First Among Equals?
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Politics & Elections Oct 1, 2010

First Among Equals?

Prime ballot position improves a candidate’s chances of winning office.

Hand places vote in box

ojogabonitoo via iStock

Based on the research of

Marc Meredith

Yuval Salant

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.

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The research, by Yuval Salant, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics & deci­sion sci­ences at Kel­logg, and Marc Mered­ith, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, also exam­ined why vot­ers show a pref­er­ence for can­di­dates in the first posi­tion on the bal­lot. The pair have not found a com­plete answer to that ques­tion yet. But they con­clude that the rea­son most com­mon­ly giv­en for vot­ers’ pref­er­ence — choos­ing the first name that appeals to the vot­er as he or she reads down the bal­lot — does not ful­ly account for the result.

Salant’s research focus­es on fram­ing effects — how pre­sen­ta­tion can influ­ence a person’s choice in such sit­u­a­tions as the order of prod­ucts shown to online shop­pers and the pre­cise place­ment of items in super­mar­kets. There’s a large exper­i­men­tal and empir­i­cal lit­er­a­ture on that, but my focus is main­ly on the the­o­ry behind fram­ing effects,” Salant explains.

A Nat­ur­al Exper­i­ment
Salant and Mered­ith sought to mea­sure the impact of fram­ing on win­ning office rather than vote share, and in the process col­lect­ed an entire­ly new dataset,” Salant recounts. He and Mered­ith based it on the results of elec­tions to city coun­cils and school boards in Cal­i­for­nia. Why Cal­i­for­nia? We were look­ing for a nat­ur­al exper­i­ment: a sit­u­a­tion in which the order of can­di­dates on the bal­lot is deter­mined ran­dom­ly,” Salant explains. The Gold­en State sat­is­fied that require­ment, because it has a unique method of assign­ing bal­lot posi­tions to ensure that can­di­dates whose sur­names start with the let­ter A” do not dom­i­nate the top of the ballot.

In one out of ten elec­tions, the can­di­date list­ed first won just because he was list­ed first.”

After the Cal­i­for­nia local elec­tion entry-dead­line has passed, the Cal­i­for­nia Sec­re­tary of State draws a ran­dom order of the alpha­bet accord­ing to which can­di­dates are list­ed on all bal­lots,” the researchers’ paper states. Because can­di­dates posi­tions’ on the bal­lot are qua­si-ran­dom, Salant and Mered­ith expect­ed the dis­tri­b­u­tion of can­di­dates’ char­ac­ter­is­tics and the num­ber of win­ners to be sim­i­lar for all bal­lot posi­tions. They then count­ed how many win­ners came from the first posi­tion and cal­cu­lat­ed the expect­ed num­ber from that posi­tion, and com­pared them using sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis,” Salant says.

Clear-cut Results
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.”

Nor did the project pro­duce enough infor­ma­tion to deter­mine just why bal­lot order has such a sig­nif­i­cant effect on win­ning office. A pop­u­lar expla­na­tion is that vot­ers indulge in sat­is­fic­ing”: they eval­u­ate the can­di­dates as they scroll down the bal­lot and choose the first one that meets their basic cri­te­ria, instead of select­ing the best can­di­date from the entire list. How­ev­er, Salant and Mered­ith cau­tion against over sim­pli­fied expla­na­tions. Care­ful analy­sis of the Cal­i­for­nia results indi­cates that sat­is­fic­ing does not account for the com­plete first can­di­date advan­tage. There is some­thing else going on here, but we don’t have enough data to deter­mine what it is,” Salant says.

Prac­ti­cal Con­sid­er­a­tions
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. This find­ing under­scores the impor­tance of ensur­ing that any poli­cies done to mit­i­gate order effects, like ran­dom­iza­tion or rota­tion, are done so in a fair man­ner,” they conclude.

Nev­er­the­less, their research shows that authen­tic ran­dom­iz­ing of bal­lot order can improve the fair­ness of elec­tions. Yet is the Cal­i­for­nia sys­tem fair enough? An ide­al sys­tem, Salant says, would show each indi­vid­ual vot­er a ran­dom­ized bal­lot order. But that, would be very cost­ly,” he adds. Elec­tron­ic vot­ing could help reduce the finan­cial cost of such a sys­tem, but with ran­dom­iza­tion vot­ers may still get con­fused, which is the oth­er source of cost,” he says.

Vot­ers are not the only ones who can ben­e­fit from this research. Details that seem irrel­e­vant may affect the way we behave in oth­er set­tings, like the super­mar­ket, buy­ing online, and choos­ing a retire­ment plan,” Salant says. As indi­vid­u­als, we should be alert to order and oth­er fram­ing effects when mak­ing decisions.”

Relat­ed read­ing on Kel­logg Insight:

Engi­neered Elec­tion­eer­ing: The when” and what” of can­di­dates’ messages

Vot­ers Love Win­ners (And So Do Endorsers): How endorsers can gain the upper hand

Pre­dict­ing Pol­i­tics: Pre­dic­tion mar­kets out-pre­dict polit­i­cal pollsters

Featured Faculty

Yuval Salant

Associate Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences

About the Writer

Peter Gwynne is a freelance writer based in Sandwich, Mass.

About the Research

Meredith, Marc, and Yuval Salant. Forthcoming. On the Causes and Consequences of Ballot Order Effects. Political Behavior, January 2012.

Read the original

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