If you’re a registered voter in Flagler County, you should have received your sample ballot for the Nov. 2 election by now–or will receive it soon. You’ll notice that in every partisan race, the Republican candidate is listed first, the Democratic candidate second. Other parties are then listed, and independents, or those with no party affiliation, are listed last, and not even in alphabetical order.
It’s not Republican conspiracy. It’s state law.
“The names of the candidates of the party that received the highest number of votes for governor in the last election in which a governor was elected,” Florida law reads, “shall be placed first under the heading for each office on the general election ballot, together with an appropriate abbreviation of party name; the names of the candidates of the party that received the second highest vote for governor shall be second under the heading for each office, together with an appropriate abbreviation of the party name.”
Republicans have been controlling the governor’s mansion since the last century. So Republican candidates have been appearing at the top of the ballot since then, just as Democrats used to when they controlled the governorship. So what you see on Flagler’s sample ballot is what you’ll see on every county ballot across the state.
Ballot position created a bit of an issue for Charlie Crist, who’s running in the busisest race on the ballot. The US Senate contest has drawn 10 named candidates, including Marco Rubio as the Republican and Kendrick Meek as the Democrat. Two other party candidates are next (Libertarian Alexander Snitker and Constitution Party of Florida candidate Bernie DeCastro), followed by the brood of independents. Crist is listed ninth–the ballot’s reigning irony, considering that Crist still controls the governorship. The names are not listed alphabetically, but according to whoever filed to run first. “It’s an issue, obviously,” Crist said last month. “We’re just going to have to have an education process to make sure people know it’s not the normal course of affairs.”
The race for governor is slightly less busy: seven candidates, with Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink at the top and a confederacy of strangers below.
In non-partisan races, alphabetical listings take over. So in the Flagler County school board race, John Fischer is first, Raven Sword is second–an order that happens to reflect the two candidates’ tendencies: Fischer is a tea party-type, Bible-thumping Republican, Sword is on the progressive side of most issues. It gets a bit more complicated in hyper-local races such as those for the Grand Haven Community Development District, where candidates tend to battle for the furthest spot on the right wing.
Ballot placement is not always determined by law. In Tennessee, the law is silent on who is first, but whoever has controlled the governor’s mansion has usually done what Florida does. In more enlightened states, regular rotation or the alphabet rule. In Ohio, for example, the name order is simply rotated.
Whether ballot position matters is chronically debated question. A 2005 study of by the California Institute of Technology found “little systematic evidence” that order mattered. But a University of Vermont Study found that in Ohio, “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.” (Read the full study.)
That may spell bad news for local candidates in non-partisan races.
Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political science professor and director of the university’s Center for Politics, analyzed eight studies on the matter and found that yes, ballot position does matter–and whoever is on top is favored, but very slightly, and not in all races.
“Surely, the candidates’ platforms, personalities, and party affiliations matter most, along with the circumstances of the election year (war or peace, prosperity or recession, scandal or clean government, and so on),” Sabato wrote. “Yet many elections are decided by a handful of votes, not just the national contests that soak up attention, such as the Florida Bush-Gore presidential match-up in 2000, but also many lower statewide offices and local offices. Even a slight nudge in one direction or another could determine the outcome of these elections.”
In sum, he concludes, there is an advantage to being listed first because some voters — the least informed, the laziest and the least committed — will pick the first name thrown at them. And those voters do exist. There’s also fence-sitters who have just a split second to make a decision when in the voting booth. “For those voters truly on the fence, this mental consideration of the first candidate can produce an affirmative vote,” Sabato writes.
That’s especially true in local races. He writes: “A voter may have gone to the polls specifically to vote for president or governor, and once in the voting booth be surprised to discover lots of other offices up for election. Some voters just skip these contests (which may be the responsible thing to do if one has not studied them in advance), and this produces a phenomenon called “voter fatigue” or “ballot drop-off.” The number of votes cast for president is almost always much greater than the number of votes cast for any other office, for example. Often, the number of votes cast per office drops consistently as one moves down the ballot. 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.” (See Sabato’s full list of ballot effects.)
As of Sept. 30, Flagler had 62,360 registered voters. Of those, 24,077 were registered Democrats (38.6 percent), 23,377 were registered Republican (37.5 percent), and 14,906 were registered as having no party affiliation (23.9 percent).