East Hawaii News

Bill Would Change Order of Names on Ballot

February 6, 2013, 1:40 PM HST
* Updated February 7, 12:13 PM
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What’s in a name?

Apparently some advantage, according to a bill under consideration at the state Legislature.

House Bill 32 would change state law dictating the way candidates’ names are placed on election ballots.

They currently are listed alphabetically (with a rare exception; more on that later), but the bill would change that.

The new method would have the state’s chief election officer select a letter of the alphabet by lot, and candidates with last names beginning with that letter would be listed first, followed by those with letters that follow alphabetically.

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The reason for the proposed change is “to ensure fairness in the election process,” according to a report from the House Committee on Judiciary which approved the measure last week.

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The theory is that some people might just pick the first name listed on the ballot in a race.

That is the conventional wisdom, according to a study done by three California researchers on the “ballot-order effect.”

“Previous empirical research and other related research from survey methodology holds that candidates listed first on an election ballot may gain some measure of advantage from this ballot placement,” the study said.

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The authors, which include a political science professor from the California Institute of Technology and a professor of law from Loyola Law School, note that the prevailing belief has been shared by courts.

They cite as an example a case in which a lower court ruled that the incumbent who lost in the 2001 mayor’s race in Compton, Calif. should retain his seat because the county clerk failed to properly randomize the names on the ballot. That ruling, however, was later overturned on appeal.

They also note that in 1975 the California Supreme Court held that there was enough evidence of the ballot-order effect to reject a state law requiring incumbents to be listed first on the ballot.

But other courts have found the proof less compelling. That includes a New Jersey court which in 1999 compared the evidence of the ballot-order effect roughly equivalent as that of the “legitimacy of the Easter Bunny.”

In the end, the researchers found “little systematic evidence that candidate vote shares benefit from being listed first on the ballot.”

The bill introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads has been moved out of the House and today passed first reading in the Senate.

So far only Scott Nago, Hawaii’s chief election officer, and the county clerks from Kauai and Maui have weighed in on the matter.

In testimony submitted to the judiciary committee, none took a position on the bill. However, Nago asked that the bill be amended to include procedures on how the letter would be chosen, while the county clerks asked that it include funding to educate the voters on the new method.

The state did depart from the alphabetical listing in the 2012 general election for its listing of presidential candidates, listing Mitt Romney ahead of Barack Obama.

State officials said it was a mistake resulting from taking the order from the primary election ballots.

But with eventual winner Obama being a native son and a shoo-in, neither of the candidates’ political parties paid much attention to the glitch.

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