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Rutgers professor discusses how NJ ballot design influences state politics

New Jersey's ballot is different than that of other states and is organized in a manner that lists certain candidates above others. – Photo by Heather Katsoulis / Flickr

Ballot design is one of the most significant ways that political machines in New Jersey influence state elections and politics, said Julia Sass Rubin, an associate professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. 

New Jersey’s primary ballot design is unique from all other states, she said. One reason for this is its use of a “county line,” which influences individuals to make it seem like there are candidates who are more legitimate than others. 

The county line consists of a slate of candidates who are endorsed either by the Democratic or Republican party and therefore get special placement on the ballot, according to a report by Rubin in New Jersey Policy Perspective.

“One (way this is done) is that they are in this column and they are set apart from everyone else, sometimes by one or two empty columns in between them and the other candidates,” she said. “That column is also headed by the most well-known person running that cycle.”

In all other states, primary ballots are organized by electoral position, with the candidates listed beneath each section, according to the report. 

“It just feels like (the county line is) the place you're supposed to be voting because those are the people you know and they're all nicely in a column, and then there's these other people all the way over on the side,” Rubin said. “So it really signals to (voters) that these are the appropriate people to vote for.”

Lesser-known candidates are particularly affected by this design because people often know popular candidates going in, making them easier to find on the ballot, Rubin said. Although in this past primary election, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is well known, lost many votes in Atlantic County because he went off of the county line there. 

“I think people didn't even notice (he was missing). They're so programmed to just go in and check all the boxes on the line,” she said. “It's such a confusing ballot and people are so accustomed to just checking every name on the line, that they didn't even notice it.”

Rubin said this design is bad for democracy because it is essentially letting political machines decide who gets elected rather than giving people a fair chance to compete. She said many candidates do not even try because if they do not get the line, their chances are close to zero. 

“Because we don’t have competitive districts ... if you get selected in the primary, you're very likely to win the election,” Rubin said. “So having the power to decide who's going to get the line is effectively having the power to decide who's going to get elected.”

The candidates who are placed on the line get chosen by county committee members from each district, she said. Some counties have conventions where members decide, but in others, the decision is left solely to the county chair.

Rubin said while there is nothing wrong with Democrats and Republicans of these committees endorsing candidates, they should not be able to influence ballots and essentially decide who is going to win.

She said recognizing the impact that political machines and ballot design have over state and local elections is the first step toward change and regaining democracy. 

“If you're not aware of it, like most of us aren't, you just go in and you automatically vote that load line,” Rubin said. “As people become aware of it, they vote more consciously, and they can start pushing for change so that we can have a ballot like 49 other states and the District of Columbia do.”

There is currently a lawsuit that was filed after the recent primary seeking to battle issues of unjust ballot design, she said. The plaintiff Christine Conforti ran in New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District and did not get the county line in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, but did get the line in Mercer County.

Rubin said the candidate did poorly in the counties where she did not get the line, and in the county where she did get the line, another candidate for the same position was put right below her in an attempt to be fairer. Having both of these candidates on the line resulted in approximately a 30 percent overvote, showing that people voted down the line without paying attention, she said.

“She's a good plaintiff because it highlights how broken (the system) is in terms of what happened to her,” Rubin said. 

Aside from voter education and lawsuits, another way to fix the issue of ballot design could be to push legislation that would make New Jersey ballots like every other state’s, she said. 

“(This is) really difficult because the legislature is very dependent on the same political machines to get re-elected, and they have no incentive to change that system,” Rubin said. “So there has to be just a groundswell of awareness and pressure on them to do this.”

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