Election Laws Have Flexibility

Regalado v. Curling, 430 N.J. Super. 342 (App. Div. 2013).  The lesson of this short opinion by Judge Sapp-Peterson, issued the day after this appeal was orally argued due to the need for speed, is that “[e]lection laws are to be liberally construed” and may be “relaxed where enforcement of the right of choice in the election process is unreasonably thwarted.”  Plaintiff had sought to compel defendant, the municipal clerk of the City of Passaic, from printing ballots that listed plaintiff as a candidate for mayor of Passaic.  On the day that there was to be a drawing for positions on the ballot, plaintiff sought to withdraw his nominating petition, doing so both orally and in writing.  Defendant ruled that it was too late for plaintiff to withdraw his name.  Plaintiff filed a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief that would have gotten his name off the ballot.  The Law Division dismissed the case, finding that plaintiff’s complaint came too late under N.J.S.A. 19:13-16.  Plaintiff appealed and sought emergent relief.  The Appellate Division reversed the decision below and ruled that plaintiff could withdraw.

Judge Sapp-Peterson observed that “[g]enerally, decisions relating to injunctive relief are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard.”  But here, where the disputed issue was a question of law (the effect of N.J.S.A. 19:13-16), de novo review applied.

N.J.S.A. 19:13-16 provides that when a nominee for public office in a general election “shall, at least 60 days before the day of the general election, in a writing signed by him and duly acknowledged, notify the officer with whom the original petition or certificate of nomination was filed that he declines the nomination, the nomination shall be void.”  Though plaintiff had not sought to withdraw within the required statutory period, Judge Sapp-Peterson held that the Law Division had erred in applying the statute to bar withdrawal.  “The ballots have not yet been printed.  At the time plaintiff presented his written withdrawal, the positions on the ballot had not yet been drawn.  We reject the City’s contention that printing ballots without plaintiff’s name will cause confusion to the voting public.  Rather, we conclude the greater harm results from plaintiff’s name remaining on the ballot, potentially resulting in a voter casting a vote for a candidate who is no longer pursuing the office, thereby depriving that voter of the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote for another viable candidate.”  This was “inimical to the public interest,” and called for reversal.

The principle that election laws are to be liberally construed so as not to deprive voters of their franchise goes back at least 60 years, according to the cases cited by Judge Sapp-Peterson.  Given that settled policy, and especially since ballot positions had not yet been assigned and ballots had not yet been printed, there was no reason to deny plaintiff the ability to withdraw from the ballot despite the timeliness issue under the statute as literally applied.