Specialists in the mechanics of voting have long recognized that the order in which candidates’ names appear on a ballot influences voters’ decisions. Typically, candidates listed at the top of a ballot earn a greater share of the vote than they would receive in any other position, regardless of their policies and personalities. Now research on voting patterns in local state elections coauthored by a Kellogg School researcher has taken the issue a stage further. It concludes that the first listing on the ballot also increases a candidate’s chances of actually winning office—by almost five percentage points.
The results were clear-cut. “In one out of ten elections, the candidate listed first won just because he was listed first,” Salant recalls. “The first candidate advantage,” the paper notes, “comes primarily at the expense of candidates listed in the median ballot position who are 2.5 percentage points less likely to win office than expected absent order effects” (Figure 1). The first candidate advantage was “similar in city council and in school board elections, in races with and without an open seat, and in races consolidated and not consolidated with statewide general elections.” In addition, the percentages of winners from specific positions remained similar whether the elections were designed to produce one or more winners.
Figure 1: The frequency of winning office by ballot position.The expected value is the frequency a candidate would win office if there were no ballot order effects.
In more important elections such as those for governors, senators, and the presidency, ballot position may not have as much of an impact. “I would expect that the effect is smaller the more important the elections are,” Salant says. “But the results will still be there, particularly in close races. However, we don’t have enough data to confirm that.”
Overseas authorities have already taken practical advantage of ballot order. Salant and Meredith quote the example from Russia’s regional parliamentary elections in March 2007. In a supposedly random allocation of parties to ballot positions in these elections, the then-President Vladimir Putin’s Unified Russia party appeared in the first ballot position in eight of the fourteen regions, a full six regions more than expected under a random allocation.
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