‘One person, one vote’ : Lawyers for Morristown councilwoman argue for overhaul of NJ primary system in appellate court

INDIE CRUSADERS: From left: Plaintiff Rebecca Feldman; attorneys Samuel Gregory, Harry Kresky and Chad Peace; and plaintiff Mark Balsam; at U.S. Third Circuit Appellate Court. Photo courtesy of Independent Voter Project
INDIE CRUSADERS: From left: Plaintiff Rebecca Feldman; attorneys Samuel Gregory, Harry Kresky and Chad Peace; and plaintiff Mark Balsam; at U.S. Third Circuit Appellate Court. Photo courtesy of Independent Voter Project
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INDIE CRUSADERS: From left: Plaintiff Rebecca Feldman; attorneys Samuel Gregory, Harry Kresky and Chad Peace; and plaintiff Mark Balsam; at U.S. Third Circuit Appellate Court. Photo courtesy of Independent Voter Project
INDIE CRUSADERS: From left: Plaintiff Rebecca Feldman; attorneys Samuel Gregory, Harry Kresky and Chad Peace; and plaintiff Mark Balsam; at U.S. Third Circuit Appellate Court. Photo courtesy of Independent Voter Project

 

Lawyers seeking election reforms told an appellate panel on Tuesday that New Jersey’s primary system is akin to the state forcing citizens to choose between two churches to practice religion.

An absurd notion, attorney Chad Peace acknowledged in a Philadelphia courtroom.

“Yet, the state in this case has sanctioned, administered, and funded an election system that forces individual voters to belong to one of two private political parties to exercise full benefit of their right to vote – whether they want to join a party or not,” argued Peace, representing Morristown Council President Rebecca Feldman and eight other plaintiffs who contend that New Jersey’s primary system is unconstitutional.

They made their case before a three-judge appellate panel. The judges have not yet issued a ruling.  A federal judge in Newark dismissed the case last summer and Feldman’s group appealed.

Feldman referred questions  said “it was apparent from the argument that we made a strong case.  Now, the question for the Court is whether the rights of voters will receive the same attention and support from the Federal courts as have the rights of the parties.  In a democracy one would think that they should.”

The Independent Voter Project gave this recap of Tuesday’s hearing:

FROM THE INDEPENDENT VOTER PROJECT

        March 17, 2015

Oral arguments heard in Third District Court of Appeals: “Should voters be forced to join a political party to have an equal and meaningful vote at every integral stage of the election process?”

(PHILADELPHIA, PA) – Oral arguments in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals were heard this morning in Balsam, et al v Kim Guadagno (New Jersey Secretary of State). The Independent Voter Project represented the plaintiffs in the suit that was originally filed in Newark New Jersey Federal Court, March 5, 2014.

The suit challenges the constitutionality of the state of New Jersey’s election system that gives political parties and their members exclusive access to an integral stage of the election: The closed primary.

Following oral arguments, Chad Peace, representing plaintiffs and the Independent Voter Project said, “Regardless of the outcome, we are very pleased that the appeals court is considering this case with the thoughtful seriousness and genuine interest that it deserves.”

Opening for the plaintiffs, attorney Sam Gregory, citing California Democratic party v. Jones, for the assertion that courts have repeatedly upheld that states cannot force either parties or nonmember voters to affiliate with each other. Citing Gray v Sanders, Gregory further argued that the Supreme Court had made clear that the fundamental concept of equal representation and “one person, one vote” applied to all elections – including primary elections.

Councilwoman Rebecca Feldman, moments after being named council president for the second straight year, at 2015 Morristown council reorganization. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Council President Rebecca Feldman, an Independent, is part of a lawsuit challenging New Jersey’s primary system. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

In closing rebuttal arguments, Peace asked the appeals panel to imagine substituting religious faiths for political parties in similar circumstance.

“If the state were to suggest that in order to practice religion a person has to join one of two churches, we would find this proposition absurd.

“Yet, the state in this case has sanctioned, administered, and funded an election system that forces individual voters to belong to one of two private political parties to exercise full benefit of their right to vote – whether they want to join a party or not. “

Spokesman for the Independent Voter Project, Jim Jonas said: “At its core, this suit is about constitutional rights, not political remedies. We’re asking the court the simple question: for whose benefit are elections held? Should elections be paid for, administered and conducted by the state for the benefit of private political parties? Or should elections be about protecting and defending the rights of each individual voter – regardless of their affiliation or non affiliation – to have an equal and meaningful vote in the political process?”

The three-judge appeals panel was led by Senior Judge Franklin Stuart Van Antwerpen. Donna Kelly represented the state of New Jersey. Oral arguments were scheduled for 15 minutes for both plaintiff and defendant.

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENTS: EndPartisanship.org aims to scrap New Jersey's primary system. From left: Jeff Martson, co-founder of the Independent Voter Project; Harry Kresky, legal advisor; Jackie Salit, president, IndependentVoting.org; Sam Gregory, lead counsel; Chad Peace, legal strategist. Photo courtesy of EndPartisanship.org
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENTS: EndPartisanship.org aims to scrap New Jersey’s primary system. From left:  Jeff Martson, co-founder of the Independent Voter Project; Harry Kresky, legal advisor; Jackie Salit, president, IndependentVoting.org; Sam Gregory, lead counsel; Chad Peace, legal strategist. Photo from 2014, courtesy of EndPartisanship.org

(The original complaint, amicus briefs and more information about the suit may be found online here: http://www.independentvoterproject.org/newjersey . A transcript of the oral arguments will be posted as soon as possible.)

The suit argues that New Jersey’s publicly-funded system is conducted for the private benefit of the Republican and Democratic parties to the exclusion of the 47 percent of New Jersey voters who have chosen not to join a party. Specifically, the Independent Voter Project asserts two main grievances under federal law:

(1) New Jersey’s closed primary system violates a voter’s First Amendment right of non-association as voters are required to join a political party to participate in the taxpayer-funded primary process, and

(2)New Jersey’s closed primary system violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s
Equal Protection Clause as the primary system gives political parties and their members superior access to the election franchise, which has the effect of diluting the influence of voters who choose not to join the Republican or Democratic parties.

MORE ABOUT THE INDEPENDENT VOTER PROJECT CASE

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