Andy Kim is happy to be the reformer of New Jersey's primary system

Andy Kim had a really big smile on his face after his lawsuit to end New Jersey’s controversial “county line” primary ballot was granted a preliminary injunction Friday.

It was a monumental decision in New Jersey politics and has the potential to alter the state’s county boss system that’s concentrated power with a small group of individuals, especially in primary elections.

“We’re starting right now with this injunction, but I’m really hopeful that this is going to create the kind of permanent change that we need in New Jersey, ” he told reporters after the decision by U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi.

In his primary race against first lady Tammy Murphy — who dropped out of the race Sunday — Kim has taken on the unexpected role as a reformer of New Jersey politics, especially in his advocacy against the county line.

“I’m very happy to play this role that I’ve been playing over the last six months,” he said, “trying to not just give the people in New Jersey a choice for the U.S. Senate position, but to try to try to fix this broken politics that we have in the state.”

That can be traced back to the line, he and its critics argue. Instead of an office block ballot design that lists candidates by the office they are seeking, New Jersey groups candidates who are backed by county parties in a column or row. This gives those candidates an advantage over those who are not endorsed and shunted to other areas of the ballot, making them appear less legitimate to voters. Quraishi ordered counties to use office block designs in the June primary — in all races, not just for the Senate.

Murphy came into the Senate primary with huge amounts of institutional support as both sought to unseat indicted Sen. Bob Menendez. Although Kim won the line in some counties where low-level party officials voted in secret ballots, Murphy had the lines in vote-rich Democratic counties and was widely viewed as the front-runner for the nomination.

“I had people telling me in November when the first lady jumped in that I should drop out in the race, go back to running for reelection in the House,” Kim said in an interview with POLITICO prior to the decision.

In that same interview, he seemed optimistic that his and others’ efforts to end the line system would have an impact.

“I believe New Jersey politics has already changed. I think that that change was already set into motion by Menendez’s indictment. But certainly the Senate primary and how it shaped up have really sustained that and is pushing that forward,” Kim said.

“But it’s not the only element that we should be looking at,” he added. “How do we try to work to make our democracy here in New Jersey more inclusive, more participatory and certainly more fair?”

Even before the judge’s ruling, state leaders said that given the intense criticism of the line they would hold hearings on how to change ballot designs. They reaffirmed that commitment Friday and suggested long-lasting changes should come from the Statehouse, not the courthouse.

“Nothing in the decision — or any subsequent legal decision — will change the commitment we have made to a transparent process that will include a review of ballots in other states and input from the public. We remain convinced that if there are Constitutional problems with our balloting process, the Legislature is the appropriate body to remedy those issues,” said a joint statement from Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Senate President Nick Scutari and the two Republican leaders, Assemblymember John DiMaio and Sen. Anthony Bucco.

An appeal to Quraishi’s ruling is all but guaranteed, and a further ruling could reinstate the line in elections after the June 4 primary. Kim plans to continue the fight. “I’m going to see this through,” he said. “Again, this wasn’t just about my race.”

County clerks seeking to maintain the county line argued that the decision came too late to make changes to ballots. Quraishi did not accept that argument, writing that it “would not require the drawn-out process” they said would happen.

“There’s a lot of interest in trying to push forward on an appeals process by some of the clerks, and they’ve continued to spend a lot of taxpayer dollars to try to stop this and slow this down,” Kim said.

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