In the years since Bush vs. Gore highlighted the inconsistent, patchwork and sometimes tenuous nature of the nation's voting system, election officials throughout the country have taken steps to improve the process.

But variety still abounds since that disputed 2000 presidential race, in part because the U.S. Constitution's 10th Amendment allocates power to the states, generally barring federal officials from imposing a single ballot design standard.

Some voters still darken circles on ballots next to their choices. Others use an iPad-like device. In Oregon and Washington, elections are done through the mail.

In New Jersey, voters cast their ballot on a grid that opponents of the design say gives an unfair advantage to established powers.

The United States Election Assistance Commission, established by 2002's Help America Vote Act, reviews and certifies election technology. No New Jersey counties use certified technology. In the Northeast, only Delaware, one Maine county and five northern and western Pennsylvania counties use it.

Dana Chisnell, a usability researcher who has testified on ballot design at the Election Assistance Commission, said New Jersey's is similar to New York's and Connecticut's in that it echoes older, lever-based machines.

Gary Stein, an independent candidate for the state Assembly, argues that this design helps concentrate power in the hands of the state's political leaders, who have influence over which candidate gets a favored ballot position.

These leaders, he said, select candidates that they expect will do little to change the status quo, while independent candidates are shut out of the process.

Stein, of Mullica Township, filed suit last month seeking to change the state's ballots. A hearing on the matter has not been scheduled but is expected in the coming months.

"The ramifications for this thing are just incredible," Stein said. "You can't raise money if you run once and you receive 9, 10 percent of the vote and look ridiculous."

Federal commissions established certain design standards, which Chisnell underscores in one of her presentations, "Democracy is a design problem."

First, contests should be grouped together. Design elements should be kept consistent, avoiding centered text while using lowercase letters, simple language and accurate illustrations.

There are 3,247 counties or their equivalents in the United States, each with the potential for multiple elections each year. County officials are typically the ones responsible for designing, printing and distributing ballots. Poor design, Chisnell wrote, frustrates voters, undermines confidence and adds to Election Day problems. It can result in thousands of lost or miscast votes.

New Jersey's ballot looks the way it does for one reason: It's the law.

State law goes into great detail specifying what the ballot looks like. It specifies the exact point size of lines that separate different sections, as well as the precise column width.

The law, N.J.S.A. 19:14-6, dates to 1947 and mandates that state ballots use columns and rows. It also requires political parties to be aligned in columns that start from the extreme left.

State laws otherwise grant county clerks limited discretion in how they construct the ballot.

Other state laws limit primaries to parties that receive at least 10 percent of the vote in a statewide legislative general election. Only Republicans and Democrats have ever cleared this bar.

Changes have been periodically suggested, but they have gotten little traction. One current proposal would remove party lines in primary ballots, but the bill has not been voted out of committee over the past three legislative sessions.

Of course, ballots are just one part of the voting process. And Chisnell said no one ballot is inherently better than another. Many of the most common mistakes can only be reduced, not eliminated.

But it is still good to remove as many problems as possible. "There have been a lot of problems to solve in elections, and ballot designs have only in the last six years bubbled up as a priority as there have been closer contests with recounts," she said.

Contact Derek Harper:

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