ELECTIONS

Why are names on the ballot arranged that way?

Oct 16, 2020, 4:16 PM | Updated: Oct 29, 2020, 3:47 pm

2020 presidential election utah ballot...

FILE: A 2020 general election ballot from Salt Lake County shows options for president. (Photo: Becky Bruce, KSL NewsRadio)

(Photo: Becky Bruce, KSL NewsRadio)

Ever wonder why the names on your ballot show up in the order they do? It turns out, the order of names on the ballot comes down to chance — in an effort to avoid giving any candidates preferential treatment. 

The order of names on the ballot

Some studies suggest name placement on ballots can determine the winner of certain races. For those with names higher on the ballot, research shows the more likely it is they’ll win. 

This phenomenon — coined “name-order effects” — predicts this, describing the relationship between name placement and electoral success.

Studies have found there’s an advantage for the first-listed candidate, especially when voters don’t have much knowledge on the race. Researchers say voters tend to choose candidates based on party affiliation or ideological stances — but when they don’t know this information, name order can play a role. 

Why? It may be because this seems to be the easiest course of action. 

So, how do states avoid this unconscious bias? Some states, like Utah, utilize a randomized master list to arrange candidate’s names to ensure impartial placement throughout the ballot. 

The “master list” of ballot placement

In Utah, candidate names are randomly placed based on a master ballot list. A computer program randomly assigns each letter of the alphabet a corresponding number, 1 – 26, ensuring a fair process. 

The Office of the Lieutenant Governor, which oversees Utah elections, creates the list, changing the process year-over-year. 

“There is absolutely no bias, there is no decision making from any elected officials,” said Justin Lee, director of elections. “It’s all just completely random.”

Once created, the lieutenant governor must provide a record of the list to ensure consistency. Candidates are then organized by last name according to the master list. 

The order of candidates’ names stays consistent on all ballots sent out to Utahns, regardless of the county in which they live, according to Lee. 

“The ballot order applies to every race in this state for 2020 and 2021,” Lee said. 

This process doesn’t apply for races with only one candidate or for judicial retention elections. 

What Utah voters can expect on their ballot

In a way, Utahns can expect the unexpected — names throughout their ballots receive random placement according to the master list. For the presidential race, here’s how the names appear: 

  • Brock Pierce/Karla Ballard (Independent)
  • Kanye West/Michelle Tidball (Independent) 
  • Joseph Biden/Kamala Harris (Democratic)
  • Don Blankenship/William Mohr (Constitution) 
  • Jo Jorgensen/Jeremy Cohen (Libertarian)
  • Joe McHugh/Elizabeth Storm (Independent)
  • Howie Hawkins/Angela Walker (Green) 
  • Gloria La Riva (Party for Socialism and Liberation) 
  • Donald Trump/Michael Pence (Republican) 

Although some voters may be confused as to why President Donald Trump — one of the most high-profile candidates on the ballot — is at the bottom, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor said it’s not a biased decision. The letter ‘T’ was randomly assigned as #26 — placing the president at the bottom of the list. 

Despite studies suggesting this gives an advantage to candidates higher on the list, this isn’t necessarily the case for the presidential election. For candidates with widespread name recognition in a high-profile race, those advantages don’t hold. 

First-listed candidates also hold a higher advantage the further down the ballot their race displays. However, the presidential election shows up first — eliminating this advantage, and giving presidential candidates a more equal chance. 

Find more information about candidates and issues in the 2020 election with our Election Guide, here

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Why are names on the ballot arranged that way?