Insider candidates and the politically connected benefited from the layout of New Jersey’s primary ballot in July, according to a new study released Thursday.
New Jersey is the only state in the country that allows each county to design its ballot to give preference to candidates with a party endorsement.
“The advantage provided by the county line, especially for lesser known candidates, shifts the power away from the voters and shifts it towards a small group of party insiders,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers University professor and author of the study.
The “county line” refers to a coveted column or row on the ballot for candidates who are endorsed by the party committee. Usually, the top of the column lists the highest-ranking candidate with an endorsement. This year, that was former Vice President Joe Biden or President Donald Trump. The line generally includes the best known candidates, giving them greater visibility. Voters often support the down-ticket candidates under them.
Sass Rubin’s study — published by the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank group — found almost all the candidates on the line won by 35 to 50 percentage points. The process for obtaining the county party endorsement varies across the state, but in most counties, the party bosses decide who to support behind closed doors.
“Rather than having to please the voters, candidates become beholden to those party insiders,” Sass Rubin said. “That's who they have to please. And that is just not very good for our democracy.”
New Jersey ballots can also be very confusing. In every other state, the ballot groups all the candidates for a position together, making it clear that the voter should just pick one. But in most New Jersey counties, the endorsed candidates are grouped together, leaving voters to hunt for all the candidates they prefer.
Because the July primary was a paper ballot due to the pandemic, there was a high rate of undervotes and overvotes, when the voter didn’t choose any candidates for a particular race, or voted for too many candidates.
That confusion disproportionately affects first-time voters, the young and those with less education, Sass Rubin said.
“We should make the ballot as easy as possible. And we know now what works,” she said. “Other states are adopting ballots that are better and better and better, there’s a whole science of what is good ballot design. And we violate almost every one of those rules intentionally.”
Brandon McKoy, president of NJPP, said the act of designing the ballot in such a way is deliberate.
“This is a purposeful decision that the state has made to be different than every other state in the country,” said Brandon McKoy, president of NJPP. “And so all we're doing is trying to say, 'Okay, here's the impact of deciding to be this unique and this different, it’s an impact that’s having a negative effect on free and open elections.'”
A lawsuit challenging the state’s ballot design has been filed by a losing Congressional candidate in the primary, Democrat Christine Conforti. Without court action, it would be up to the state legislature to change the county line. But there’s little incentive — an incumbent legislative candidate hasn’t lost an election in New Jersey since 2009.
Activists have formed the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey, which is educating people about ballot design and getting progressives elected to county party organizations.
“Progressives aren't crazy in New Jersey” Sue Altman, director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance. “There is something keeping progressives from seeing success in New Jersey. And it really, really hurts us.”