Luck Of The Draw: Why Ballot Order Matters

The effects of ballot order are anything but random.(Jim Cole/AP)
The effects of ballot order are anything but random.(Jim Cole/AP)

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin is expected to announce this week the order in which presidential candidates’ names will appear on the ballot for the Democratic and Republican primaries on March 1. The slots will be determined by a random draw held on Tuesday.

But the effects of ballot order are anything but random. There have been scores of academic papers about whether being the first name voters see conveys a meaningful advantage. The short answer is yes, and by enough to make a meaningful difference, or even tip the balance in a tight race.

Massachusetts is a proportional allocation state, meaning who “wins” the primary makes little difference in terms of delegates awarded. But every win makes a difference in the media’s presentation of the race. In that sense, every vote counts.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center of Politics, has written a 10-point summary of the literature on ballot order effects. Overall, the research suggests that there is an advantage to being the first name printed on the ballot. There’s also an advantage to being the last name on the ballot in a large field, as we have in the GOP presidential primary this year.

The size of the effect varies depending on how much information voters have going into the voting booth. That means the effect is more prominent in down-ballot races for lower-profile offices. It’s also bigger for nonpartisan races than partisan ones; the theory being that in a partisan race, voters use the party affiliation of the candidate as a guide, even if they are not familiar with the names.

The opposite is true in primaries. By definition, there is no party distinction between the candidates in a primary. Lacking party cues, ballot order becomes a more important influence, since voters cannot simply zero in on their preferred party as a way of choosing.

How much of a bump are we talking about? It could be as much as 1 to 3 percentage points, or even higher for more obscure races. Stanford University professor and pollster Jon Krosnick has studied ballot order effects in Ohio, which rotates candidates’ names by precinct across the state. He found that being first on the ballot gave a candidate an average 2-percentage point advantage in 85 percent of the races he studied over 10 years. In California, which rotates candidate names by state assembly districts, the effect was even larger.

Could ballot-order decide a race? Krosnick noted that in 2000, it’s possible that George W. Bush’s very small margin of victory over Al Gore in Florida could be accounted for by his being listed first on the ballot. Under Florida law, the presidential and vice presidential candidates of the party that controls the governor’s office are listed first; the governor of Florida at the time was Bush’s brother, Jeb.

We’ll find out Tuesday whether the luck of the draw is with Jeb in Massachusetts.

Rich Parr is research director of The MassINC Polling Group and a contributor to WBUR Politicker.

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