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Ballot Placement Journal Articles

U.Va. Center for Politics August 13th, 2009

The following scholarly articles concern the effect of ballot placement on the behavior of voters. For each article we have included a short summary and/or the article’s abstract to assist interested readers in finding pertinent sources of information. Where possible, we have included a link to the article which can be read online, although many (if not most) articles require require a subscription to JSTOR academic database. If you do not have such a subscription, these articles and papers can most likely be found at a local or university library:

Avichai, Yakov. “Equity in Politics: Name Placement on Ballots.” American Bar Foundation Research Journal 4.1 (1979): 141-178.

Summary: The subject of this article is detecting bias in the lottery systems used to rotate candidate and party placements on ballots (it finds no systematic or inherent discrimination in the lottery systems studied, but states that complete randomness in elections with a large number of candidates is impracticable because of the large number of permutations that would entail producing). Near the start of the article, however, Avichai conducts a fairly thorough literature review to set the basis for real ballot effects as the impetus for his article. He concludes that “all studies find that ballot position accounts in part for voter’s choices” and that “the magnitude of the biases…is directly related to the degree of visibility of candidates…The first position is most advantageous….In general elections the bias is the smallest and may be confined to the first place on the ballot; the advantage is thought to be about 5 percent above the expected results under the assumption of totally unbiased position voting.”

Brockington, David. “A Low Information Theory of Ballot Position Effect.” Political Behavior 25.1 (2003): 1-27.

Abstract: This article suggests a theory of ballot position effect based on the amount of information present in the electorate while accounting for several alternative hypotheses. The more information that voters have, all other factors held constant, the less a role ballot position will play. Additionally, the role of electoral institutions in mitigating or magnifying the effect is considered. The theories are tested with precinct-level data from city council elections held in Peoria, Illinois, from 1983 through 1999. Position effect is found to account for a bonus of 0.7% to 5.2% of the precinct-level vote share per position on the ballot. The level of aggregate information and the institutional setting explain a significant share of ballot position effect, even while examined in the presence of alternative explanations such as incumbency, endorsement, campaign expenditure, gender, and race.

Ho, Daniel E. and Kosuke Imai. “Randomization Inference With Natural Experiments: An Analysis of Ballot Effects in the 2003 California Recall Election.” Journal of the American Statistical Assocation (2006).

Summary: This article concerns the 2003 California recall election and its primary insight is that, in an election with many candidates using a system where the candidates’ names are rotated to approximate randomness, there were significant advantages for the minor candidates but not for the two main candidates.

Koppell, Jonathan G.S. and Jennifer A. Steen. “The Effects of Ballot Placement on Election Outcomes.” The Journal of Politics 66.1 (2004):267-281

Abstract: This article presents evidence of name-order effects in balloting from a study of the 1998 Democratic primary in New York City, in which the order of candidates’ names was rotated by precinct. In 71 of 79 individual nominating contests, candidates received a greater proportion of the vote when listed first than when listed in any other position. In seven of those 71 contests the advantage to first position exceeded the winner’s margin of victory, suggesting that ballot position would have determined the election outcomes if one candidate had held the top spot in all precincts.

Summary: The article points out that effects may be greater in primaries than in general elections (using a recent Democratic House primary as an example) and also more significant in non-partisan elections. Psychologically, draws on a “satisficing” principle that states that actors will pick the most satisfactory of a set of alternatives even if it is not ideal, and that certain irrational factors can factor into the satisfaction threshold.

Meredith, Marc and Yuval Salant. “On the Causes and Consequences of Ballot Order-Effects.” MIT. Working paper.

Abstract: We investigate how ballot ordering influences who wins office in California City Council and school board elections. We find that being listed first on the ballot increases a candidate’s likelihood of winning office by about five percentage points. This effect is robust to the presence of incumbents in the race and to whether statewide races are concurrently on the ballot. The magnitude of the first candidate affect increases the more candidates participating in the race. Candidates listed second perform significantly worse than candidates listed first in multi-winner elections thus rejecting satisficing as the primary mechanism causing ballot-order effects.

