Simply Civics Ballot

What You Might Not Know About Ballots

I was eating dinner with my parents and one of my sisters, Alley, a couple weeks ago. Not surprisingly, our conversation shifted to the upcoming election.

My mom asked me about what determines ballot order. I didn’t have a clue.

Are candidates listed alphabetically, by candidate name or party? Is it random? What impact, if any, does the ballot order have on the election outcome?

Embrace your Individuality

As it turns out, it actually varies a lot state by state. In my Political Science classes at Boston College, I learned that in our system of federalism, oftentimes we see a plurality of policies at the state level. States get creative in how they approach various policy issues, such as school systems, tax structures, etc. On Election Day, too, states like to show off their own individuality.

Since the federal government doesn’t dictate how states organize election ballots, we see a plurality of ballot laws across the country. The University of Virginia Center for Politics released a super handy list in 2009. It’s fascinating to see the states’ different approaches to handling ballot order.

Lotteries & Incumbent Advantage

A lot of states seem to place value on the outcomes of previous elections. In Massachusetts, the incumbent is listed first, followed by the other candidates in alphabetical order by last name. Some states, like Connecticut, base the order on previous election results. For example, if the Democrats won the previous election, their candidate will appear first. Interesting, right? So in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, whichever party had the most success in the previous election will appear first.  The underdog is indeed the underdog.

Some states take a similar approach, with their own variations. For example, in Wisconsin, the party that won the most votes in the previous gubernatorial election will be listed first. Whereas, in West Virginia, the party that won the most votes in the last presidential election will be listed first.

In Maryland, the party with the most registered voters is listed first.

Some states leave it up to the official printing the ballots (Illinois) or the State Election Commission (South Carolina) to decide.

Still other states, like Virginia and Washington, have lotteries to determine party order. This sounds both exciting and stressful.

Unclear Bias

Thanks to Political Science academics, there are a ton of studies out there about ballot order.

As it turns out, the candidates listed first may have an advantage. Surprise, surprise! Larry Sabato, the Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, calls this phenomenon the “first-listing bias.” Voters who are still on the fence might pick the candidate listed first. However, he says the bias produces fewer additional votes for offices at the top of the ballot, such as president or governor, than towards the bottom. The more highly visible the office, the less likely the order of the candidates matters. For more of Larry Sabato’s insights, check out his article, Who’s on First.

Things Aren’t Random

Academics have brainstormed solutions to this dilemma, too. In First Among Equals, Yuval Salant, assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School and Marc Meredith, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania propose one solution. If we could somehow randomize ballots, we might be able to improve the fairness of elections. For example, on Election Day, I might see one candidate listed first, and you might see the other candidate listed first. That could be cool….but extremely costly. Towns, cities, and states already spend a ton on each election, without randomizing ballots. Would the benefits outweigh the costs? It seems like for now, officials have decided it doesn’t.

When The Ballot’s In Your Hands

So, the jury is still out on ballot order. There is some evidence to suggest that ballot order matters. Each state has used its own approach to remedy the issue, but no state is perfect.

As always, the best solution is voter education. Make sure you do some research on the candidates before you get to the polls. That way, you’ll vote for the candidate you most identify with, regardless of where they appear on the ballot.

Women & Men in the Arena

League of Women Voters - Simply Civics

When I have a big decision to make or when I’m in need of a motivation, I look to history for perspective. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my role should be in the upcoming election. For example, should I canvass for a candidate, make phone calls, or stress a lot about the outcome?

This time, I thought back to one of my favorite political speeches in American history. In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt made a speech in Paris, called “Citizen in a Republic.” This particular excerpt is often referred to as the “Man in the Arena” speech:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Each time I read it, my heart races. It conjures up images of Olympians, striving valiantly to represent their nations and reach for the gold. Especially relevant, I’m thinking of Katie Ledecky, shattering her own world record yesterday.

Just as the Olympians can compete, each of us can jump into the arena.

Personally, I found my worthy cause for this election: voter engagement. Today, I’m going to share a little bit about a phenomenal organization I stumbled upon: the League of Women Voters of Brookline.

League of Women Voters

To begin, the League of Women Voters is a national organization that strives to protect, educate, and engage voters in the United States. The League doesn’t endorse candidates; rather, it promotes education. Aside from voting, the umbrella organization has several key priorities, including campaign finance reform, environmental protection, immigration reform, and gun safety.

Closer to home, we have a Massachusetts chapter, and even more locally, a Brookline chapter. I am now officially a member of the LWV of Brookline!

