Americans are slowly becoming aware of the ways in which partisan redistricting and vote suppression are torpedoing the democratic ideal of “one person, one vote.” In the absence of something egregious like Florida’s “hanging chads,” however, we are still less likely to recognize the partisan effects of ballot design.
It’s a political truism: The candidate whose name appears first on the ballot has an advantage over the competitors listed below. That’s not just folklore — numerous studies around the country have shown that candidates who are listed first receive more votes. The advantage is so marked that in Illinois, one of several states where ballot position is based on the order of filing, candidates wait in line overnight to gain the top spot.
I can attest to the accuracy of those studies. When I first became politically active (back in the Ice Age), Indiana awarded ballot positions alphabetically. A gentleman who had changed his name to Aaocker was a perennial candidate for a number of offices. He always ran in Republican primaries (back then, Marion County was solidly Republican), where turnout was lower, and he could be counted on to skim some 2000 votes from the others on the ballot.
I’ve lost track of Indiana’s current approach to ballot placement–I leave it to a reader to enlighten us–but ballot order is a state decision, and it varies widely from state to state. In November, a federal court blocked a ballot order law in Florida; that law automatically gave the top position in every race to the candidate of the last-elected governor’s party.
As a result of that law, Republican candidates have been listed first in every race on every ballot in the state for the last two decades. In 2016, Donald Trump’s name appeared before Hillary Clinton’s. In 2018, Ron DeSantis was listed above Andrew Gillum in the gubernatorial race, and Rick Scott was listed above Bill Nelson in the election for U.S. Senate.
The court found that first place on the ballot was worth five percentage points, and noted that Trump had defeated Clinton by just over one percentage point, that DeSantis won by four-tenths of a point, and Scott beat Nelson by just one-tenth of a point.
Florida Republicans are appealing the decision.
As the article points out, if the appeal is successful, we will face a situation not unlike redistricting; just as states manipulate district lines to advance partisan interests, states will approach ballot design from a similarly partisan perspective.
Without any judicial check, changing election rules for partisan advantage will become a tool for both parties. For example, the newly elected Democratic majority in Virginia could provide that Democratic candidates are listed first and Republican candidates are listed third. New Jersey could pass a law allowing Democratic candidates to be listed first with their party affiliation but limiting all other candidates to an alphabetical order without any party identification. New York could retain straight-ticket voting for Democrats but not for Republicans. Massachusetts could allow longer voting hours for registered Democrats than Republicans.
The fact that voters go to the polls so unprepared that they vote for the first name on a ballot’s list is depressing. When good government organizations urge people to vote, they are really encouraging them to cast an informed vote. But–as in so many areas of contemporary life–there’s a wide gap between the real and the ideal.
Allowing partisans to use that gap to undermine the choices of voters who are informed is cheating. But good sportsmanship is so last century….