The United States Supreme Court refused to hear a pivotal case aimed at challenging New Jersey’s controversial ballot laws in a decision not to take up a case that could have threatened the entrenched political establishment’s ability to manipulate the electoral process.
The case was brought by Eugene Mazo and Lisa McCormick, who both ran as 2020 Democratic Party contenders for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Their lawsuit sought to challenge New Jersey’s election law, which permits candidates to use a six-word ballot slogan but infringes upon the First Amendment right to free speech, as it creates an uneven playing field that favors candidates with the backing of political powerbrokers and party bosses.
McCormick emphasized the significance of the case, stating, “The First Amendment forbids the government from controlling the content of political speech, but New Jersey law allows state officials to censor a candidate’s message to voters.”
She further argued that the system gave unreasonable discretionary powers to government officials to decide what candidates could or could not express on their ballots, dubbing it both “unwise and unconstitutional.”
The crux of the issue extended beyond the constitutional concern of free speech. It also addressed the structural problem of New Jersey’s primary election system, which, critics argue, facilitates the manipulation of candidate placement on the ballot by political powerbrokers, effectively sidelining independent-minded contenders.
Professor Eugene Mazo, a nationally recognized scholar and an accomplished author in election law and campaign finance, echoed the sentiment that New Jersey’s ballot restrictions are unconstitutional.
“My goal in filing this lawsuit is to create an equal playing field for candidates of diverse political views who believe that free speech is sacred. Under our Constitution, New Jersey has no right to regulate what a political candidate can say to his or her voters,” said Mazo.
Despite their liberal Democratic Party affiliations and Mazo acknowledged the bipartisan support they received from a cadre of prominent attorneys, including those from The Institute for Free Speech, libertarian New Jersey civil rights lawyer Walter M. Luers, and Paul Clement, a highly respected attorney known for his extensive experience arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Although Professor Mazo and I might be described by some as ‘flaming liberals,’ we were fortunate to have had the legal assistance of several of America’s most capable conservative attorneys, said McCormick. “Among them The Institute for Free Speech’s legal team led by IFS attorney Ryan Morrison, libertarian New Jersey civil rights lawyer Walter M. Luers of the firm Cohn Lifland Pearlman Herrmann & Knopf, and Paul Clement, a partner in Clement & Murphy who served as U.S. Solicitor General from 2004 to 2008 and has argued more than 100 cases before the United States Supreme Court, making him one of the attorneys most frequently-appearing before the top court in the twenty-first century.”
Despite the formidable legal team’s efforts, the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case leaves New Jersey’s controversial ballot system intact. The argument that the system grants an undue advantage to favored candidates and limits voter choice did not gain the traction needed to prompt intervention.
The heart of the controversy lies in New Jersey’s unique “county line” method for arranging primary ballots, a system that critics argue empowers party bosses and undermines electoral fairness.
Under this system, endorsed candidates are grouped together, while independent candidates are scattered across different columns or rows, making it difficult for voters to locate them.
This unfair practice disproportionately affects independent-minded candidates, who often lack the financial support and organizational backing enjoyed by establishment-backed incumbents.
McCormick provided an example, citing the 2018 New Jersey Democratic primary ballot from Camden County.
She pointed out that nine candidates were grouped on the ‘county line’ in ‘Column 2,’ while the remaining fifteen candidates were scattered across eight mostly empty columns.
This arrangement, she argued, gives an unfair advantage to those on the county line while subjecting independent candidates to an inexplicable disadvantage.
Furthermore, critics argue that this system has historically favored party-endorsed candidates, creating an imbalance that skews election outcomes.
Professor Julia Sass Rubin of Rutgers University and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs conducted a comprehensive review of primary ballots across all fifty states and the District of Columbia.
She found that New Jersey’s ballot design substantially differed from other states, with a focus on the “county line” system that favored party-endorsed candidates.
McCormick claimed this system disadvantaged candidates like Senator Bernie Sanders in both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries in New Jersey.
While some hope for a legislative remedy to this issue, with State Senator Shirley Turner proposing a bill to address the situation, many remain skeptical of lawmakers’ willingness to dismantle a system that grants them power.
McCormick suggested an alternative approach, urging progressive Democrats to unite to get a slate of like-minded contenders on the ballot, subsequently working towards changing the existing election laws from within the system.
“We were right to challenge what is fundamentally a system that allows the most powerful to cheat those who have the least amount of power,” said McCormick, who appears undaunted. “The fight for fair and equitable elections in New Jersey may continue, but the missed opportunity for the Supreme Court to address this issue is a significant setback for those seeking to reform the state’s electoral process.”