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The effect of ballot order on the judicial races

I’m going to have something tomorrow about how the different endorsing groups did in the various Democratic judicial primaries, but before we get too deep into the weeds, let’s pause to consider the effect of ballot position. Two candidates filed a lawsuit after the HCDP mistakenly listed them second, so it is certainly perceived to have an effect on races. Did being listed first on the ballot in a judicial race correlate with winning?

The results can be seen here, and the short answer is Yes and No, and the determining factor appears to be what kind of bench you were pursuing. In the District Court races – Criminal, Civil, Family, and Juvenile – it was actually a distinct disadvantage to go first. Of the 18 such races, by my count the first candidate won four times, lost twelve, and made it to a runoff twice. Frankly, that result shocked me at first, but I think what it points out is that in these races, other factors were more important. For one thing, the District Court races appeared fairly early in the ballot, presumably before most people’s attention spans started to wane. For another, this was where the money was. I don’t know about you, but I got a blizzard of mail from District Court candidates and from endorsing groups on their behalf. I even saw a TV ad towards the end for one candidate, Shawn Thierry. As such, I think these races were sufficiently high profile that people were mostly choosing names with which they had some familiarity, and because of that the ballot position factor was minimized.

The reverse was true in the County Court and Probate Court races. Of those twelve contests, the winner was the first candidate nine times. Further, of those nine winners, six exceeded 60% of the vote, with three topping 70%; two of the remaining three scored over 59%, while the last one was winning a three-candidate race. None of the three winning candidates who were listed second got as much as 52% of the vote. Among them was Dennis Slate, who was one of the plaintiffs against HCDP. These races were farther down on the ballot – after all of the District Court races, in particular – and had much less money in them. I think I may have gotten a mailer or two from these candidates, but it certainly wasn’t much; being listed in an endorsing organization’s slate was probably the most exposure a lot of them got. If ballot order can have an effect, these are the races where you would expect it to happen, and based on these results, it’s hard to argue with the idea. I’ll say it again: We really need the next generation of eSlate machines to be able to randomize ballot order. It’s just wrong that such a silly thing could affect the outcome of an election, but it sure seems like it did.

Speaking of such things, the race immediately after all of these judicial contests was the County Clerk race. Sure enough, Ann Harris Bennett was listed first, and sure enough, she cruised to an easy win. I’ve heard it suggested that Bennett, who is African-American, won on the strength of turnout in the African-American State Rep districts. Having analyzed the draft canvass data, I can tell you that she did in fact do very well in those districts, but that wasn’t determinative. If you simply remove HDs 131, 139, 141, 142, 146, and 147, Bennett still defeated Sue Schechter by about 5,000 votes, and that’s with Schechter piling up a 2,800-vote margin in her old stomping grounds of HD134. If people thought Schechter’s name was enough for her to win, they were wrong. Besides HD134, the only districts she won were HDs 136, 138, and 148 – basically, all Inner Loop areas, where she was best known. Let this be a lesson for us all.

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  1. JJMB says:

    Interesting analysis. To take it further and apply it to the Republican ballot, at the very end with the Tax Assessor Collector race, wasn’t Sumners also listed first over Vasquez? So perhaps Vasquez lost for the same reason Schechter lost?

  2. Dennis Slate says:

    I was told by a political scientist that at 40K votes it was going to cost me 3 to 4 percentage points on a down ballot race like this. That the percentages would go up exponentially as the turnout increased due to the electorate being less plugged into the endorsements and knowledge of the candidates, and instead coming out to just to support top ballot Democrats while continuing to vote the entire ballot.

    I was also told that even though in my race I received every endorsement, that if we had a large turnout with me being 2nd on the ballot, I would have a fight on my hands because of this phenomena, and as you can see, I certainly did.

    There are obviously other factors that may go into a person’s choice when they know nothing about either candidate, such as sex of the candidate, or how the name of the candidate sounds, but when those things are equal, top ballot position will always garner more votes for that reason alone.

    There is no reason why the new E-Slates cannot have a rotating ballot order. It is a horrible feeling to work hard for 11 months, and have a random drawing be a deciding factor in your race. This must be a priority for Ms. Bennett when she takes office.

    Dennis Slate
    Democratic Candidate for County Criminal Court #13

  3. SRD 134 was not Sue’s, it was Debra’s.


  4. John,

    Sue Schechter was elected to SRD 134 in 1992. Here’s the result from the Secretary of State webpage:

    State Representative District 134
    Sue Schechter DEM 17,317 50.15%
    Kyle Janek REP 16,439 47.60%
    Clint Ponton LIB 774 2.24%
    Race Total 34,530

    Debra Danburg was in SRD 137 at that time; Scott Hochberg was in SRD 132. After the 2001 redistricting, Hochberg ran in the newly-redrawn 137 and Danburg lost to Martha Wong in 134. Kyle Janek was elected to 134 in 1994 and held it till 2002, when he ran for State Senate.

  5. […] by a comment JJMB left on the previous post about the effect of ballot position on the judicial races, I went and looked at the Republican […]

  6. […] really judge them on how many winners or losers they picked. For one thing, as we know, there were factors beyond their control at work, and for another, I don’t think there was a “right” answer in a lot of […]