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WHO'S ON FIRST?
Does the Ballot Order of Candidates Make a Difference?

Larry J. Sabato
Director, U.Va. Center for Politics

Every year, about this time, I hear from people who have watched their state set the order of candidate appearance on the fall ballot. Some states put candidates in chronological order of their official filing with the elections board, while others choose candidates or parties by lot. In fact, the smorgasbord of ways each state arranges candidates is staggering, both in its variety and, often, its complexity (for a complete list of how each state determines ballot order, click here). Regardless of the method, inquiring political minds want to know, does it make any difference?

This is a question that has long fascinated political scientists. We like to study the behavior of voters. What leads citizens to vote the way they do?

Surely, the candidates' platforms, personalities, and party affiliations matter most, along with the circumstances of the election year (war or peace, prosperity or recession, scandal or clean government, and so on). Yet many elections are decided by a handful of votes, not just the national contests that soak up attention, such as the Florida Bush-Gore presidential match-up in 2000, but also many lower statewide offices and local offices. Even a slight nudge in one direction or another could determine the outcome of these elections.

The theory has always been that the most desirable position on the ballot for any candidate is to be listed first. Dozens of published articles and conference papers have been written on the subject, and collectively, they paint a picture more akin to Picasso than Norman Rockwell.

We've selected eight research essays on the topic, which Crystal Ball readers can see by clicking here. While not all the research is in agreement--no surprise there--my own interpretation of the bulk of the findings suggests the following:

  1. There is an advantage to being listed first on the ballot. Voters who do not have well defined choices prior to voting appear to latch onto the first name on the ballot for each office, a phenomenon we might call "first-listing bias." In the split-second process of decision-making, they do more thinking about this candidate. For those voters truly on the fence, this mental consideration of the first candidate can produce an affirmative vote. (An aside: One wonders whether the first-listing bias is as great for absentee and mail ballot voters, compared to those who turn up at the polls on Election Day. Voters can take their time at home--they can even do some internet research on the candidates before completing their ballots. At the polls, many voters feel anxious and tense. Everyone is in a hurry and being watched. No one wants to hold up the line. Alas, there is no research of which we are aware on this subject, perhaps because absentee ballots pose further obstacles to researchers. As one study stated, "We were unable to analyze absentee votes because name order is rotated from ballot to ballot, and records are not kept of vote totals separately for the different name orders.")
  2. The advantage for first-listed candidates varies widely. In some elections a first-listing produces just a handful of votes, though they can make the difference in an extremely close election. In other elections a first-listing can generate extra votes up to about 5% of the overall tally, according to some studies.
  3. Offices at the top of the ballot, for president, governor, and senator, produce the fewest additional votes for a first-listed candidate. That is because the candidates for these high-visibility offices tend to be well known, and most voters have made a firm decision about which to support prior to voting.
  4. Offices in the middle and bottom of the ballot are especially susceptible to the first-listing bias. Many candidates for lower statewide elected office (such as lieutenant governor, attorney general, labor commissioner, etc.) and other localized offices (state legislators, city councilors, and so on) are surprisingly little known by many voters. A voter may have gone to the polls specifically to vote for president or governor, and once in the voting booth be surprised to discover lots of other offices up for election. Some voters just skip these contests (which may be the responsible thing to do if one has not studied them in advance), and this produces a phenomenon called "voter fatigue" or "ballot drop-off." The number of votes cast for president is almost always much greater than the number of votes cast for any other office, for example. Often, the number of votes cast per office drops consistently as one moves down the ballot. However, other voters feel an obligation to be "good citizens" and cast a ballot even in races where the candidates are unknown to them. First-listing bias can be a major factor for these voters.
  5. Partisan elections have a lower first listing bias than nonpartisan elections. The party identification listed next to candidates serves as a major voting cue--an inducement to cast a ballot for a candidate--for the two-thirds of Americans who have a clearly identified partisan affiliation. (Actually, up to 85-90% of actual voters have at least some latent partisan identification, despite the tendency of about 35-40% of voters to claim they are "independents".) Without a party label next to the candidates' names, voters who are not especially attentive to politics, so-called low-information voters, have no "prompt" on the ballot to help them make a quick choice.
  6. Elections without well-known incumbents are more susceptible to first listing bias than those with such incumbents. Incumbency can substitute for a party label, in that less attentive voters may use name identification as a vote prompt where party identification is not available.
  7. Primary elections are more susceptible to first-listing bias than general elections. By definition, party primaries do not contain a party identification prompt. All the candidates are either Democrats or Republicans, and so party voters lack a key voting cue. On the other hand, incumbency (if it exists and especially if it is noted on the primary ballot) can substitute for the party prompt, and thereby minimize first-listing bias.
  8. The first-listing bias can be just as helpful to minor-party candidates and independents who gain the top ballot position. In other words, the first-listing bias doesn't merely assist Democrats and Republicans.
  9. There is some evidence that, in a long listing of candidates for a particular office, being listed last is almost as good as being listed first. This is somewhat biblical--"the first shall be last and the last shall be first"--but essentially, the suggestion is that the voter's eyes assess a large, multi-candidate field by focusing on the first listed candidate and then the last-listed candidate, with those positioned in the middle getting short-shrift. The first-listed candidate still gets more "extra" votes, but the last-listed candidate does second best in this category.
  10. Of all these principles that govern the first-listing bias, the most important are the degree of information held by individual voters and the position of the office on the ballot. Elections that draw a disproportionate number of well-informed voters have lower first-listing bias effects. And long ballots that ask voters to cast votes on an extended list of offices and candidates almost certainly exaggerate the first-listing bias for the offices toward the end of the ballot.

One of the key 2009 elections, the Virginia gubernatorial battle, is an echo of an earlier contest that may have involved first-listing bias. In 2005 Republican Bob McDonnell ran against Democrat Creigh Deeds for the office of state attorney general in Virginia. Attorney general is the third of three statewide offices listed on the ballot. As determined by lottery the prior June, McDonnell was put first on the ballot, Deeds second, and there were no other candidates. Party labels were listed on the ballot. After a recount, McDonnell won with 970,981 votes to 970,621 for Deeds, an astonishingly small difference of 360 votes--the closest statewide election in Virginia's history.

About 40,000 people who had voted for governor did not vote for attorney general, and disproportionately, these voters were found in heavily African-American precincts (where Democrat Deeds received almost 90% of the vote). This racially-tilted ballot drop-off is the single best structural explanation for Deeds's narrow loss.

However, the McDonnell-Deeds contest was not highly publicized, certainly compared to the race for governor. Few would argue that a sizeable percentage of the voters on Election Day knew little about either candidate. Given our principles of first-listing bias, it is highly probable that first-listed candidate McDonnell gained considerably more than his 360-vote margin from the luck of the June drawing.

This November, McDonnell and Deeds are facing off once more, this time for the top-of-the-ballot office of governor. This summer the Virginia Board of Elections held the lottery for ballot placement this November. McDonnell and the Republicans won the first listing again. The probability is great that this year's election won't be nearly as tight as the one four years ago. Deeds certainly hopes so, or he could be foiled a second time by first-listing bias.