The Effects of Ballot Order Randomization on Gender- and Ethnicity-Based Voter Biases

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Joint work with: Sean Freeder and Justin de Benedictis-Kessner

Abstract:  Prior work finds that candidates benefit from being listed first on the ballot. Other research finds that candidates from historically marginalized groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, fare worse in low-salience and low-information contexts like on-cycle local elections. We therefore ask whether being listed first—-an increase in salience—-benefits historically marginalized candidates more or less than ethnic majority and/or male candidates. We test whether women and ethnic minority candidates are helped or harmed by randomly being listed first on the ballot relative to men and white candidates in two different datasets, one observational and one experimental. In the first, we use data on over 29,000 California local elections from 1995-2021. In the second, we employ a survey experiment manipulating hypothetical candidates’ ethnicity and gender, candidate salience, and election salience. In the election data, we see evidence that being listed first has a substantial benefit for white women candidates, and to a lesser extent, white men candidates. There is no significant benefit for women or men of color in being listed first. However, in our experiment, we find little consistent evidence of an additional reward—-or penalty—-to being listed first for women or ethnic minority candidates. Additionally, variation in election timing produces substantial variation in the rewards for candidates randomly listed first.