Mercer County Clerk withdraws from county line lawsuit, issues statement

Mercer County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello issued a statement on Thursday about her decision to withdraw from an appeal in a case filed by Rep. Andy Kim regarding New Jersey’s county-line ballot.

The state has a primary ballot design used by 19 of 21 counties that is unlike any other ballot design in the country. Party bosses and insiders decide who gets what is known as the county line, where candidates chosen by party leaders are given better ballot placement and are grouped with other members of the political party who have also been chosen to receive “the line.” Other candidates on the ballot in the primary election are off to the right. Studies have shown it is difficult for candidates who do not receive the line to win in the primary.

Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraishi issued a preliminary injunction ordering that ballots for the June 4 Democratic primary election must use the block ballot design that groups candidates by office sought. Quaraishi said New Jersey’s ballot design is unconstitutional.

An appeal was filed by 17 county clerks, including Sollami Covello. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals denied the stay in the case on Wednesday. After the decision, clerks began to withdraw from the fight, including Sollami Covello.

“As Mercer County Clerk, I am withdrawing from the Appeal of the injunction issued by Judge Quraishi following the Third Circuit Court of Appeal’s denial of a Stay in the Kim v. Hanlon case,” Sollami Covello said in a statement. “As I have stated previously, this appeal was about the timing of the federal court’s decision and the immediate impact on ballot preparation and the election process. The denial of a stay means that the ballot design and drawing of candidate positions will proceed as ordered by the Court.”

Sollami Covello said her office will move forward in preparing ballots for mailing for the upcoming primary election. The drawing is set by statute for today, April 4 at 3 p.m. in the office of the Mercer County Clerk in Trenton.

The county-line ballot has been a powerful force in elections at the local level. For the past four years, candidates in the Democratic primary in Princeton have run unopposed because newcomers interested in running for local office don’t want to have to go up against the local political machine. Some residents are so frustrated that they have considered trying to get the form of government switched in Princeton to nonpartisan government. That move would require a petition and a ballot referendum.

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

Councilman David Cohen was the only member of the governing body not to sign on to the letter. Cohen has expressed concerns that a block ballot is harmful because “low information” voters could make bad choices without party leaders telling them who the party’s preferred candidates are.

Felicia Sapienza Spitz, head of the Princeton Democratic Municipal Committee, has voiced opposition to the judge’s decision. On social media, she called the judge’s decision and Sollami Covello’s withdrawal from the appeal “a sad day for democracy.”

“We have begun training Americans to feel happy about living in a dictatorship,” Spitz wrote. “We are allowing judges too much power when 1 person can legislate for 9 million people.”

Spitz and many other party leaders in local and state government want the New Jersey Legislature to design the ballot. But those legislators are the same people who currently benefit from the county-line system. For example, Nick Scutari, the head of the New Jersey Senate, is also the Democratic chairman of Union County.

Good government groups seeking reform don’t trust the New Jersey Legislature to make changes that will lead to a fair ballot system. Legislators have had the opportunity for the past several years to revamp the ballot, with two prior suits about the county-line ballot still pending in federal court. Last year, legislators also undid two decades of campaign finance reform, and are now seeking to gut the state’s Open Public Records Act, with the support and urging of many mayors and council members across the state. Changes to the Open Public Records Act will make it much harder for citizens to get records and challenge wrongful denials of records.

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