Ballot Order Matters, Especially for the Underdogs

Baltimore City Paper

The order in which candidates appear on a ballot can affect the outcome of an election, plain and simple. It matters.

"Often, the number of votes cast per office drops consistently as one moves down the ballot," writes Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "However, other voters feel an obligation to be 'good citizens' and cast a ballot even in races where the candidates are unknown to them. First-listing bias can be a major factor for these voters."

Sabato took a composite of eight separate ballot order studies to come up with his findings. Several variables play into the amount of the effect of the positioning of candidates, but the impact is real. Common sense suggests that Maryland should move away from its current law of listing candidates alphabetically to a random ordering of contenders. This would be fairer, especially in lesser-known political races.

I am a candidate for Circuit Court judge in Baltimore City. I am not a judge and thus I am an underdog contender in a race that already garners little attention. I therefore follow ballot issues with great interest. I applaud the recent decision of the State Board of Elections to switch to a form of paper balloting for the upcoming primary election on April 26 so that candidates falling later in the list for their respective offices are not prejudiced by appearing on a second screen to voters as they would have been under the former computerized system.

The rationale behind the change was that voters may never switch screens to see candidates at the end of the list for different offices. In Baltimore City, that could be especially problematic in the Democratic mayoral race (13 contenders) and with mine, where there are eight contenders for Circuit Court judge. The Board's action highlights the ballot order issue that I raise. It acknowledges the reality of the advantages that candidates with last names in the beginning of the alphabet receive over those at the end.

A 2003 University of Vermont study says that "a candidate listed first on a ballot received, on average, two-and-half percent more of the vote than those listed after. Stronger effects were seen when the party affiliations were not listed, races were minimally publicized, or there was no incumbent running in the election." Unfortunately, Circuit Court judge elections are not in the public eye and most voters know little about the candidates (which I am working to change). Yet, judges can have a tremendous impact on issues directly relating to people's lives like crime, zoning, housing, and family matters—and judicial elections still end up as an afterthought.

Alphabetical ordering particularly favors the "sitting judges" running for reelection in Baltimore City this year. The other challenger, Jim Kraft, and I come after them in the list, respectively. As Sabato's studies show, judicial races tend to be of less interest than ones like the mayoral or presidential, which renders voters more likely to vote down the line, or in order. Thus, the incumbents get double protection in my race through the unbroken slate listing and alphabetical sequence. Running as a slate helps overwhelm or discourage challengers to the status quo. Finally, it exploits the electorate's unfamiliarity with the bench and its propensity to just vote for the first six names in the ballot. This is why randomizing candidate names is a better system.

Lawmakers in Annapolis should respond to this unfairness in the design of our ballots. As a state, we have a duty to give candidates an equal opportunity to be elected. Random listing would be an easy, inexpensive precaution to take for fairness' sake.

When I am campaigning, I find that people are happy to hear that a judicial candidate is actually speaking about his philosophies on the legal system. However, people often want to know where I fall in the list of candidates on the ballot. When they find that I am last on the ballot, voters recognize the problem and sympathize with me. They tell me all the time that I am at a disadvantage by being named "Oppenheim." I kind of think it has a nice ring to it, but their point is well taken.

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