Already, I’m finding it remarkably fulfilling. At its core, the League is an enthusiastic and supportive group of women and men collaborating for a valiant, common cause. Joining is easy. Just follow this link and fill out the form. Men can join, too.

As a member, I’ve learned a lot about the generations of women before me who have fought for political equality. In particular, it’s really humbling to consider the advancements America has made in voting rights. However, we are still far from perfection, especially when you think about states still attempting to restrict access to the ballot through so-called “voter identification” laws.

Brookline Primary Simply Civics

Voting Checklist

Because I’m a member of the League, I’ve spent some time researching election processes. So that you don’t have to, I’m sharing the highlights with you.

Now that we’re less than 100 days away from the general election (November 8th), I’m debuting the official Simply Civics Voting Checklist:

  • First, mark your calendar. Access your iCal, Google Calendar, or desk calendar. Add one event to Thursday, September 8th (for the Brookline primary) and one event to Tuesday, November 8th. Decide now which time you’ll go to the poll to vote. You can always move it to another time if your schedule shifts. Call the events “Civic Duty” or anything that will get you excited to vote. Brookline residents, I want to draw your attention to the fact that the primary is on Thursday, September 8th. It isn’t on a Tuesday this year, so make sure you add it to your calendar.
  • Confirm the poll times. The polls are open in Brookline on Election Day from 7:00AM to 8:00PM. Don’t be like Jerry on Parks and Recreation, forgetting to check the time and realizing after a full day of campaigning for Leslie Knope that the polls are closed and he hasn’t voted! Learn from his mistake.
  • Find a buddy. Ask a friend or family member to go to the polls with you. Voting itself is an individual activity, but getting there doesn’t have to be! Make sure your buddy reviews this checklist too so you are both prepared to vote.
  • Check your voter status. Here’s the link for Massachusetts. You don’t want to show up the day of and find out you’re not in the book. I can’t stress this enough. I was heart-broken last year to overhear someone at the polls who wanted to vote for the first time and learned she wasn’t registered.
  • If applicable, register to vote. Here’s the link for Massachusetts. The last date to register for the September 8th primary in Massachusetts is Friday, August 19th. The last day to register for the November 8th general election in Massachusetts is Wednesday, October 19th. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has a handy tool to access information about each state’s elections.
  • Confirm your voting location. WhereDoIVoteMA.com makes it easy.
  • If applicable, request an absentee ballot. Check out the Brookline process or the Boston process. Make sure you plan ahead and request it in time.
  • Next, familiarize yourself with the ballot. For the Massachusetts primary, you’ll receive the ballot for whichever party you ask for, because we have an open primary system. Here are the primary candidates for the Thursday, September 8th primary. I would share a link for the November 8th ballot information, only that hasn’t been decided yet! That’s what the primary is for. In additional to candidates for president, there will also be ballot questions and candidates for state-wide office.
  • Consider working at the polls. I signed up and you can, too! Contact your local clerk’s office if you’re interested. Here is the contact information for the Brookline Clerk’s office. There are four ways to apply to be a worker at the polls in Boston. Some towns and cities even pay you a stipend.
  • Between now and the election, research the candidates and (if applicable) the ballot questions. To jump-start your research, here are some pre-election activities I’ve found helpful (and fun!):
    • Start off each morning reading the news
    • Listen to the NPR Politics podcast while you’re cooking, commuting, or cleaning
    • Visit candidates’ websites for their platforms
    • Follow a variety of news sources on Twitter
    • Engage friends and family members in informed political conversations
  • If you have any questions about the election process, seek out the answers as soon as you can. Do you need a form of ID? Can you vote early? The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts website answers many questions.
  • On Election Day Eve, get excited. You get to vote tomorrow! Review the ballot and make up your mind so that you walk in tomorrow confidently.
  • Vote on November 8th! Your vote counts. If you have children, bring them to the polls with you. As a kid, I loved going to the polls with my mom. It goes a long way in instilling civic values. Thanks, Mom!
  • Lastly, wear your “I Voted!” sticker to remind others to vote.

Voting is Not a Spectator Sport

Generally speaking, follow the checklist and you’ll be ready to go. And, to get involved in voter engagement, check out the League of Women Voters website. Moreover, please reach out to me if you have any questions about the League or want to participate in our work.

Ultimately, if you’re going to take one thing away from this post, let it be this: if you can vote, you should.

In essence, unless you’re one of the lucky ones to qualify, Olympic Swimming is a spectator sport. Voting is not.

So, as you pick up your ballot this September and November, take a second and thank the many people who have fought in the arena to make your vote possible.