Summary: This piece begins with a concise review of the existing research on the topic of ballot placement and order effects. It then emphasizes the increased ballot order effects in local elections and those with many candidates or multiple office-winners, stating that “a good deal of local governmental policies are likely being set by individuals elected only because of their ballot position.”

Miller, Joanne M. and Jon A. Krosnick. “The Impact of Candidate Name Order on Election Outcomes.” Public Opinion Quarterly 62.3 (1998): 291-330.

Abstract: Perceived obligations of citizen duty may compel some people to cast votes in democratic elections even when they lack sufficient information to make informed choices. Psychological theories of choice suggest that, under such circumstances, voters may be influenced by the order in which candidates’ names appear on the ballot, biasing people toward candidates listed early (when voters can generate reasons to vote for the candidates) or late (when voters can only generate reasons to vote against the candidates). Consistent with this reasoning, analyses of 1992 election returns in Ohio revealed that reliable name-order effects appeared in 48 percent of 118 races, nearly always advantaging candidates listed first, by an average of 2.5 percent. These effects were stronger in races when party affiliations were not listed, when races had been minimally publicized, and when no incumbent was involved. Furthermore, name-order effects were stronger in counties where voters were less knowledgeable about politics. All of this suggests that ballot structure influences election outcomes when voters lack substantive bases for candidate preferences. However, the magnitude of name-order effects observed here suggests that they have probably done little to undermine the democratic process in contemporary America.

Summary: This heavily cited work emphasizes contextual factors that determine if and to what extent placement effects will be present. It also points out implications for incumbency advantages and polling. The articles is particularly interesting given that, three years later, Krosnick was the star witness in a court decision (later overturned) that reversed the results of a mayoral election in California citing primacy effects and improper ballot configuration. (http://www.metnews.com/articles/barn031103.htm)

Taebel, Delbert A. “The Effect of Ballot Position on Electoral Success.” American Journal of Political Science 19.3 (1975): 519-526.

Abstract: Although the relationship between ballot position and electoral success has been well established in other studies, a controlled experimental study was conducted to assess the impact of name identification, the length of the ballot and the number of candidates. These intervening variables were found to be of some significance. Although the study demonstrates that candidates listed first enjoy a favorable advantage, it also demonstrates that this advantage is even greater for contests at the end of the ballot. Although the number of candidates in a particular contest seems to have no effect on the relationship, a high differential score in name identification offsets any advantage a candidate might enjoy as a result of ballot position. Finally, the study demonstrates that citizens are less likely to vote when the contenders are less well known.

Summary: Like the Brockington article, this article stresses that position effects are greatest when the candidates are relatively unknown.

Sinclair, Betty. “Is It Better to be First or Last? The Ballot Order Effect.” Caltech. VTP Working Paper (2005).

Summary: Using evidence from three consecutive general elections in California, this paper finds “little systematic evidence…that candidates are necessarily benefited by being listed first on the ballot.” Sinclair acknowledges that most previous literature has found such an advantage, but cites these papers’ failure to acknowledge the “compositional nature” of the data and uses a statistical transformation process that she claims will account for the dependent nature of the multiple variables involved (i.e., the fact that opponents’ vote totals are negatively correlated with one another). Furthermore, Sinclair claims that other scholars have focused too much on primacy at the cost of studying latency effects (which she acknowledges are weaker). Another reason she thinks ballot placement advantages may have been magnified is that “randomization and rotation does (sic) not produce a random sample,” and that inherent bias in elective districts may create the illusion of an independent primacy effect. Sinclair “finds little reason to believe” that ballot order effects could impact “anything but a very small fraction of races that are exceedingly close.” She concedes that effects may be greater for certain parties or candidates and in “less salient races.”

Compiled by Isaac Wood, Dan Boyle, and William Cooper, University of Virginia Center for Politics.