The End of the Line: New Jersey ballots change for the better

April 22, 2024

March 29 was a Good Friday indeed in New Jersey: that morning, a federal judge in Trenton issued an order temporarily curtailing the use of a strange and controversial ballot design that has been a fixture of the state’s electoral landscape for decades. The significance of this decision might not be immediately apparent to those not steeped in the minutiae of New Jersey politics, but the seemingly minor change that it brings about—still provisional for now, as the underlying litigation continues to wend its way through the courts—has already dealt a historic blow to the power of the state’s notoriously entrenched party machines.

The story of how New Jersey ended up using this ballot design in the first place is complicated, but the political implications have been profound. Because the county line usually includes a full slate of candidates for every position up for election, and because it receives prime placement near the top or left-hand margin, it is almost always the most visually arresting feature of a primary ballot. Relatively little-known candidates for lesser offices who receive a party endorsement benefit from being conspicuously associated with high-profile incumbents: I might not know anything about the person running for dogcatcher, but the fact that their name is listed under the president’s must count for something, right?

Critics have long claimed that this setup tilts the playing field by steering voters’ attention toward candidates preferred by the party establishments—a claim that has largely been vindicated by researchers who have studied the electoral effects of “the line.” According to an analysis by Julia Sass Rubin of Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, those who garner endorsements from their local party branches in some counties but not others perform, on average, a whopping 38 percentage points better when they appear on the line than when they don’t.

Enacting such root-and-branch reforms will not be easy. In recent times, the Democratic and Republican Parties have strongly resisted any measures that threaten their institutional prerogatives, whether abolition of the county line in New Jersey or the passage of ranked-choice voting in places like Alaska and Maine. But the long struggle against the county line that culminated this past Good Friday should offer hope, since it illustrates how transformational change can seem unattainable until the moment it is suddenly attained. Yet much more transformation is still needed. It may be the end of the line in New Jersey, but the reinvigoration of democracy both here and everywhere else in the United States is only just getting started.

Commonweal Magazine, April 22, 2024

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