Conventional political wisdom suggests the candidate listed first on a ballot enjoys a slight windfall of votes cast by those who don’t know or care enough to consider all their options. By focusing on particular elections, researchers have neglected to consider the broad consequences of arbitrary ballot ordering rules on legislative representation. To evaluate the substantive significance of ballot order rules, I compare the legislators of states that alphabetically order ballots to legislators elected by states that randomize or rotate ballot order. My research suggests that the seemingly innocuous choice of some states to alphabetize ballots has significantly altered the composition of state legislatures and even Congress. Scholarly interest in how ballots are designed and organized predates the explosion of interest in the subject generated by the 2000 Presidential Election. Most studies suggest the first candidate listed on a ballot enjoys an above average number of votes in certain elections. The less that voters know or care about the election, the greater the windfall of votes to the first listed candidate. Think how often you click the first link in Google search results and don’t bother to consider all your options. However, when the stakes are relatively high, as in partisan legislative elections, scholars suggest ballot order has little or no influence on voters. Accordingly, some have concluded that the distortions induced by ballot order are confined to low-level elections and do not affect the general political landscape. I was sceptical of this sanguine assessment of ballot order effects and looked at the impact of alphabetically ordering ballots on high-level legislative offices. I found that the practice of alphabetically ordering ballots, used in a number of states, significantly distorts the composition of their state legislatures and congressional delegations in favour of representatives with early-alphabet names.
I suspected that relatively small advantages to early-alphabet candidates in low-profile elections might distort the political process generally because in highly competitive endeavours, slight advantages, particularly those enjoyed early in a career, can set some on the road to success and stunt others’ development. We’ve seen how small advantages in youth sports alter the composition of professional leagues years later. Malcolm Gladwell’s (2008) popular book Outliers: The Story of Success highlighted how calendar cut-off dates in youth hockey leagues affect who later plays professional hockey. January babies are not inherently better hockey players, but they are bigger, faster, and more coordinated when they start playing hockey (they are nearly 20 percent older than December babies in a league for five-year-olds with a Jan. 1st cut-off date). Children born early in the year enjoy more opportunities to develop their skills and progress from one level to the next so the small, early advantage persists. Could the same thing happen in politics? Perhaps alphabetically ordering ballots gives certain candidates an edge at the beginning of their careers which gives them greater opportunities to advance to higher and higher offices. If so, we would expect legislators elected in states that alphabetically order ballots to have more early-alphabet names than those elected by states which utilize ballot ordering methods that neutralize name advantages.
My research takes advantage of the fact that states have used different methods of ordering their ballots. I identified sixteen states that have ordered primary election ballots alphabetically (some of these states alphabetize ballots in other types of elections as well) and twenty states that have ordered by random assignment or by rotating multiple versions of their ballots among precincts. I use legislators elected by states that rotate or randomize the order of candidates on ballots as a comparison group because these practices neutralize potential name advantages. (I don’t compare legislators’ names to the distribution of names in the general population because there may be some general advantages to early alphabet names in all states).