by Suzi A. Ragheb, MPA '22 for Annotations Blog
Voter suppression isn't just about placing barriers to voting; it is about limiting who has access to political power. Some states might impose voter ID requirements, restrict early voting, or make voter registration confusing. But New Jersey is unlike other states. It has found a unique way to confuse its voters—through ballot design.
According to the Cost of Voting index, New Jersey ranks 16th in the nation for ease of voting. Earlier this year, Governor Phil Murphy held a press conference with Stacey Abrams on expanding early voting access in New Jersey. Murphy's administration likes to call New Jersey under their leadership "the ultimate progressive laboratory" in the nation. But peel away the flimsy veneer, and you will find that machine politics are the real power and that Murphy acquiesces to their demands.
Voting in New Jersey is easy, but the ballots are a mess. County clerks, which are elected partisan officials in New Jersey, are allowed to design the ballot to the advantage of party-backed candidates. Murphy has not endorsed ending this practice. New Jersey is the only state in the nation that allows county party organizations to determine the ballot's structure.
New Jersey has a robust Democratic machine. As such, the primary election often supersedes the importance of the general election because winning the primary usually guarantees success in the general election. There are some Republican strongholds in the state, but because there are fewer political players in that space, it is less competitive. In fact, the only two counties in New Jersey that have a balanced ballot design are predominantly Republican.
Most ballots across the nation are ordered by office, then by candidate name. In 19 of New Jersey's 21 counties, the ballots are ordered by the office sought and then by party affiliation. The number of parties determines how many columns there will be on the ballot.
This is what the ballot looks like in most states:
2020 Republican Primary Election, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
2018 Democratic Primary Election, Cook County, Illinois
Meanwhile, this is what the ballot can look like in some New Jersey counties:
2017 Democratic Primary Election, Hudson County, New Jersey
Confusing, right? That's the point. This wonky ballot design is highly advantageous for county party organizations. It's an open secret among political insiders that voters will select the complete column, usually the official party line, to the disadvantage of other candidates. This makes the party endorsement crucial, not for the official party support but for the coveted ballot position. A recent analysis by the Communications Workers of America found that no state legislative incumbent on the line had lost a primary election in New Jersey between 2009 and 2018.
We've seen how confusing ballot designs can impact an election – remember the infamous Florida butterfly ballots? A New Jersey Policy Perspective report demonstrated that structuring the ballots around the party line impacts elections by steering voters towards party-backed candidates. The design also increases voter confusion, and contributes to voters improperly filling out ballots.
Overwhelmed with options, or perhaps armed with little information, individuals will often default to the first option available – or in the case of New Jersey ballots, the most official-looking option.
In a 2012 report, the Brennan Center for Justice details how ballot design has impacted elections in New York, Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, and Illinois and offered recommendations. Some of their suggestions were taken up by the election officials with much success. It is difficult to accurately capture how ballot design has impacted New Jersey elections because New Jersey election officials have resisted any ballot design changes. However, in the 2017 gubernatorial primary election, Murphy won all the counties except Salem County. Salem is one of the two counties that has a balanced ballot design.
A study by Stanford psychologist Jon Krosnick demonstrated that aspects of a ballot's design, such as candidates' name order, can profoundly influence a voter's choice. The study found that voters were more likely to choose the first name on the ballot and recommended randomizing candidate names to ensure fairness. It is well-documented that choice placement affects selection, and this effect has been demonstrated in several studies. Overwhelmed with options or perhaps armed with little information, individuals will often default to the first option available – or in the case of New Jersey ballots, the most official-looking option. My former employer and other county party organizations know this well and use it to their advantage.
This ballot design can be manipulated, a tactic used by some county party organizations. Political operatives recruit phantom candidates to run for low-level elected positions under different party affiliations to increase the number of columns on a ballot. This creates an overall confusing ballot and delegates an opponent to 'ballot-Siberia.' Weaponizing ballot positions against challengers is simply an undemocratic practice.
Changing the ballot design is not a panacea for New Jersey's toxic politics. But it is a crucial step in eliminating the illiberal practices of the party machines. Take away this power from these anti-democratic political machines, and you level the field and allow for truly competitive and fair elections.
The Murphy administration can set the tone by calling on the legislature to change the practice and encourage county clerks to move away from this ballot design.
The change will not come from the county officials or county parties, as their political power relies on controlling the party ballot line. This ballot design issue is at the heart of a current lawsuit in the U.S District Court for New Jersey. The Murphy administration can set the tone by calling on the legislature to change the practice and encourage county clerks to move away from this ballot design. The ballot should be organized by the office sought, and the order of candidate names should be randomized to ensure fairness. There are many simple design tweaks that the state can implement to truly offer voters a fair and balanced election. Otherwise, New Jersey cannot call itself the 'ultimate progressive laboratory' while suppressing its voters and allowing the political insiders to control the ballot.
Meet the Author: Suzi A. Ragheb
Suzi A. Ragheb is a MPA '22 student at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), where she is studying international relations and technology policy. She previously worked in the NJ State Legislature and in Democratic politics. Prior to her graduate studies, she worked for the Democratic National Committee Convention. She is using her time at Princeton to pivot into foreign policy.