Op-Ed: Three reasons why NJ should cut the ‘county line’ from ballots

March 20, 2024

New Jersey’s primary election is not until June, but state elections are already in the national spotlight because of their ballot design. Over the weekend, Attorney General Matt Platkin said he will not defend New Jersey’s “county line” system, challenged by U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (D-3rd) in an ongoing lawsuit. This system allows county political parties to place their preferred candidates in privileged positions on the ballot. Other, nonparty selected candidates are placed in other columns that can spread far across the page. This system — unique to New Jersey — is sure to lead to much debate in the coming weeks as the lawsuit unfolds.

There are three reasons New Jersey voters should support eliminating the county line. First, research shows the county line has large impacts on the candidates that voters choose. Second, the county line lets party insiders effectively decide which candidates receive nominations and ultimately win elections. Third, all other states — and even two counties in New Jersey — already use ballots that solve this problem and give voters a fair choice.

Here is an example ballot from Absecon, in Atlantic County, where the county line system is used:

Credit: (Atlantic County Clerk)A ballot sample from Atlantic County’s 2020 Democratic primary

Column A is the “county line,” which lists candidates preferred by the Atlantic County Democratic Committee. This list is clear and actionable — unsurprisingly, many voters pick all candidates straight down the party line. Candidates not preferred by the local party are spread across the remaining columns that can stretch far across the page, in undesirable positions often called “Ballot Siberia.” Critics of the system argue that this makes it difficult for voters to tell who the competing candidates are for each position.

Alternatively, here is another example from Andover Township in Sussex County, one of the two New Jersey counties (along with Salem) that do not use the county line system for both Democratic and Republican primaries:

Credit: (Sussex County Clerk) A 2023 ballot from Andover Township, Sussex County

Sussex County organizes candidates by office, instead of spreading them across the page. This compact design makes it significantly easier and faster for voters to know which candidates are competing for each office. Parties are still welcome to support certain candidates, but they receive only an endorsement and not a special position on the ballot itself.

The county line system is not just odd; scholarly evidence also shows that it leads many voters to choose certain candidates simply because they are listed in more convenient ballot positions. For example, Professor Julia Sass Rubin from Rutgers University has argued that the county line system impacts elections by “steering voters towards specific candidates” and “increases voter confusion, contributing to overvotes and undervotes” by as much as 50 percentage points in some races. Professor Sam Wang from Princeton University arrived at similar conclusions in an expert report submitted as part of Kim’s case, finding New Jersey incumbents running on the county line are 11 times less likely to lose their primaries than other officials across the country. Other work by Wang, Rubin and Hayden Goldberg, a legal researcher with the Electoral Innovation Lab, finds that New Jersey candidates receive an advantage of over thirty percentage points by being on the county line.

Why is changing the current ballot design so controversial? One reason is that the county line system offers party insiders the effective ability to choose their own preferred candidates. Current politicians are often reluctant to give up this power, which some have argued helps to ensure quality candidates. Some, like Kim’s primary opponent Tammy Murphy, oppose changing election rules so close to the June primary. But this system limits the influence of voters well before Election Day, as many candidates drop out of the race if they don’t receive the county line position (only about 9% of New Jersey primary races are contested). A plausible legal argument against the county line could claim the system burdens voters and distorts outcomes without a sufficient “state interest” for the policy. Indeed, this is the approach that Kim’s case pursues.

The county line confuses voters and lets parties dominate candidate selection, but this system can easily be changed.

New Jersey is the only state in the country that designs ballots in this way. All other states structure their ballots more like Sussex and Salem counties, which group all candidates for each position together. Eliminating the county line is a simple, intuitive, and nonpartisan change that can help ensure that, in New Jersey elections, voters, not party insiders, have the final say.

Nj Spotlight News, March 20, 2024

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