South Dakota’s elections will be rigged by the luck of draw. NPR this morning highlights research on ballot order that supports results political scientists have reported for years: appearing first on the ballot helps a candidate win more votes. NPR cites Sam Houston State University professor Darren Grant, who finds that in down-ticket races among less well-known candidates, “going from last to first on the ballot raises a candidate’s vote share by nearly ten percentage points.”
South Dakota’s election officials draw lots to determine ballot order. On general election ballots, the Secretary of State draws lots for each party, and candidates in all partisan races appear in the order drawn for their parties. This institutional choice thus randomly assigns up to a ten-percent advantage to certain candidates and parties.
No state action should place a thumb on the electoral scale. South Dakota should reform its ballot rules to eliminate this first-slot bias and more fairly and accurately measure the will of the voters. But how do we erase this first-slot bias? A ballot has to list the candidates in some order, so no matter what, on each individual ballot, candidate #1 will enjoy an advantage over candidate #2.
The practical solution is to distribute different ballots to different voters. Dr. Grant writes that Ohio, New York, and North Dakota “use a precinct-level rotation system, moving the first name to last in each successive precinct.” Different ballots for each precinct (or, in some South Dakota communities, each voting center, where anyone from any precinct can stop by to vote) give each candidate a shot at being first, thus canceling out the advantage. However, depending on the math, some candidates would still get an edge. In a district with an odd number of precincts (District 9, District 28, District 35…), a two-candidate race would give one candidate the first-slot boost in one more precinct than the other. In any district where the number of precincts is not a multiple of the number of candidates (for example, where there are eight precincts and three candidates, or sixteen precincts and five candidates, or, as in District 28, a prime number of precincts, which never works out!), some candidate or candidates will still enjoy some first-slot advantage. A potential 10% lucky edge in just one precinct is fairer than a 10% lucky edge in every precinct, but it’s still not truly fair.
The Secretary of State could rotate candidate order by ballot. Within one box of ballots, the first would list candidates in the drawn party order, say DEM–LIB–GOP–CON. The next sheet in the box would list all candidates LIB–GOP–CON–DEM, the next GOP–CON–DEM–LIB, and so on. Each voter who comes to any precinct table would get a different ballot from what the preceding voter got, thus canceling out the first-slot bias for all but the last couple-three voters.
Counting such rotated or randomized ballots poses practical challenges. Human canvassers couldn’t shorthand their scans and check the same candidate’s name every time they see Bubble #1 filled; eyeballers would have to slow down and read each ballot, which invites delay and error. Optical scanners would also need more information: we’d either have to sort all the ballots into separate stacks—one pile for the DEM-first ballots, one for the GOP-first…—and reprogram the optical scanners for each run, or, more simply, we’d need to include one extra column on the ballot indicating candidate/party order to the scanner.
We could save the Secretary of State any complicated printing by computerizing all ballots: put touch screens in every polling place, and have the computer rotate the names for each voter. However, we can’t mail iPads to absentee voters (remember, previous Secretary of State Jason Gant couldn’t even keep track of thirty iPads in his office). Some voters still need paper ballots. I also hear a fair amount of voting-machine angst from voters. They want less black-box technology, not more, taking and counting their votes.
Reducing first-slot bias complicates ballot printing and counting, but we can do it. For the sake of more fair elections, we should do it.