Democracy Inaction

13 March 2008

Kriston Capps makes an interesting point about ballot placement and the recent wave of presidential primary voting:

The contest attracted an unprecedented number of new voters and Democratic Party registratants. However, the hype didn't do much to enlighten the issues surrounding the other twenty contests on the ballot. “The level of ignorance was astonishing,” says Grant. Grant—who lost the primary to Larry Joe Doherty—explains that new voters who showed up at polls to affirm their support for either Clinton or Obama were not necessarily aware that other contests were even at stake. Those new voters ticked off the first name to appear in each of the nonpresidential contests, claims Grant, lending weight to candidates whose names appear first in the alphabet. And in the end, D comes before G. Alpha-deficient Grant explains that there was a striking difference between results at those polls where the Doherty and Grant campaigns supplied literature and those that went unstaffed.
I have to say, just as the article highlights, that part of the problem is a lack of available information and local media. The last time I voted, it was downright difficult to find information about the local contests and the candidates' stances and qualifications. Now that I'm registered in a big city, it will probably be easier. But surely, in the Internet age, there has to be some sort of resource...

(via Matthew Yglesias)

UPDATE: Of course I'd still like to see some data to back up the whole alphabet-bias thing, but it sure as hell sounds plausible.

UPDATE II: Commenter (and UT Austin shirt-wearer) Lee points out that ballot ordering in Texas is not simply alphabetical, but rather random (or possibly different on a county-by-county basis). The idea that people tend to tick off the first name on a ballot is still possible of course, and appears to actually be backed up by data. Stanford psychology professor Jon Krosnick has studied just this issue, and found that it can sometimes be a big help.
Candidates listed first on the ballot get about two percentage points more votes on average than they would have if they had been listed later (flipping a 49 to 51 defeat into a 51 to 49 victory). In fact, in about half the races I have studied, the advantage of first place is even bigger — certainly big enough to win some elections these days.


Lee said...

I'm afraid the alphabetical order theory doesn't hold much water: ballot ordering of names is selected at random, not by alpha order (at least here in Texas), and I think it varies from county to county. Now, you could make a similar argument that whoever gets lucks into top placement gets more votes, and I'll bet there is data to support that somewhere.

Samuel Brainsample said...

Thanks for the input, Lee. I updated the post with a NY Times article backing up the whole placement-bias thing, too.