NEWARK – The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and Campaign Legal Center today, along with their clients the League of Women Voters of New Jersey and Salvation and Social Justice (“Amici”), applauded Tuesday’s court decision to allow the case of Conforti v Hanlon to move forward.

Amici filed an amicus curiae brief in June 2021 seeking leave to appear as amici and opposing defendants’ motion to dismiss the Conforti lawsuit, which challenges New Jersey’s use of “the line” and other misleading features in its ballot design. The court granted Amicis’ motion to appear in October 2021. A pdf of the amicus brief can be found here.

New Jersey is the only state in the country that organizes its primary election ballots by bracketing together a county-supported group of candidates in a column or row (“the line”), rather than listing each office and the candidates for that office in separate sections from one another. These bracketing rules in addition to other ballot design defects not only mislead and confuse New Jersey voters, but also disproportionately harm voters and candidates of color.

“The court’s decision is good news for our democracy, and our democracy can surely use good news right now,” said Henal Patel, Director of the Democracy & Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Through use of ‘the line,’ New Jersey is subverting democracy by maintaining an outmoded primary ballot design that misleads and confuses voters and interferes with their right to vote, disproportionately burdening Black and other voters of color and making it more difficult for candidates of color to win office. We look forward to resolution of the case in favor of plaintiffs – and democracy.”

Fair and clear ballot design is vital to a healthy democracy. Using “the line” not only grants bracketed candidates favorable positions on the ballot and systematically biases voters toward those candidates, as laid out in the lawsuit. It also negatively impacts voters because the manipulation of ballot position to capitalize on the bracketing bias undermines voter choice and the integrity of the democratic process.

“The line is a blight on New Jersey’s democracy,” said Jesse Burns, Executive Director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “We applaud this decision for bringing us one step closer to finally ridding our voters of this overly-complicated, misleading ballot layout that keeps voters from having their voices heard.”

“Salvation and Social Justice applauds the court for allowing this important case to move forward. This case is critical to confronting and toppling what has been allowed to exist as an insurmountable barrier to fair and just elections in New Jersey for too long. The time is now for New Jersey to demonstrate its commitment to democracy in this state and deliver the benefits of a healthy democratic process to all New Jerseyans,” said Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, Founding Director of Salvation and Social Justice.

Ballot design studies demonstrate that when basic usability principles are ignored in ballot design, as is the case with “the line,” the affected voters will disproportionately be Black and other voters of color.

Because candidates on “the line” are most often incumbents or party operatives, who in New Jersey are overwhelmingly white despite the state’s 45% population of color, it is also more difficult for candidates of color to win electoral office, negatively impacting fair representation. The New Jersey State Assembly is currently 70% white, and the State Senate is 75% white.

”In order to achieve fair representation, there must be fair ballot design,” said Danielle Lang, Sr. Director of Voting Rights for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “Ballot design impacts voters, not just candidates for office. These types of defects also disproportionately affect voters of color and lower-income communities. It is time for New Jersey to address these systemic threats to the democratic process.”

Plaintiffs in the 2020 case are Christine Conforti, Arati Kreibach, Mico Lucide, Joseph Marchica, Kevin Mcmillan, Zinovia Spezakis and New Jersey Working Families. Defendants are county clerks from Monmouth, Ocean, Mercer, Bergen, Atlantic and Hudson counties. After defendants, along with Intervenor-Defendant Attorney General of New Jersey, moved to dismiss the case, plaintiffs filed an opposition to that effort. The Amici’s brief supported plaintiffs’ opposition to having the case dismissed.