With New Jersey’s primary election less than a week away, more than sixty organizations, together representing tens of thousands of voters, have signed onto the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey’s (GGCNJ) BetterBallotsNJ campaign. The campaign’s central focus — the Resolution to Establish a Fair Ballot — calls for reforming New Jersey’s unique primary ballots to an “office bloc” design with rotating order of names, unified across all counties.
“Better ballot design is fundamental to a free and fair democracy,” says Arati Kreibich, board member of the GGCNJ. “The gerrymandered ballot design in New Jersey uniquely disenfranchises our voters, and is the reason why substantive progress in our state is stymied again and again”
Research has shown that the ballot structure presently used by most counties in New Jersey, which violates numerous rules of good ballot design and is a national outlier, can confer an advantage of 35 percentage points on average to candidates placed on the “county line” rather than elsewhere on the ballot.
“One major pushback from Democratic and Republican committee members is that the County Line on the ballot is the means by which parties award the candidates they think best represent their party. However, this process — which in many counties leaves out committee members altogether — ultimately takes power away from voters,” says Uyen “Winn” Khuong, Executive Director of Action Together New Jersey and a fierce advocate for voter empowerment. “The office bloc design, as used across the country, in no way denies the political party members’ democratic process and ability to associate with each other as they can still list the party name with each candidate on the ballot.”
The resolution calling for better ballots has already been signed by a diverse group of statewide and local nonpartisan organizations, as well as partisan municipal committees and candidates for office from the two major parties. Organizations that have signed the resolution include: League of Women Voters of New Jersey, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, NJ Citizen Action, Our Revolution New Jersey, Action Together New Jersey, and Pennington and Collingswood Democratic Municipal Committees.
“For the past four plus years, New Jersey voters have jumped into civic engagement in a multitude of unprecedented ways and our democracy is undergoing a revitalization that is long overdue. To continue this positive momentum, we need better ballots to make our democracy in NJ healthy again,” says Dena Mottola Jaborska, Associate Director at New Jersey Citizen Action.
Some groups and individuals have also joined the campaign as “ambassadors,” working to explain the problems with the current ballot structure to more organizations and bring in more signatories.
“Our confusing primary ballots disenfranchise voters and shut out all sorts of quality candidates. It is especially heinous how the county line allows party bosses to shut down progressive women and people of color just because they put community needs ahead of the boss’s bottom line. That motivated me to become a BetterBallotsNJ Ambassador”, explained Joe Marchica, Chair of Our Revolution Trenton Mercer. “I’ve been thrilled to hear positive feedback from the different groups we’ve met with. People are very supportive of the push for better ballots once you explain how ‘The Line’ works. Voters loathe corruption, and that’s what our primary ballots do. They corrupt our democracy.”
This groundswell of grassroots support for better ballots has met similar support among candidates for office – the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey has so far endorsed over 20 candidates for state legislature, some of them incumbents, who all agree with the main priorities of the organization, including ballot reform.
The current primary election cycle, in which all 120 state Senate and Assembly seats are up for reelection, shows that the advantage conferred by ballot placement is even larger, in many cases determining races before the election even happened. This is because in most races, candidates who did not receive prime county line placement dropped out of the race, leaving less than 10% of the seats challenged across the state. This includes a prominent sitting legislator, and extends to other down-ballot races. As a result, many primary election ballots do not give voters any choice.
“For many voters, the primary elections are little more than an exercise of consenting to decisions that were made by political power brokers,” said Yael Niv, of GGCNJ. “Our ballots must be reformed.”
Good government in New Jersey does not end with better ballots. GGCNJ’s priorities include fair redistricting, transparency and accessibility of government at all levels, reinstatement of the public advocate office, and more. However, in New Jersey, the ballot structure is the singular point where voters’ power is diminished to a point of cancelling democracy altogether.
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Good Government Coalition of New Jersey is a nonpartisan, grassroots group whose mission is to strengthen democracy by working with residents across our state to bring greater transparency, accountability, and participation to our state and local governments.