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Media Advisory / Lawsuit Seeks to Open Connecticut’s Primaries to More Candidates

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law filed suit today in U.S. District Court to bring an end to Connecticut’s system for determining whether candidates are listed on primary ballots.

March 21, 2002

For Immediate Release
March 21, 2002

Contact Information:
Amanda Cooper, 212 998–6736

Media Advisory: Lwasuit Seeks to Open Connecticut’s Primaries to More Candidates
Rules Favoring Incumbents and Party-Backed Candidates Attacked as Unconstitutional

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law filed suit today in U.S. District Court to bring an end to Connecticut’s system for determining whether candidates are listed on primary ballots. The lawsuit charges that the Connecticut ballot access rules favor incumbents and the handpicked candidates of the major political parties, thereby violating the First Amendment rights of insurgent candidates. The Brennan Center brings this suit on behalf of aspiring candidates Jim Campbell and Pamela Byrnes, citizens groups Common Cause of Connecticut and Connecticut Citizen Action Group, and individual voters.

For 47 years, Connecticut’s primary system has created a double standard a more lenient set of ballot access rules for electoral districts comprised of a single town, and an extremely burdensome standard for electoral districts comprised of more than one town. The result is that in all races for federal office (U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives), all statewide offices (Governor, Secretary of the State, etc.), and most state legislative seats, insurgent candidates find it virtually impossible to challenge an incumbent. It is a system that takes choice away from the rank and file party members and keeps it in the hands of party leaders. Connecticut is the only state with such a system for its primaries.

“This lawsuit seeks to bring real representative democracy to the state of Connecticut. As the law stands now, most voters have no real opportunity to vote for candidates who aren’t anointed by the parties,” says Brennan Center Associate Counsel and lead attorney Elizabeth Daniel. “When the court strikes this law, these voters will have real options in primary races for the first time in almost 50 years.”

Attempts to change the system through legislation have routinely failed in the state legislature. “Given that these rules serve as an incumbent protection program,” explains Ms. Daniel of the Brennan Center, “it is no surprise that the courts will need to force the change to more democratic and open primaries in Connecticut.”

Fifty years of Connecticut electoral history confirms the anti-democratic effect of the ballot access rules. Since the dual system was enacted, no incumbent candidate for U.S. Congress, U.S. Senate, or Secretary of the State, and only one gubernatorial candidate, has faced a primary challenge. By way of comparison, in 2000 alone, 17% of the U.S. representatives running for re-election across the nation faced a primary challenge and 34% of the U.S. Senators seeking re-election faced a primary challenge.

In several cases, strong challengers who have held other elective office have been unable to gain a place on the primary ballot. In 1986, popular 4-term U.S. Representative Toby Moffett spent $900,000 in his unsuccessful attempt to get on the primary ballot to challenge incumbent Governor William O’Neill. Furthermore, the differences in the number of primaries held in single versus multi-town districts is stark: when an incumbent is running for the state House of Representatives, a contested primary is nine times more likely in single town districts than in multi-town districts.

Plaintiff Jim Campbell ran delegate primaries in 3 of the 4th Congressional District’s 10 towns in his unsuccessful effort to force a Republican primary in 2000 against incumbent Rep. Chris Shays. That campaign convinced him that it is all but impossible to successfully force a primary against an incumbent multi-town officeholder under Connecticut’s current system.

“I challenged the pro-incumbent delegate slates in three towns during my 2000 campaign, including Darien—where over 40% of the voters supported my challenge slate—but I still couldn’t gain access to a primary ballot,” said Campbell, who added that “even if you have significant support amongst the voters, you can’t run an effective campaign and you certainly can’t raise serious money when the system keeps your name off the ballot.”

“It makes no sense that I have to campaign in a delegate primary to get on the ballot for my district, where my neighbor in Groton can just gather petitions,” says plaintiff Pamela Byrnes. Ms. Byrnes is a politically active resident of the 37th District who would like to challenge the incumbent Democratic member of the Connecticut House. “I am being kept out of politics by simple luck of the draw. Because I happen to live in a multi-town district, the opportunity to be a candidate is out of my reach until the incumbent steps down.”

Other plaintiffs in the suit include voters who support these candidates and citizen groups Common Cause of Connecticut and Connecticut Citizen Action Group. The good government groups join on behalf of their members. “Our members believe that true democracy requires real choice at the voting booth,” says Rebekah Harriman, Executive Director of Common Cause of Connecticut. “For years, we have fought to open up our primary system, but we have been thwarted by incumbent Members of the General Assembly. We are hopeful that the Court will finally end this restrictive and undemocratic system.”

Throughout the state, voting districts are comprised either of one town, or of parts or entireties of more than one town. In single town districts, candidates gain access to the primary ballot by winning the endorsement of the party town committee or by filing petitions.

In districts that contain more than one town, which includes any statewide race and all federal races, candidates gain access to the primary ballot by convention vote. A candidate must win at least 15% of the delegate vote to gain a slot on the ballot. In most towns, delegates for these conventions are chosen by the party town committees, which have a long history of favoring incumbents and other party insiders. A candidate can challenge the endorsed delegate slate from any particular town within the district, but must petition to do so. If he or she is able to gather enough signatures for a challenge, then the town must hold what is called a “delegate primary.” Only by winning a majority of the vote in this delegate primary can a candidate send their own delegate slate to the convention. A candidate must do this in enough towns to secure 15% of the total delegates in order to gain access to the primary ballot.

This system creates a terrible burden for challengers in statewide and, federal races, and other multi-town districts, by forcing them to mount real campaigns just to get on the primary ballot. It also sets up a dual system for ballot access that favors challengers from single town districts. The lawsuit challenges this dual system as unfair and irrational.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law unites thinkers and advocates in pursuit of a vision of inclusive and effective democracy. Our mission is to develop and implement an innovative, nonpartisan agenda of scholarship, public education, and legal action that promotes equality and human dignity, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms.

For more information or copies of the papers filed, please call Amanda Cooper at (212) 998–6736 or visit our web site at

Click here for a copy of the brief, complaint, and statement by Elizabeth Daniel announcing the suit.