Ballots in New Jersey look a little different this year, and the change has experts and officials concerned about the potential for Election Day confusion.
A law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy May 30 allows Board of Education candidates to file joint nominating petitions and to be bracketed on the ballot. The change to petitions has little effect on voters. But allowing school board candidates to be grouped together—similar to candidates of the same party for political office—has altered how county clerks construct the ballot, and ultimately changed the appearance of the final product voters see on vote-by-mail ballots and in booths on Election Day.
This change in appearance is what worries some, especially because no one knows what the effects of the change will be. The law calls for the initial elections with bracketing to be used as a study period for lawmakers.
Much of the burden falls to county clerks, who have been left no choice but to obey the law with little guidance on how to enact it. Ballots already looked different in every county in New Jersey, and clerks across the state have had to figure out how to best layout the ballot with the addition of bracketing.
In Mercer County, clerk Paula Sollami Covello has added a bold blue line across the ballot to separate races for political office from the school board election. This alteration will appear in every Mercer municipality, but only three will also have bracketed candidates: Hamilton, Lawrence and Robbinsville. Voters in each of these townships will see school board candidates laid out horizontally side-by-side at the bottom of the ballot, with bracketed candidates stacked beneath their running mates. At the far left, underneath the office title, are instructions on how many candidates voters can pick. Voters can select that number of candidates, regardless of if they part of a bracket or not.
For example, if there are three open seats, you can select any three of the candidates in that race—the row and column do not matter. You do not have to vote for all, or any, of the bracketed candidates. And one vote counts only for one candidate—if want to vote for all of the candidates in the bracket, you must select them individually.
This sounds fairly straightforward, but how it plays out differs in each of the towns. The ballot’s layout depends on the number of candidates, the number of brackets and the number of races. Voters will have to pay attention to who is running in which race.
In Hamilton, there is only one race, with nine candidates running for three 3-year terms. Due to bracketing, the layout is such that seven candidates appear across Line One, while two candidates are stacked below their running mate in Column J. Those candidates—Sherry Morency and Cynthia Simon—are alone on Lines Two and Three, so it could appear as if they are running unopposed or in a different election. But they are in fact candidates for the same three seats that the seven on Line One are vying for.
In Robbinsville, five candidates are running for three 3-year terms. Three of the candidates—Lisa Temple, Shaina Ciaccio and Vito Galluccio—are bracketed, with Temple on Line One and her running mates beneath her in Column J. Even though Ciaccio and Gallucio appear alone on Lines Two and Three, they are not unopposed. Instead, they are competing against Temple, Vincent Costanza and Noushin Kanani Asadpour for the three full terms available. Below Temple, Ciaccio and Galluccio in Column J is Craig Heilman, who belongs to the slate but is running in a different race.
Lawrence is the only town in Mercer County with multiple brackets: Jo Ann Groeger, Kevin VanHise and Dana Drake in Column I and Joyce Scott, Tam Ngo, Keva Stewart in Column K. Groeger, VanHise, Scott, Ngo, Stewart and Jennifer Perry are all running for the three available 3-year terms. Even though Stewart appears alone on Lines Three, she is not unopposed. Likewise, VanHise and Ngo on Line Two are not competing solely against each other. They are all part of a six-person race for three seats. Below that race, on Line 4, are Drake and Becky Jo DiPierro, who are the only two candidates running for a 2-year unexpired term.
Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said the brackets could confuse voters, but wasn’t sure it would have any affect on the bracketed candidates or the results of the election itself.
“I don’t know if they are at an advantage or a disadvantage,” Rasmussen said. “I think there’s the potential for both misunderstandings.”
Rasmussen said if anything, the discussion around bracketing underscores the importance of voter education, particularly with the ballot itself. Election Day in the voting booth should not be the first time a voter looks at the ballot. A sample ballot appears with this story and is also mailed to every registered voter prior to the election.
“It underscores the need to take a look at the sample ballot when it comes,” Rasmussen said. “There’s a reason it comes in the mail. It falls to voters to educate themselves.
“Voters are smart. If they take a minute to look at that sample ballot, it will all become clear, especially if candidates are out there educating people on where to find them.”
These concerns have been around ever since a bracketing bill first started bouncing around the state legislature. One such piece of legislation was one step away from law four years ago, if not for the concern about voter confusion. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill in August 2014, citing the potential politicizing of school elections and a concern regarding voter knowledge of school board candidates and issues. Christie recommended amending the bill to require a review of the impact of bracketing, which the new law does. The review begins with this month’s election.
Clerks and interest groups have been preparing for the inevitability of bracketing almost as long. New Jersey School Boards Association communications manager Janet Bamford said the NJSBA has published articles and FAQ to educate members. Clerks and the NJSBA worked together to form a list of best practices, including ways to construct the ballot to ensure it did not appear as if candidates were affiliated with political parties. School board elections are non-partisan.
Bamford said the conversation about voter confusion is a valid one, but one that pops up every time a change to elections or ballots occurs. She recalled a similar dialogue when the school board elections moved from a separate spring election to the November general election.
And, if anything, the fact that bracketing has caught on just months after the state legalized it shows how large the demand for it has been. Sollami Covello said it has been a popular demand of school board candidates for some time, some of whom made it a First Amendment issue by saying they had been barred from associating with like-minded people on the ballot. Candidates were always allowed to campaign with other candidates; the only restrictions were on filing petitions together and appearing together on the ballot as a slate of political candidates would.
That’s an issue no longer. As for the worthiness of bracketing, time will tell.
“This is our testing year,” Sollami Covello said. “We’ll see how it will work out.”