All Politics is Local

In Washington, candidates’ names are randomly listed on the ballot. What does this say about voters?

Each year, after candidates officially file for political office in Washington, they perform a ritual intended to bring a little more fairness to an uncontrollable aspect of modern elections.

After making their run official during filing week (which concluded last week), candidates in Clark County meet at the county’s elections office to pick a Scrabble tile out of a bag, said Elections Supervisor Cathie Garber. Each tile has a number attached to it that determines where each candidate’s name will appear on the ballot, she said.

The reasoning behind using a process to randomly determine the order of the ballot is that candidates whose name appear at the top will draw more votes than their opponents who occupy a less prominent position.

Local election offices are required to do this under state law. But is it necessary? Is democracy in really such a shabby state that a substantial number of voters make their decision based on the first name they see on the ballot and not even bother to consider the rest of the candidates?

Longtime Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey said there is evidence that candidates whose name appears at the top of the ballot do have an advantage in some circumstances.
Kimsey said that about a dozen years ago, a candidate that lost their race complained that having the third position on the ballot hurt their chances.

At the time, Kimsey said he didn’t buy it. But former Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman (who must sit around reading academic journals in his leisure time) sent Kimsey two scholarly articles earlier this year. Kimsey said the articles convinced him there is evidence that ballot position makes a difference in how many votes a candidate gets.

One 2013 study published by Marc Meredith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and Yuval Salant, professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, looked at the effect of ballot order on the outcomes of California city council and school board elections.

“We find that candidates listed first on the ballot are between four and five percentage points more likely to win office than expected absent order effects,” reads the paper. “This estimate implies that the first listed candidate wins roughly one out of every ten elections that he or she would otherwise lose.”

The paper noted that this advantage is larger in races with more candidates and is more helpful to higher-quality candidates. This advantage comes at the expense of candidates in the middle of the ballot, according to the paper.

The paper explains that some voters engage in “satisficing behavior” where they seek to economize the cognitive costs that come with evaluating each candidate and will vote for the first candidate that meets or exceeds their expectations.

Another study  by Darren Grant, a professor at Sam Houston State University, that looked at Texas elections drew similar conclusions, especially for down-ballot races. The study found that for these elections, a candidate going from last to first on a ballot raised their vote share by nearly 10 percentage points. The study found that the exception is for a “few high-profile, high-information races.”

Kimsey said the conclusion he draws from the papers is that ballot position matters in elections where voters don’t have much information.

“What my conclusion from these reports is (that) we need a statewide voter pamphlet for the primary,” said Kimsey, who is running unopposed for reelection.

Kimsey said that the county issues a printed voters pamphlet for local races in July before the August primary. He said that voters will call complaining that the pamphlet doesn’t have any information on statewide races. He said that he will refer them to online information, but he said that these voters find that “not satisficing.”

“Printed is best, absolutely,” he said. “We know voters prefer a printed voters pamphlet.”

But getting a statewide voters pamphlet will require convincing the Legislature to fund it.

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