Your Right to Vote 2024: Be Aware of Primary Voting and Ballot Changes

People in New Jersey have been voting for elected officials since the right was granted in 1776. Throughout the centuries, some aspects of voting have remained constant, while others have been brought up for debate or change, as we learn and live. As Mercer County Clerk, serving in my fourth term of elected office, I have witnessed and participated in countless changes to the way elections are conducted in the state. Such changes include the introduction and implementation of vote by mail, where Mercer currently has over 44,000 voters signed up to permanently receive a vote by mail ballot. Another change was the introduction of early voting, where voters can vote on a machine at any one of our County’s eight early voting centers in Mercer. Further, we purchased and introduced new County voting machines, which provide voters with a verifiable paper trail, so they can rest assured their vote is cast accurately and in accordance with their will.

This year, in our June 4th Primary Election, New Jersey voters will see another major revision to the way ballots will look for the Democrats. This monumental change in ballot design stems from a Federal court order in a case entitled, Kim v. Hanlon, et al, wherein Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Andy Kim filed a lawsuit in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals against all of the NJ county clerks with regard to ballot layout.

Consequently, pursuant to Judge Zahid Quraishi’s order, Democratic ballots will feature a “block ballot”’ design, rather than the “line” format that has historically been used in Mercer County.  This means that candidates running for political office will be listed in a “block” under the office title sought. All candidates running for an office will have an equal opportunity to be listed first in that grouping. Thus, all candidates and positions were directed to be drawn in random order.

Accordingly, candidate names were randomly drawn for ballot position by the County Clerk in every New Jersey County on April 4th (In Mercer County, this was done by yours truly.)

For example, if a voter wants to identify the endorsed candidates by the Mercer County Democratic Committee, one will look for the slogan “Regular Democratic Organization” listed above their names. In the US Senate race, Andy Kim is the candidate endorsed by the Mercer County Democratic Committee. However, under the random drawing Kim is placed third in his race and one can find him by looking for the party slogan. Alternatively, the other candidates running are identified by their own unique slogans.

The Third Circuit’s ruling did not apply to Republican candidates on the Primary ballot. Some unendorsed Republican candidates questioned the inconsistency here and filed a lawsuit in Burlington County against the NJ County Clerks, Shirley Maia-Cusik, et al. v. Sollami Covello et al, seeking abolishment of the County line, saying they too sought the chance to be first in their office grouping. They lost this bid for a number of reasons and, thus, Republican ballots are unchanged for now and retain the traditional “line” format.


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The rulings only apply “for now” because the constitutional question regarding the Kim case has not yet been decided, so the disparate design rulings are only in place for the upcoming Primary Election, June 4, 2024. Additionally, there is an outstanding case, entitled Conforti v Hanlon et al, which also challenges the constitutionality of the party line and that case is still pending. The Conforti case is also before Judge Quraishi, who ruled in the Kim case, so many people are watching to see if the judge will follow his previous reasoning and decide to abolish the line or not. The Conforti case would likely impact both political parties since it is challenging the constitutionality of the line itself.

With a highly competitive presidential election in front of us this November, we enter uncharted territory when it comes to ballot design. For, it is not known if the new ballot design is going to be used for only the primary election of 2024, or if these undecided cases will ultimately impact the design of the general election ballot as well.  And what will the ballot design be in Primary Election 2025? Another unknown factor is the whether the NJ legislature will step in and act to make new laws regarding ballot design. Following the most recent rulings, legislative leaders have spoken out, expressing opinions that they are the true lawmaking branch of government and that they are planning to use their powers to craft laws on ballot layout in the coming months.

Clearly, the organized political parties have the strongest interest in how the ballot design cases are resolved. Research has shown that there is a slight advantage to being placed first on a ballot. But, even more importantly, New Jersey voters are accustomed to voting in a line format, with the endorsed candidates up and down the same row. For example, in 2024, presidential candidates Trump and Biden would be at the top of the ticket and the other party endorsed candidates would be under them all the way down to municipal office. On a “block ballot”, voters would not find their endorsed party candidates under Presidents Trump or Biden. This makes it tougher for unknown candidates to gain name recognition and votes.

With these latest changes, voters will need to be re-educated on how to vote. Voters are urged to familiarize themselves with the sample ballots before they walk into the polling location to vote to avoid confusion.

To be fair, New Jersey is one of the few states in the U.S. that still uses a “line” format. And our sophisticated New Jersey voters will likely figure it all out. However, a large number of voters will be encountering this new layout in a busy presidential election year, so education by any and all community groups will be a key component to a smooth election.

In Mercer County, I have placed position numbers next to the candidates so they are easier to find. Candidates will be able to campaign using these position markers to simplify the process.

As Mercer County Clerk, along with my counterparts throughout NJ, we must simply follow the laws as written to conduct elections. Consequently, we are all intently waiting for the next directive in how NJ ballots will be designed, no doubt along with many others.

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