Ballot Placement: A Delicate Balance

What impact does the placement of names and issues on ballots have on election results? Plenty. Stanford professor Jon Krosnick discusses the issue with Lynn Neary.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

If this election was like past elections - and there's no reason to believe it wasn't - then many races around the country were decided by the simple fact that one candidate's name appeared above another's on the ballot. At least nine Congressional races could've gone the other way, though as it turned out about half would've gone to the Democrats and half to the Republicans.

Stanford University professor John Krosnick has drawn that conclusion from research that shows that the vast majority of time coming first on the ballot increases a candidate's vote total by an average of two percent. Professor Krosnick joins us now from our bureau in Chicago, where he's attending a conference. Thanks so much for being with us.

Professor JOHN KROSNICK (Stanford University): Pleasure to be here.

NEARY: Now, before we get to this year's elections, first of all let me ask you how you know that ballot placement makes a difference.

Prof. KROSNICK: Well, Joanne Miller and I have been studying name order effects in elections for about ten years now. And we started by studying Ohio, which turns out to be a wonderful place to do this. Because the law there requires that candidate name order be rotated from precinct to precinct.

So if you and I are running against each other for dogcatcher, you get to listed first half the time and I get listed first half the time, and which precincts you and I are first in is determined basically randomly. So for social scientists, this is a dream come true, because it's a real experiment done in the real world with real voters in real elections. And we can ask whether you get more votes when you're listed first and whether I get more votes when I'm listed first.

And what we found is exactly what you said, that in 85 percent of the cases that we looked at, we found on average candidates were doing better by two percent.

NEARY: Can you give me a specific example of a real result in a real election?

Prof. KROSNICK: Well, we have studied not only Ohio but also North Dakota and California - where there is also name order rotation - and in 2000 in California, George W. Bush got nine percent more votes in the assembly districts where he was listed first than in the assembly districts where he was listed last.

And in California they also rotate name order across assembly districts. And this difference of nine percent we still saw even when we took into account the fact that certain districts tend to vote Democratic and others tend to vote Republican.

NEARY: What's the psychology behind this, the idea that the name that's there first is the one that people go for first?

Prof. KROSNICK: Well, it turns out that what we call primacy affects the tendency to grab the first thing you see are no unique to elections. We see it when people taste test beers, for example. They tend to like the first beer they taste. When students get test question answers incorrect, they tend to do so by picking one of the first choices that were offered to them.

But in elections, the psychology of it is a bit different. There are really two reasons it appears that people grab the first name they see. The first is lack of information, the second reason is ambivalence. There is lots of evidence that in recent years many Americans have walked into voting booths deeply ambivalent even in visible races for president of the United States, torn, seeing advantages of candidates on both sides. And when they find themself in the voting booth with a long line of people behind them and they've got to get out to work and they still haven't made a choice and they were hoping to be inspired when they saw the names there, just to get out of the booth they grab the first name that they see and move on with life.

NEARY: But this isn't enough to reverse the results of a race, the research you've done, is it?

Prof. KROSNICK: In fact, we have seen that. For example, if you look at Florida in 2000, what's interesting about Florida, as you know, it was a razor sharp margin and George Bush was declared the victor, yet his name was listed first on every ballot in Florida. Because the law in Florida is that it's the party of the governor, in this case his brother Jeb Bush, who has their candidates listed first in every race.

Now, in 2000 in California, a state very similar to Florida in many ways in terms of its electorate, as I mentioned earlier, we saw this nine percentage point difference due to name order.

So if anything approximating that, even half of it, even a quarter of it, even a tenth of it, had occurred in Florida in 2000, Al Gore would have won the presidency in that year.

NEARY: Well, given what you're saying, is this something that state election officials should be paying closer attention to and is there a remedy?

Prof. KROSNICK: There is a remedy and as it turns out, Ohio is the wonderful illustration I think of optimal fairness and accountability. As I said, in Ohio name is order is rotated from precinct to precinct. Now, it's a pain for the elections officials who have to be very careful about how to implement this every year and make sure they do it fairly. But overwhelmingly often they do do it fairly.

And what's nice about it is every candidate gets an equal opportunity to be listed first, and anyone who wants to inspect it can always look at the ballots on Election Day to be sure each precinct's ballots are as they should be according to the law.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much, John.

Prof. KROSNICK: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: John Krosnick teaches at Stanford University. He joined us from our Chicago bureau.

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