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Lesniak v. Budzash

Decided: May 3, 1993.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 265 N.J. Super. 165 (1993) (Lesniak v. Budzash).

For Modification and affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, Ohern, Garibaldi and Stein. Concurring in part; Dissenting in part -- Justices Clifford and Pollock. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J. Clifford, J., Dissenting in part and Concurring in part. Justice Pollock joins in this opinion.


N.J.S.A. 19:23-7 requires that the signers of primary nomination petitions be "qualified voters of the State" and, among other things, that they be members of the political party of the candidate nominated by the petition. This appeal presents two questions: first, whether unregistered voters are "qualified voters" under N.J.S.A. 19:23-7; and second, whether unaffiliated voters are, for purposes of N.J.S.A. 19:23-7, members of the candidate's political party.


Two separate primary-election matters are addressed in this opinion. The facts of each are as follows:

A. Lesniak v. Budzash

On April 15, 1992, John L. Budzash filed with the Secretary of State (Secretary) nomination petitions endorsing him as a candidate in the 1993 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Raymond Lesniak, Chairman of the Democratic Party, challenged the legal sufficiency of those petitions, asserting that they fell short of the 1,000 valid signatures required by N.J.S.A. 19:23-8 to place a gubernatorial candidate's name on the official primary ballot of the Democratic party.

The Secretary referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) for Disposition as a contested case. The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Budzash's petition failed to meet the statutorily-prescribed minimum of 1,000 valid signatures. See N.J.S.A. 19:23-8. The ALJ recommended that the Secretary invalidate Budzash's nomination petitions. The Secretary adopted

the ALJ's decision, and the Appellate Division affirmed, 265 N.J. Super. 165, 625 A.2d 1139 (1993).

In a supplemental opinion dated April 29, 1993, the Appellate Division amended its decision to note that Budzash's petitions contained at most 1,099 signatures. Of the signatories, twenty-six were registered Republicans, ninety-one were not registered to vote, eleven were ineligible and 115 were unaffiliated voters. The court affirmed the Secretary's invalidation of the signatories who were registered Republicans and unregistered voters, thus causing Budzash's petition to fall short of the necessary 1000 valid signatures. The court stated, however, that in accordance with its opinion in Mayer v. Addison, 265 N.J. Super. 171, 625 A.2d 1143 (1993), the Secretary should not have invalidated the signatures of the unaffiliated voters.

Budzash filed a petition for certification, and Lesniak filed a cross-petition. On preliminary review, the Court remanded the matter to a Special Master for clarification and completion of the record notwithstanding any prior determinations of the Secretary. The Court also ordered supplemental briefing on the question of whether unaffiliated voters are eligible to sign primary petitions.

The Special Master, the Honorable Eugene D. Serpentelli, A.J.S.C., found that the number of signatures on the nominating petitions submitted by Budzash totalled at most 1140. He further found that at the time of signing the petition, 279 of these signatories were not registered voters, that 108 of the signatories were registered Republicans, and that 409 of the signatories were unaffiliated voters.

In view of the then-impending primary election, we reviewed the Special Master's findings and announced our decision shortly after oral argument. We concluded that the signatures of unregistered voters may not be counted and that unaffiliated voters may validly sign nominating petitions. Our opinion today explains that decision. In accordance with our decision, Budzash's name did not appear on the ballot as Democratic candidate for governor.

B. Kamin v. Daggett

In the companion election matter, Richard Kamin challenged the nomination petition of George Daggett, a Republican candidate for the New Jersey Senate in the 24th legislative district. The main thrust of Kamin's objection was that the signatures of unaffiliated voters on Daggett's petition were invalid. The matter was referred to the OAL, and an ALJ held a hearing on the 48th day preceding the primary election. At the hearing Daggett amended his petition by filing Republican party affiliation cards for some of the undeclared voters. The ALJ concluded that although unaffiliated voters could not sign a primary-nomination petition, Daggett had timely cured his petition's defect by filing Republican party affiliation cards. See N.J.S.A. 19:13-13. Accordingly, he deemed Daggett's petition to be valid.

The Secretary of State affirmed the ALJ's decision that unaffiliated voters' signatures were invalid. He disagreed, however, with the ALJ's ruling that the petition had been cured. The Secretary claimed that under N.J.S.A. 19:23-45 the party-affiliation cards had to be submitted before the 50th day, not the 48th day preceding the primary election. The Secretary concluded that Daggett's nomination petition was invalid.

