Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (TFC) – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit will hear oral arguments Tuesday morning in the appeal of the District Court decision in the case of Balsam v Guadagno concerning voter eligibility in the New Jersey primary elections. US District Court Judge Stanley Chesler had granted a Summary Dismissal with Prejudice at the request of the State of New Jersey this past August.
In March of 2014 the Independent Voter Project along with Mr. Balsam, six other individuals, and a coalitions of non-profit organizations joined together and filed a Complaint in the U.S. District Court under the Civil Rights’ Statute 42 U.S.C. 1983. In the Complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that their protected rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments were violated by the State of New Jersey’s requirement that voters must be registered as either a Democrat or Republican in order to participate in the Election Primary process for either Party. The paintiffs’ foundation for the Complaint was based in part that fewer than 8% of all registered voters participated in New Jersey’s last primary election at a cost of $12 million to the taxpayers. This amounted to more than $92 per vote cast. Furthermore, 2.6 million New Jersey voters were not allowed to vote in the primary election unless they joined either the Republican or Democratic Party.
Plaintiffs alleged that, due to the fact that since taxpayer money funded the primaries for two “Private Parties,” participation from any voter cannot be barred. Plaintiffs also argued that both the U.S. and the State of New Jersey Constitutions protected voters from being required to join a political party in order to vote in the primary of either party. Further, the Plaintiff stated in Paragraph 4 of the Complaint,
“A primary election is often the most important part of the electoral process … By denying over 2.6 million New Jersey voters the right to cast a vote in the primary election, the State has disenfranchised nearly half of its electorate, and thereby, given private political parties and partisan voters a greater and unequal access to the voting franchise. As a result, New Jersey’s elections are not free, not equal, and not constitutional for the reasons demonstrated herein.”
The State of New Jersey filed a Motion to Dismiss, and Judge Chesler agreed with the State, issuing an unpublished opinion in August. Summary Dismissal of a case is a drastic ruling, as it is usually issued when the Court determines that there is not an issue of fact or subject matter jurisdiction in a case. Judge Chesler based his dismissal on two premises. First, he stated,
Any attempt to use the Constitution to pry open a state-sanctioned closed primary system is precluded by current Supreme Court doctrine, and Plaintiffs’ federal claims must therefore be dismissed. Specifically, “[t]he Supreme Court has emphasized – with increasing firmness – that the First Amendment Guarantees a political party great leeway in governing its own affairs.
Further, Chesler said, “Defendants are correct that the Eleventh Amendment operates to bar Plaintiffs’ state law official capacity claims against Defendant. The Court is therefore without subject matter jurisdiction to hear those claims.”
Judge Chesler never addressed the merits of the taxpayer funding issue and the Plaintiffs appealed the decision. In their appeal the Plaintiffs ask the following questions:
- Are the State of New Jersey’s non-presidential primary elections an integral stage of the election process in New Jersey?
- Does every voter have a fundamental right to vote in all integral stages of an election?
- Do appellants state a claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when the state creates two classes of voters: (i) registered voters who ‘qualify’ to vote in primary elections by virtue of joining the Democratic or Republican political parties; and, (ii) registered voters who are not ‘qualified’ to vote in primary elections because they have not joined the Republican or Democratic parties?
- Do appellants state a claim under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when the state requires voters to join the Republican or Democratic parties as a condition to gaining access to an integral stage of the state’s election process?
- Did the lower court err by relying on precedent related to a political party’s right to control their candidate nomination proceedings, rather than precedent related to rights of individual voters to participate in the election process?
This case has far-reaching implications in New Jersey and nationally as we cycle through to the next election process. Clearly, if all New Jersey voters must join a party to participate in the Primary Elections, continued voter apathy and low turnouts should be expected as voters continue to feel disenfranchised.
This is a developing story.