The below article was published on Feb 25, 2018, in The Star-Ledger, and on Feb 26, 2018, in Times of Trenton
The Voting Shell Game
New Jersey must fix the way ballots unfairly place certain candidates in a favored line
The Trump administration’s egregious dismissal of federal control of critical issues such as education, healthcare and guns, not to mention the recent punishing tax overhaul, had me wondering: will my state protect me? As I searched for answers online, a disconcerting picture unfolded: in our state, elected officials are accountable to powerful political machines rather than to voters, enabled by one prominent hidden-in-plain-sight mechanism: “The Line.”
It boils down to a seemingly innocuous design feature of the Primary ballots in almost all New Jersey counties: they are organized in vertical columns. One column, “The Line,” contains the party-endorsed candidates for all open positions, from Senate and Assembly to Sheriff and Council Members. Other candidates are often strategically placed so as to minimize their visibility and viability, sometimes with several columns left empty for no apparent reason except to ensure that a disfavored candidate’s name falls on the foldline or a second page of the sample ballot.
These practices give The Line the kind of placement advantage for which advertising companies pay millions! Would you be surprised to hear that candidates who the party placed on The Line in primary elections almost always win? With noncompetitive districts, low voter turnout, lack of a statewide press, and party-controlled campaign funding, New Jersey elections are all but settled in the primaries, where the party endorsement is the ultimate single vote that matters.
As a professor of psychology and neuroscience who studies decision making, I view this as a cynical co-opting of our basic mechanisms for making decisions. Research shows that when we have little information about the different options, we tend to fall back on heuristics—instinctual rules of thumb—that favor name familiarity (as would be the case for incumbents and party-funded campaigns) and to look to authority. The way this plays out in the primaries is simple: like most voters, I don’t know many of the candidates. Heck, I don’t even know what some of these positions are (County Freeholder?). This makes candidates in that one full column look like the “serious candidates” who have organized to run together (in reality, they may never have heard of each other). Yes, “I voted” – but was it really me deciding whom to vote for?
The effects of ballot placement on the results of elections are well documented, for instance, in the Bush vs. Gore election of 2000. But the consequences of The Line are extreme. Ultimately, The Line allows a handful of unelected powerbrokers to run our state, through alliances—as between some Democratic party bosses and the outgoing, unpopular, Christie—that benefit them, and not necessarily voters.
And the perverse advantages of The Line go even further, effectively giving party leaders a firm grip over candidates throughout their term. For every decision, party leaders may whisper: “Vote my way, or next election you will not have The Line.” It would be a death blow for most elected officials, and they know it…
Can this broken system be mended? I believe so, but changes have to be made from the ground up. Those in power, Democrat and Republican, were often elected through this system, and once seated, have little incentive to change it. So it is up to us, the citizens, to fight for our democracy.
We have the power to become informed voters, to ignore The Line, to elect candidates who promise to vote against it once in power, and to pressure County Clerks to design fairer ballots. And we don’t have to do it alone. This past year, a group of us formed the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey—a nonpartisan, grassroots organization whose mission is to bring greater transparency, accountability, and participation to our state and local governments. GGCNJ ran a “don’t be blinded by The Line” campaign in the 2017 primaries, and a transparency and accountability campaign for the recent elections. We hope to see GGCNJ grow as we work to move New Jersey ever closer to Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Governor Phil Murphy, who ran as an unabashedly progressive candidate, may share Lincoln’s vision. I applaud Gov. Murphy’s determination to protect our state and challenge the current Administration’s reactionary policies, and pledge my support. But I also hope he turns his attention to The Line. Among the factors that severely compromise New Jersey’s democracy, The Line is perhaps the most devious, giving us the illusion of choice while effectively taking away our voice.
We have a long road ahead. Those controlling the New Jersey legislature have no reason to give up power unless “We, The People,” force them to. And now – when voters are organizing in hundreds of local grassroots groups; when people like me (and you) are realizing that our job as citizens only begins at the ballot – now might be our only chance.
Yael Niv is an Associate Professor at Princeton University and a founding member of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey (GGCNJ)