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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The View from the Bottom (of the Alphabet)

Much was made during the presidential election about the potential of a "Bradley effect" in which it was predicted that Barack Obama might suffer anywhere from 3-6 point penalty on election day because of his race. It's questionable whether such an effect occurred in this race or, indeed, whether it actually ever existed at all. But while the Bradley effect got all the attention, Obama was facing another form of discrimination from voters as they pondered their ballots -- the alphabetical kind. In addition to his race, his non-traditional upbringing and his middle name, Obama also had to overcome the burden of having a surname that falls in the last half of the alphabet.

The importance here is, of course, with ballot position. In the states that decide ballot order alphabetically, McCain (who is no alphabetical star himself) managed to secure a higher ballot position than Obama. With some empirical studies suggesting that ballot order can translate into a several percentage point advantage for the higher-placed candidate, the issue of alphabetical discrimination threatened to have as much of an impact on this election as the infamous Bradley effect. As an alphabetically challenged individual myself, I'll admit to taking this all pretty seriously.

In all fairness, recent research by Daniel Ho of Stanford and Kosuke Imai of Princeton concluded that ballot order likely has "no detectable effects on major party candidates" (although it might "significantly affect" minor party candidates.) The big pay-off comes in the primaries where Ho and Imai found "being listed first significantly increases vote shares for all candidates." This means that Obama had to work extra hard to beat out alphabetical-showoff Hillary Clinton.

Some states have recognized the inherent unfairness of alphabetical order. The State of California, for example, has been at the forefront of the fight against alphabetical discrimination. California law requires that each letter of the alphabet be written on a separate piece of paper and put into a "capsule." The capsules are placed into a container which must be "shaken vigorously." Each capsule is then selected one at a time until an entirely new alphabetical order is created that determines ballot order. If more than one candidate's surname starts with the same letter, the order within that letter follows the same randomized alphabet. This ballot order is then rotated among the state's 80 assembly districts. I was living in California during the highly publicized 2003 gubernatorial recall and can attest that on my ballot all 135 candidates for governor appeared in what could only be described as an entirely chaotic order. The extra effort it took to find my candidate was a small price to pay, in my view, for avoiding alphabetical discrimination.

If more states follow suit, perhaps we'll someday live in a land where we can all overcome our alphabetical destiny. That's a change I can believe in.

Posted by Sonja West on November 18, 2008 at 12:51 PM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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Like Ms. Clinton, I married my way up the alphabet in order to address such discriminations.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Nov 20, 2008 5:32:54 PM

I do wish we could get rid of this notion that there's something inherently neutral and fair about alphabetical order. A couple of years ago, researchers at Stanford and CalTech published findings showing that economists whose last names begin with letters earlier in the alphabet are more likely to receive tenure at top universities, more likely to become fellows of the top economics society and more likely to receive the Nobel Prize and other prestigious awards. They attributed this phenomenon to the practice in economics of listing multiple authors of papers in alphabetical order. When psychologists publish papers, they don't follow this convention; and the study found that there is no alphabetical advantage for psychologists.

Love the Simpsons reference!

Posted by: Sonja West | Nov 19, 2008 1:45:58 PM

And the need to get beyond it is not just electoral. I married up in the alphabet--my wife's name begins with an 'A'. I semi-seriously considered taking her last name just for purposes of going on the Meat Market and getting my FAR to the front of the book.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 18, 2008 9:02:48 PM


(Or should I say, "Zmen")

Posted by: C. Zorn | Nov 18, 2008 7:15:20 PM

I was just making a tangential (and hopefully humorous) reference to one of my favorite Simpsons moments.

Selma Oh, we promise we won’t tell [that Marge is pregnant].
Back at their apartment, Patty and Selma open the phone book to the first page.
Patty [dials] Hello, is this A. Aaronson? It might interest you to know that Marge Simpson is pregnant again.
[Flash forward…]
Patty Just thought you’d like to know, Mr. Zykowski. [hangs up, sighs] There. Aaronson and Zykowski are the two biggest gossips in town. In an hour, everyone will know.

Posted by: A. Aaronson | Nov 18, 2008 3:34:09 PM

This dates back at least 10 years (I read it in a textbook a looong time ago), but there have been studies showing that candidates do better who (a) have alliterative names and (b) have nordic names. The text then snarkily noted that Andrew Allanson would be unbeatable -- and I think that "double A" name was their real example without even noting the alphabetical effect!

Posted by: Scott Moss | Nov 18, 2008 2:49:45 PM

I was under the impression that in civilized states, ballot order is shuffled across the universe of ballots, so that the people who just vote for the first name effectively cancel each other out. But I could see that being a problem with 135 candidates.

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Nov 18, 2008 2:36:46 PM

I'm not sure what empirical evidence there is that alphabetical discrimination exists. Let's say that it does. I would be far more concerned with a voter not being able to find his/her candidate than a voter who chooses a name that's closest to the top of an alphabetical list. For the latter voter, it's not the order of the candidates' names that matters. It's the fact that this voter is not educated enough on the candidates and their corresponding platforms to choose one over another based on, oh, merit. The solution is not to hope that uneducated voters cast at least a more random selection of votes than votes for people with last names starting with, say, A through L; it's to educate the voters so that they make more reasoned decisions.

Posted by: Box 1581 | Nov 18, 2008 1:39:11 PM

I see no problem with keeping things the way they are.

Posted by: A. Aaronson | Nov 18, 2008 1:38:21 PM

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