COLUMBUS, Ohio – The ordering of candidates' names on ballots in the upcoming California recall election will likely affect the outcome, if the state's presidential election is a guide.
In the 2000 presidential race, George W. Bush received 9 percent more votes among Californians when he was listed first on the ballot than when he was listed later, a new study found.
"Even in high profile elections such as the presidential race and upcoming recall contest, name order on the ballot can make a big difference," said Jon Krosnick, co-author of the study and professor of psychology and political science at Ohio State.
"When the candidates are listed first, they have a real advantage."
Krosnick said that, in major elections, name order may matter most when voters are ambivalent about their choices – a factor that may come into play in the recall election.
On Oct. 7, California voters will go to the polls to decide whether to recall Gov. Gray Davis. They will also decide among 135 other candidates who will battle to replace Davis if he is recalled.
How all the candidates are listed on the ballot could play an important role in the results.
In this new study, Krosnick and two colleagues examined how ballot position affected votes cast for the presidential candidates in three states: California, North Dakota and Ohio. All three states rotate candidate names on ballots within the state. And in all three states, Bush received more votes when he was listed first on the ballots. Other presidential candidates also tended to do better when listed first, but the results were not statistically significant, Krosnick said.
The study will be published soon as a chapter in the book Rethinking the Vote: The Politics and Prospects of American Election Reform (Oxford University Press). Krosnick's co-authors are Michael Tichy of Ohio State and Joanne Miller of the University of Minnesota.
There is more evidence that name placement on ballots matters.
In an earlier study of Ohio elections published in 1998, Krosnick and Miller found that candidates received an average of 2.33 percent more votes when their names appeared first on the ballots, rather than when their names were listed last. However, in some races, candidates received as much as 6 percent more votes when listed first compared to being listed last.
Under the California system, the letters of the alphabet were picked at random in a drawing to create a new alphabetical order. Candidates for the recall election will be placed on the ballot based on this new, randomized alphabetical order. Because "R" was the first letter picked, candidates whose last name begins with "R" will be listed at the top of the ballot in one of the state's 80 assembly districts. However, the top name will fall to the bottom in the next Assembly district and all the other names will move up one position on the list. The process will continue in all of the Assembly districts.
But because there are only 80 Assembly districts, only 80 of the candidates will get to be listed first on any of the ballots. And because the letter "L" was chosen last in the lottery, candidates whose last names begin with that letter will never get top billing since there are 135 candidates.
"Candidates whose last names begin with letters picked near the end of the lottery have it tough," Krosnick said. "They will never get the advantage that comes from being listed first on the ballot."
Some analysts have suggested that name order on a ballot is only important in obscure races where voters don't know party affiliations and there is little media coverage of the candidates. But Krosnick noted that in his new study, even the presidential race in 2000 showed name order effects.
"The presidential race involved candidates labeled with party affiliations and a great deal of publicity, yet a name order effect appeared nonetheless," he said.
Krosnick said name order might matter, even in highly publicized races, when voters are ambivalent about the choices they face.
"If people are faced with a variety of candidates who seem to be equally appealing, some voters may simply default to choosing the candidate who appears first," Krosnick said.
"It seems likely that there will be a great deal of ambivalence among California voters about the recall election with so many candidates and issues to consider when making a choice," Krosnick said. "This election seems to be one where name order will play a role."
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