California Governor Jerry Brown won an incremental victory on Monday when a Sacramento County superior judge ruled that his tax proposal will appear first on the ballot in November. Molly Munger is a proponent of a competing tax proposal who had filed suit against the governor to change the order of the eleven ballot measures and ensure that Brown’s initiative wasn’t at the top of the ballot, but her challenge failed in court even after her attorneys accused Los Angeles County elections officials of botching the tallying of signed petitions.
In California, initiatives appear on election ballots in the order in which the state certifies them after counties count and verify signatures on petitions. Many election experts believe that appearing higher on a paper ballot can increase a candidate’s or law’s chance of passing as fickle voters lose interest and their eyes move farther down the ballot.
Associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, Carole Uhlaner, said she does not believe the order of ballot proposals on the voting ticket matters. She acknowledged that “order matters” when dealing with candidate races because many voters will “drop off” -- or suffer from voter fatigue -- and tire when looking at a long list of names.
However, Uhlaner asserts the phenomenon of drop off does not apply to ballot propositions in the same way.
“When you’re dealing with propositions, people aren’t picking out of the ten or twelve propositions, they’re looking at it and they’re voting yes or no,” she said. “It’s a completely different dynamic.”
Citing statistical information from the 2008 presidential election and the 2010 general election, Uhlaner said when it came to voting on ballot measures, the number of votes cast for the measure first listed was fairly even with the number of votes cast for the last listed measure.
Stanford professor, Jon Krosnic, has done extensive research on voter habits including during the 2000 Bush-Gore election dispute. He said order does matter because apathetic voters may be uninformed and vote based on where candidates appear on the ballot. Even “very engaged voters” can face a dilemma when casting their vote and could be swayed based on candidacy order, Krosnic said.
“Imagine that you’re deeply torn between two candidates...[and] when you walk into the voting booth to finally make that choice, you may be genuinely torn and unable to do it on the basis of information alone,” Krosnic said. “In that situation people tend to lean towards the first candidate.”
Krosnic, like Uhlaner, said that while we have clear data on voter habits when it comes to candidate selections, the information we have on voting habits around ballot measures is not hard and fast. Nonetheless, he explained that it can be argued voters will give more thought to a ballot measure listed at the top than a measure at the bottom of the voting ticket.
Uhlaner said she believes what’s really important in voter decision is media exposure.
“If we look back, for instance to 2008, Prop 8 having to do with same-sex marriage had about a million votes more than the other propositions,” she explained. “And, as you might recall, Prop 8 was the measure that got quite a bit of publicity and that’s despite the fact it was number 8 on the ballot.”
How can the order of choices on a ballot influence the possibility of success? What is the fairest way to determine what appears where on a ballot?
Carole Uhlaner (YOU-law-ner), associate professor of political science at UC Irvine