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.
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.