New rules on brackets for upcoming school elections

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Several Bloomfield Board of Education members were made aware a few weeks ago of an election practice that strikes them as playing against a stacked deck. According to board member Shane Berger, he was informed by Vicky Guo, the district business administrator, of the impact on ballot positions for candidates running together on a slate, or “bracketed,” a practice approved by the state last year for school board elections.

According to Berger, when the county clerk picks the ballot positions of the school board candidates in a blind draw — capsules containing the names of all the candidates go into the same container for the drawing — candidates who run independently, or unbracketed, go into one set of capsules while bracketed candidates go into another set. When the capsule of the bracketed candidates is drawn, those candidates are given a ballot position that depends on the number of candidates running together.
For instance, if the five candidates A, B, C, D and E are running, and A, B and C are bracketed, if their capsule be drawn first, they get ballot positions 1, 2 and 3. The order in which their names appear on the ballot is up to them.

If candidate D is drawn first and the bracketed candidates are drawn second, candidate D gets the first ballot position, the bracketed candidates get ballot positions 2, 3 and 4, and candidate E would automatically get position 5 on the ballot.

The Independent Press spoke to Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin recently about how the ballot positions are selected.
“For the ballot draw,” he said, “we type the name of a candidate on a piece of paper or, in the case of bracketed candidates, we print the slogan on a piece of paper. I fold each piece of paper and put them individually into its own plastic capsule. Each capsule containing a name or a slogan gets dropped into a wooden drum that in the past was used to select a jury. I spin the wooden drum three times and then shake the drum above my head. I then open up the wooden drum and pull out a capsule.”

During a recent Bloomfield BOE discussion about changing the date for school board elections, much was made of the importance of drawing a good ballot position. In Bloomfield school elections since 2007, the candidate in ballot position 1 has always won, together with ballot positions 2 or 3. In four of the last five school elections, candidates in ballot positions 1, 2 and 3 have been victorious.

While the minimum number of candidates on a slate is two, the maximum depends on the number of seats being contested with the same term lengths. For the upcoming BOE elections, which were recently moved from November to April, there are three, three year terms being contested. So, for this election, slates of two or three candidates are possible.

“Only a group of politicians can come up with an idea like that,” Berger said in a telephone interview about brackets and ballots. “That’s not an election, that’s a selection.”

Board member Ben Morse concurred.
“I don’t see the need for this bracketing,” he said. “I’d like to see what the individuals are thinking, not that they are in a group and homogeneous. People have their differences and this is a disincentive to run as an independent candidate.”
BOE President Jill Fischman does not like the bracketing either.

“I would like to think the state would have allowed municipalities to decide for themselves instead of a mandate,” she said in an interview. “By backeting, you’re basically saying these people would be the best. It’s a numbers game. You’re increasing your chances by tying your names together. Maybe it’s a good and bad thing, but I would have preferred if Bloomfield had the ability to decide for itself.”