PATERSON, NJ- The Passaic County Clerk’s office Was orders to draft new ballots ahead of Election Day after an appellate court ruled that its decision to include blank columns on the ballots of 15 of the county’s 16 towns was unlawful. Opponents alleged that the blanks were an effort to confuse voters by distancing candidates from their party lines.
A special election in New Jersey’s 38th legislative district meant that three columns (one senator, two assembly members) would need to be included on the ballot for Hawthorne, Passaic’s only municipality in the district.
Instead of adding the columns only for Hawthorne, Acting County Clerk Walter Davison, a Republican, made the decision to include them on the ballots for all 16 municipalities in the county, leaving blanks for towns not facing legislative elections.
Davison defended the choice to use the blank columns as an attempt at uniformity across the county. Democrats saw it as a gambit to disrupt the row of candidates that form the “party line” on a ballot.
“We are Democrats, we are entitled to a ballot that makes it clear that we are part of that Democratic Team,” says Freeholder John Bartlett, who is currently running for reelection in Passaic County and worked closely with the prosecution team.
Bartlett is an attorney who has worked on a number of voting rights cases in New Jersey. “The county clerk’s theory was, in essence, that everybody should be on the same spot on every ballot, regardless of the confusion that would result to the voters,” said Bartlett, adding that it “doesn’t make any sense.”
The court’s decision hinged on the concept of the clerk’s “discretion” in creating the ballot. Traditionally, the county clerk has the ability to draft and distribute its ballot as long as it “appears the course taken is not rooted in reason,” according to the appellate court’s decision.
In this case, the court ruled that “the insertion of blank columns is not authorized” by New Jersey law. “I just think there is going to be voter confusion over this,” said Judge Ernest Caposela, who presided over the initial decision, though he did not suggest that the blanks had been added with malicious intent.
The prosecution team took a more hardline stance. “Voter confusion is voter suppression,” says Bartlett. “There’s a tendency to think about suppression in terms of the Jim Crow south, but it actually has a long and sordid history right here in NJ.”
As examples he cites New Jersey Republican’s deployment of an armed ‘Ballot Security Task Force’ to intimidate voters in urban areas in 1981, the claims by a Republican operative that he paid ministers to not promote the re-election of then-Governor Jim Florio in 1993, and even Chris Christie’s decision to schedule a state-wide special election for an open U.S. Senate seat on a Wednesday in October 2013.
“What we see across the country, all too often when Republicans get their hands on the levers of government power, they misuse that,” says Bartlett. “I was not going to put this year’s voters in the position of being confused.”
A representative from the Passaic County clerk’s office declined to comment on the issue. In a transcript of the initial court hearing, Davison’s attorney, Michael Peacock, said that the potential confusion was overblown.
“I don't think that a voter would stop just because there are races on the left and there are other races on the right,” argued Peacock, who also added part of the decision was to allow candidates to identify themselves by specific ballot boxes, such as “vote column A, row 3” countywide.
Bartlett dismissed this idea as nonsensical “Nobody runs in a partisan election the way that the county clerk theorized.”
Following the failed appeal, the clerk’s office has provided new ballots to the plaintiff’s team. “The blank spaces have been eliminated, and that’s a good outcome for the people of Passaic county,” says Bartlett.