New Jersey’s Liberal Interpretation of Election Laws Has Benefited Both Parties

Today is Election Day. In many jurisdictions, litigation efforts to restrict voting or voter choice are already underway and more litigation is being threatened. New Jersey’s Supreme Court, however, has repeatedly and correctly held that election laws are to be liberally construed. Here are three of those decisions, though others could be discussed as well:

Catania v. Haberle, 123 N.J. 428 (1990). Here is how Chief Justice Wilentz’s opinion, for a unanimous Court, began:

“The Passaic County Republican Committee and the Bergen County Republican Committee selected plaintiff Frank Catania as their party’s candidate to run in a special election for the New Jersey Assembly. As explained below, the primary that preceded the special election failed to produce a Republican candidate. The Republican County Committees took the position that such failure resulted in a vacancy that they were empowered to fill. Therefore, after the primary they filled the vacancy by selecting plaintiff Catania as the Republican candidate for the Assembly in that special election.

“The Secretary of State concluded that either a vacancy had not been created or, if one had been, it had not been filled in accordance with relevant statutes. If her position had been upheld, the special election for Assembly for that district would have presented the voters with no choice: the Democratic candidate’s name would have been the only name on the ballot. We conclude that because providing the public with a choice between candidates is one of the most important objectives of our election laws, the Legislature could not have intended such a result.”

The Chief Justice went on to state that “this Court has traditionally given a liberal interpretation to [election] law, ‘liberal’ in the sense of construing it to allow the greatest scope for public participation in the electoral process, to allow candidates to get on the ballot, to allow parties to put their candidates on the ballot, and most importantly to allow the voters a choice on Election Day…. This Court has never announced that time limitations in election statutes should be construed to bar candidates from the ballot when that makes no sense and when it is obviously not the Legislature’s intent. There are states that have such rules, but New Jersey is not one of them.” This decision benefited Republicans.

In re Gray-Sadler, 164 N.J. 468 (2000). Chief Justice Poritz wrote this opinion for a unanimous Court. The case involved claims that the some write-in votes for the Chesilhurst, Camden County, Mayor and Council were not counted because those write-in votes were placed on the wrong lines, due to no fault of the voters. “All three petitioners claim[ed] that write-in votes placed on the wrong line due to insufficient and unintelligible instructions were ignored or counted as votes for offices that the candidates were not seeking. They also claim that the inadequate instructions prevented other voters from casting any write-in votes at all. The gravamen of those claims is that legal votes cast for the petitioners were ‘rejected.’ See N.J.S.A. 19:29-1(e).”

Defending the vote totals as they came out, Camden County officials conceded that many write-in votes were ignored because they were placed on the wrong line. But they contended that officials were required to reject those votes by N.J.S.A. 19:49-5, which states that a write-in vote or “irregular ballot” is not “in its appropriate place on the [voting] machine, … it shall be void and not be counted.” The Court held that, despite that language, the Legislature did not intend that the statute was “to be applied in a manner that would frustrate the free expression of the voters’ will when the incorrect placement of the write-in vote is the result of mistakes or problems beyond the voters’ control.” There were enough votes in question that a new election was required. It is not clear from the opinion which, if either, of the major parties benefited from this decision. But voters at large did.

N.J. Democratic Party, Inc. v. Samson, 175 N.J. 178 (2002). This unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Poritz benefited Democrats. After incumbent Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli withdrew on September 30, 2002 from a race for re-election, the Democratic Party sought to remove his name from ballots and replace them with a new candidate. Citing Catania and other cases, the Court held in favor of the right to replace Senator Torricelli. “When this Court has before it a case concerning the New Jersey election laws, we are directed by principle and precedent to construe those laws so as to preserve the paramount right of the voters to exercise the franchise. We have understood our Legislature, in establishing the mechanisms by which elections are conducted in this State, to intend that the law will be interpreted to allow the greatest scope for public participation in the electoral process, to allow candidates to get on the ballot, to allow parties to put their candidates on the ballot, and most importantly to allow the voters a choice on Election Day.”

N.J.S.A. 19:13-20 established a window within which a party could replace a candidate on the ballot. But Senator Torricelli withdrew after that window had closed, and the statute was silent about what was to happen in a case that arose after the statutory window. The question was whether Senator Torricelli could still be replaced on the ballot. The Court held that that could occur. “We do not believe that our Legislature intended to limit voters’ choice in a case where there is sufficient time to place a new candidate on the ballot and conduct the election in an orderly manner.” That was so, the Court found, in that case. That result was preferable to leaving voters a choice “between other candidates and a Democratic Party candidate whose name must remain on the ballot even though he has withdrawn, and even though our statute does not specifically require that his name not be removed.”

We are fortunate in New Jersey that, regardless of which (if either) party benefits, our bipartisan Supreme Court has long applied election law liberally to enhance voter choice, party selections, and related values. Each of these opinions is well worth reading, to remind us all of the importance of the voting process. As a result of rulings like these, New Jersey should be spared the sort of litigation seeking to bar candidates from the ballots or voters from their voting rights that some other states have already seen and may continue to see.

And if you have not already voted today, vote!