Gary Stein, an independent candidate for General Assembly, has sued Atlantic County Clerk Edward McGettigan over the design of New Jersey's election ballot, which Stein said he considered "grossly unfair."

In the suit filed July 15, Stein wrote that the current ballot structure puts candidates at a disadvantage and disenfranchises voters because it groups together disparate candidates linked by the same major party.

Instead, Stein's suit asked the court to require that candidates be grouped for office in a box, with the order randomly determined by lottery.

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Stein, who is representing himself, also criticized ballot slogans as a "distraction" that should be eliminated.

"It is only by implementation of these reforms that we, the affected candidates, as well as the voters of the State of New Jersey, can be assured of a reasonable opportunity to participate in an election process free from the influence of the powerful and connected," Stein wrote.

McGettigan declined comment Thursday after he said neither he nor the county counsel office had seen the suit.

Stein, 57, of Mullica Township, operates an office-cleaning business. He is well-versed in the intricacies of the state's ballot: Since 2008, he has mounted repeated bids for governor, the U.S. House of Representatives and the state General Assembly.

New Jersey's ballots have for years listed offices by horizontal columns, using vertical columns to group candidates by party or affiliation.

Stein argued that access to the vertical column, or "the line," helps political party leaders maintain their power because it subtly steers voters toward favored candidates in the primary election and candidates of the same party in the general election.

Then these candidates, once elected, perpetuate the existing system, stymieing change.

Political scientists have argued over the actual value of "the line," but it is generally considered favorable to have it.

In his suit, Stein said no other American state or territory uses a similarly constructed ballot. As to its effect, he pointed to the 2012 Democratic Primary to determine who would challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo in the 2nd Congressional District. Stein ran and lost in that election.

The district stretches across eight counties. Candidate Cassandra Shober had the line on seven ballots. She won all seven and picked up the nomination while running beneath President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.

Viola Hughes, the former mayor of Fairfield Township, got the line in Cumberland County. There, she took 90 percent of the vote, while Shober garnered 4 percent, slightly less than Stein.

A similar situation happened on the other side of the aisle this spring, when two-time incumbent Atlantic County Freeholder Joseph McDevitt, a Republican, lost the endorsement to first-time candidate Will Pauls. In the subsequent primary, McDevitt got less than a third of the votes cast.

"Thus, the importance of placement in a column cannot be denied," Stein wrote.

Contact Derek Harper:

609-272-7046

@dnharper on Twitter

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