NEWARK, NJ - A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court's refusal to issue a preliminary injunction against continued enforcement of New Jersey's April deadline for submitting nominating petitions submitted by alternative political party candidates for state office.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey had challenged the petition deadline on behalf of a broad coalition of voters, candidates, and alternative political parties, representing widely divergent viewpoints that span the political spectrum. The ACLU-NJ argued that the early deadline unconstitutionally restricted access to the November ballot.
Unlike Democratic and Republican candidates, who appear on the ballot by winning a primary election, New Jersey law allows independent and alternative political party candidates to appear on the general election ballot only by submitting petitions containing the signatures of the required number of registered voters.
These petitions must be submitted 54 days prior to the primary election. This year the deadline fell on April 10. State law prohibits any party that did not receive 10 percent of the vote in the last General Assembly election from conducting a primary election to nominate candidates.
The ACLU argued that the early deadline for filing ballot petitions prevents alternative political parties from responding to political developments that arise during the primary campaign, or to voter dissatisfaction with the major party candidates. The ACLU also argued that the early deadline restricts the number of candidates that alternative political parties may field, because signatures must be gathered during the coldest days of the year, when potential voters are least likely to be outside, least likely to be willing to stop to sign a petition, and when volunteer petition gatherers are least likely to be able or willing to stay outside for long periods of time.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that state laws that unjustifiably restrict access to the ballot violate the Constitution, because they deprive citizens of an opportunity to vote for a candidate who will represent their political views," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Lenora M. Lapidus, who argued the case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District.
"New Jersey's early filing deadline is unconstitutional because there is no reason for it," Lapidus said. "Apart from challenges to signatures, which are resolved in a matter of days, no action is taken on the petitions until August, when the Secretary of State notifies the county clerks who will appear on the ballot."
Although U.S. District Judge Mary Little Parell found that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their constitutional claims, and would suffer irreparable harm if the injunction were not issued, she denied the requested preliminary relief on the basis that an injunction would disrupt the 1997 elections.
The ACLU appealed the Judge's order, arguing that since New Jersey allows independent candidates for President and Vice-President to file their petitions until 99 days prior to the general election, applying the same deadline for candidates for state or federal office would not pose an administrative burden.
The Third Circuit's order requires the Secretary of State to accept petitions submitted by any of the named plaintiff candidates for state office, or candidates for state office from any of the named plaintiff political parties on or before July 28, 1997. Further proceedings in the district court have not yet been scheduled.
In addition to numerous voters and candidates who seek to vote for or run as alternative political party candidates, the plaintiffs include the Green Party of New Jersey, the Natural Law Party, the New Jersey Conservative Party, the New Jersey Libertarian Party, and the U.S. Taxpayers Party of New Jersey. The plaintiffs are represented by Lenora M. Lapidus and David R. Rocah of the ACLU-NJ.