Lawsuit seeks to change design of NJ ballots, claims they seem to give advantage to party favorites
New Jersey’s primary election was held on Tuesday, and there is a renewed focus on the design of the ballots themselves.
Critics say that the design is unfair to any candidate not connected to powerful political parties.
New Jersey is the only state in the country whose primary election ballots have one column – usually Column A or B - listing all the candidates that are hand-picked by the local county party heads. The rest are shown in different columns.
Only Sussex and Salem counties do not do this. In 2017, a Democratic primary ballot from Sussex County had all the candidates listed together under the office they were seeking. This is how all the other states do it, but ballots in other counties in New Jersey have the county line candidates in a neat row, while the other candidates are scattered around the ballot.
“The design is meant to sort of attract people’s attention to the line and away from the challengers,” says Brandon McKoy.
McKoy is the president of New Jersey Policy Perspective. The group is calling for a redesign of the ballots.
“When you compare it to ballots that you see elsewhere in other states, you really see a stark contrast of how confusing it can be and how purposely unnecessary it is. To have this sort of weird design where you have the favored sons and daughters on one line and challengers could be anywhere else, all the way in column J for instance,” McKoy says.
A study by Professor Julia Rubin, of the Bloustein School at Rutgers University, found that New Jersey is the only state in the nation with ballots like this – where party bosses actually have the power to design a ballot that gives the upper hand.
In a lawsuit challenging the practice, several candidates and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance cites a phenomenon in human psychology known as "position bias" that makes people more likely to choose something prominent in their visual field. This is similar to how in a supermarket, customers are more likely to choose products on the shelf at eye level.
New Jersey’s unique ballot design also weighs heavily on who decides to run for office in the first place. Democratic Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalotti, of Bayonne, fell out of favor with the county Democrats and knew that he had no chance of winning without the county line, so he withdrew from the race.
“What this is really about, though, is about the unfairness and the advantage provided to party-endorsed candidates. This is about democracy,” he says.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy, had sided against the progressive groups and candidates in their lawsuit seeking changes to the ballots.