One of the basic insights of behavioral science is that the format of a choice set—how the options are arranged on a page—can significantly shape our decisions. This is true when ordering a meal at a restaurant, but also at the ballot box, as the design of a paper ballot can influence which candidates we end up voting for. For example, studies led by Jon Krosnick at Stanford University have shown that candidates at the top of the ballot get, on average, about 2 percentage points more votes than they would have if listed farther down. This primacy effect even holds in national elections, when voters are more familiar with the candidates. When the name order of candidates was randomized on the California state ballot in the 2000 election, George W. Bush’s vote total was 9 percentage points higher in districts where his name appeared first versus last, Krosnick says. To deal with this bias, many states have begun randomizing the order of candidates, taking steps to ensure that a cognitive quirk doesn’t determine the winner of the election.
In recent years, however, the paper ballot has begun to be replaced by the touchscreen, with approximately 30 percent of U.S. voters using some sort of electronic device to choose their preferred candidate. While this transition has real advantages—there are no “hanging chads” in voting machines—it also comes with potential downsides, such as vulnerability to hackers and malware.
As a behavioral economist, I’m interested in how the simple act of voting on a screen (and not on paper) might shift our political preferences. Although we typically assume that our desires and choices are unaffected by technology—we’ll pick the same things regardless of whether we’re in a retail store or on a website—there’s preliminary evidence that these digital devices might be shifting the patterns of our behavior, altering how we process information and make decisions in all sorts of subtle and interesting ways.