has known of the requested injunction since February 26. Additionally, we are aware that the Burlington County Clerk and the Hudson County Clerk have withdrawn from the appeal. If Hudson County, which has almost twice the population of Mercer County, can timely make the change, we think it is also possible to do it here. We also do not believe that additional voter education is required. An office block ballot is clear and easy to understand and no voter education was deemed necessary when this type of ballot was in use for paper ballots. Based on Judge Quraishi’s decision, we believe it highly unlikely
that the “County Line” will ultimately be upheld or that the Third Circuit will grant a stay of the injunction. Therefore, it would be irresponsible to delay moving forward on making the change and to use taxpayer dollars to continue to defend the indefensible.

Most importantly, we believe that it is wrong to follow a practice that violates the constitutional rights of affected candidates and voters for even one more primary election. We therefore call on you to withdraw from the appeal and concentrate your office’s resources on preparing office block ballots for June 4.

Sincerely yours,

Mark Freda, Princeton Mayor
Mia Sacks, Princeton Council President
Leticia Fraga, Princeton Councilmember
Michelle Pirone Lambros, Princeton Councilmember
Leighton Newlin, Princeton Councilmember
Eve Niedergang, Princeton Councilmember
Adam Bierman, PDMC Member
Nat Bottigheimer, PCDO Executive Board Member
Jo Butler, Former Princeton Councilmember; former PCDO President
Liz Cohen, PDMC Member, PCDO Executive Board Member
Jenny Crumiller, Former Princeton Councilmember; former PCDO President
Nick DiDomizio, PCDO President
Jean Durbin, PDMC Member, former PCDO President
Rachel Grainger, PCDO Executive Board Member
Simin Gul, PDMC Member, PCDO Member
Dosier Hammond, PCDO Second Vice President
James Healey, PDMC Member
Heather Howard, PDMC Member; Former Princeton Councilmember
Nate Howard, PCDO Executive Board Member; College Dems of NJ Officer
Arifa Khandwalla, PDMC Member; PCDO Officer
Michael Krevitskie, PDMC First Vice Chair
Liz Lempert, Former Mayor of Princeton
Anastasia Mann, PDMC Member
Jane Manners, PCDO First Vice President
Amy Mayer, PDMC Member; PCDO Officer
Sue Nemeth, PCDO Member, former PDMC Member, former Princeton Twp. Committeemember
Yael Niv, PCDO Executive Board Member; PDMC Member
Afsheen Shamsi, PDMC Member; former PCDO President
Scott Sillars, PDMC Member

cc: Mercer County Executive
Mercer County Commissioners

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