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New Jersey’s Primary Ballot Design Being Challenged in Court

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Democracy Advocates File Brief in Case Challenging Brief Argues New Jersey Ballot Design Subverts Democracy, the Right to Vote, and Fair Representation

NEWARK—Today, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and Salvation and Social Justice, represented by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and Campaign Legal Center, filed an amicus curiae brief in Conforti v. Hanlon, a case challenging New Jersey’s use of “the line” and other misleading features in its ballot design.

New Jersey is the only state in the country that organizes its primary election ballots by bracketing together a county-supported group of candidates in a column or row (“the line”), rather than listing each office and the candidates for that office in separate sections from one another. These bracketing rules in addition to other ballot design defects not only mislead and confuse New Jersey voters, but also disproportionately harm voters and candidates of color.

“Fair voter access is about more than just drop boxes and early voting hours. New Jersey’s primary ballot layout confuses voters, leading to decreased participation and keeping voters from having their voices heard,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “We cannot accept the disproportionate effect that our ballot design has on voters and candidates of color. New Jersey must do away with this overly-complicated ballot layout in favor of one that displays all candidates equally and provides voters with a straightforward ticket.”

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Image: Camden County 2018 Primary Ballot. Click here to see an example of the 2021 primary ballot.

Fair and clear ballot design is vital to a healthy democracy. Using “the line” not only grants bracketed candidates favorable positions on the ballot and systematically biases voters toward those candidates, it also, as today’s brief argues, negatively impacts voters because the manipulation of ballot position to capitalize on the bracketing bias undermines voter choice and the integrity of the democratic process.

“During a time when democracy is under attack and we must do everything possible to strengthen and expand it, New Jersey is instead subverting it by maintaining an outmoded primary ballot design that misleads and confuses voters and interferes with their right to vote,” said Henal Patel, director of the Democracy and Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “These ballot design flaws disproportionately burden Black and other voters of color and make it more difficult for candidates of color to win office, undermining the goal of fair representation. This is exactly the opposite of what our state should be doing during these pivotal times.”

Ballot design studies demonstrate that when basic usability principles are ignored in ballot design, as is the case with “the line,” the affected voters will disproportionately be Black and other voters of color.

“In order to achieve fair representation, there must be fair ballot design,” said Jade Ford, an attorney for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “Ballot design impacts voters, not just candidates for office. These types of defects also disproportionately affect voters of color and lower-income communities. It is time for New Jersey to address these systemic threats to the democratic process.”

Because candidates on “the line” are most often incumbents or party operatives, who in New Jersey are overwhelmingly white despite the state’s 45% population of color, it is also more difficult for candidates of color to win electoral office, negatively impacting fair representation. The New Jersey State Assembly is currently 70% white, and the State Senate is 75% white.

“Salvation and Social Justice is committed to fair and just elections in New Jersey. This case presents an opportunity for our state to align with jurisdictions across the country to safeguard a healthy democracy for all. New Jersey’s current ballot structure unfairly burdens communities and candidates of color. Without a fair opportunity to run for office, our entire state suffers. The time is now for New Jersey to do what’s right. Our democracy depends on it,” said Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, founding director of Salvation and Social Justice.

Plaintiffs in the 2020 case include New Jersey House, Democratic Committee, Township Committee and County Clerk candidates, as well as New Jersey Working Families. Defendants are county clerks from Monmouth, Ocean, Mercer, Bergen, Atlantic, and Hudson counties. After defendants, along with Intervenor-Defendant Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, moved to dismiss the case, plaintiffs filed an opposition to that effort. The amicus brief supports plaintiffs’ opposition to having the case dismissed.

Find a link to the brief and read this press release online here.

 

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