The Appellate Division reversed the Secretary's ruling substantially for the reasons set forth in the ALJ's decision. Both parties filed petitions for certification. We denied Kamin's petition, which presented the sole question of whether N.J.S.A. 19:13-13 allows the filing of party affiliation cards after the 50th day preceding a primary election. 133 N.J. 427, 627 A.2d 1134 (1993). We granted Daggett's cross-petition for certification, however, on the issue of whether unaffiliated voters for the purposes of N.J.S.A. 19:23-7 are members of that candidate's political party. 133 N.J. 442, 627 A.2d 1147 (1993). Shortly after oral argument we announced our decision that unaffiliated voters were qualified to sign Daggett's nomination petition. In accordance with that decision, Daggett's name did appear on the primary ballot.



We have "traditionally given a liberal interpretation to the election law." Catania v. Haberle, 123 N.J. 438, 448, 588 A.2d 374 (1991); see Wene v. Meyner, 13 N.J. 185, 197, 98 A.2d 573 (1953); Kilmurray v. Gilfert, 10 N.J. 435, 440-41, 91 A.2d 865 (1952). "Election laws are to be liberally construed so as to effectuate their purpose. They should not be construed so as to deprive voters of their franchise or so as to render an election void for technical reasons." Kilmurray, supra, 10 N.J. at 440, 91 A.2d 865 (citations omitted).

Although we have liberally construed the election laws, we have recognized that voting must remain subject to certain conditions. See, e.g., Stevenson v. Gilfert, 13 N.J. 496, 100 A.2d 490 (1953); Wene, supra, 13 N.J. at 192-93, 98 A.2d 573. States may "impose such other conditions as may be reasonably necessary to prevent election fraud and to facilitate administration of the electoral process." Note, Primary Elections: The Real Party in Interest, 27 Rutgers L.Rev. 298, 301 (1974).

Like general elections,

primary elections are of public concern. They afford the means by which political parties choose their candidates for public office; and, since the purpose to be served is public in its nature, the proceedings attending the selection of candidates are subject to regulation in the exercise of the police power.

[ Wene, supra, 13 N.J. at 192, 98 A.2d 573.]

N.J.S.A. 19:23-7 sets forth the required contents of a party-nomination petition. That statute provides, in pertinent part:

Each such petition [of nomination] shall set forth that the signers thereof are qualified voters of the State, congressional district, county, or county election district, municipality, ward or election district, as the case may be, in which they reside and for which they desire to nominate candidates; that they are members of a political party (naming the same), * * * and that they intend to affiliate with that political party at the ensuing election; that they indorse the person or persons named in their petition as candidate or candidates for nomination for the office or offices therein named, and that they request that the name of the person or persons therein mentioned be printed upon the official primary ballots of their

political party as the candidate or candidates for such nomination. The petition shall further * * * certify that the person or persons so indorsed is or are * * * a member or members of the political party named in the petition.

In construing a statute, our fundamental duty is to effectuate the intent of the Legislature. Merin v. Maglaki, 126 N.J. 430, 435, 599 A.2d 1256 (1992). We must consider the legislative policy underlying the statute and "any history which may be of aid." State v. Madden, 61 N.J. 377, 389, 294 A.2d 609 (1972). Although now regarded as a necessary adjunct to representative government, political parties were not born with the Republic but were created by necessity to coordinate efforts to secure needed legislation. Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214, 221, 72 S. Ct. 654, 657, 96 L. Ed. 894, 899 (1952).

In Stevenson, supra, 13 N.J. 496, 100 A.2d 490, Justice Jacobs traced the development of political parties in New Jersey.

Prior to 1789 [New Jersey] had no statewide parties although there were county and sectional alignments. Nominations for office could readily be made by individuals and groups of individuals. However, following the first Congressional elections statewide political parties came into full being, conventions were held for the selection of party candidates, and party slates began to appear. Throughout most of the 19th Century party candidates were selected at conventions which were conducted without any state regulation whatever. In 1878 our Legislature passed its first enactments which related to party primaries and conventions. L. 1878, cc. 113, 204; Boots, The Direct Primary in New Jersey (1917), 15. There were later enactments and in 1898 a comprehensive revision of the election laws was adopted; they embodied only relatively minor provisions bearing upon primaries and conventions. However, in 1903 the Legislature adopted a supplement (L. 1903, c. 248) which dealt extensively with the subject and launched our now long-standing state policy of having fully regulated closed primaries.

[ Id. at 499, 100 A.2d 490.]

Our election laws today embrace the accepted traditions of the party convention tempered by the recognition that a party's candidate-selection process is of public concern. "The selection of nominees by political parties plays a crucial role in the electoral system. Indeed, the nomination of candidates by the major parties has been called the 'most critical stage' of the electoral process." Note, Developments -- Election Law, 88 Harv.L.Rev. 1111, 1151 (1975) (hereinafter Developments). As such, we have

long recognized that the "Legislature may invoke measures reasonably appropriate to secure the integrity of the nominating process in the service of the community ...

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