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Ballot Order Could Be Factor in Local Races, Studies Show

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By Jorge Casuso

August 14, 2020 -- If being at the top of the ballot gives local candidates an edge, as some studies indicate, then one City Council challenger and three incumbents in the three other Santa Monica races got a boost Thursday.

Council candidate Phil Brock, a member of the City's Arts Commission, will top the list of 21 candidates in the race for four open seats on November 3, according to the ballot order released by the City Clerk.

Also topping their respective ballots were School Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez, who is running for a record sixth term; Collge Board Vice Chair Sue Aminoff, who is seeking a fifth term, and Rent Control Board incumbent Caroline Torosis, who is seeking a second term.

Newly appointed City Council member Kristin McCowan will be the only candidate listed in the race for the two-year Council seat ("Newest Councilmember Unopposed, Four Other Incumbents Face Crowded Ballot," August 12, 2020).

The ballot order was determined Thursday by the Secretary of State using a random drawing of the letters of the alphabet. The top letters chosen were B, A, E, Z, T and L (for Santa Monica ballot order click here).

Studies have found that ballot position matters, especially in elections where voters don't recognize the names of the candidates, which is especially the case in judicial races.

One study conducted by Sam Houston State University in Texas found that while ballot order has little impact on high profile races, in medium and lower profile races the effect can be big enough to decide the outcome.

Another study conducted by the University of Vermont found that in the 2002, 2004 and 2006 races for the state house "the order in which names are listed on election ballots has a discernible effect on the vote share that candidates receive."

The order can be especially important in municipal elections if the ballot does not list the candidates' party affiliation, according to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science in 2018.

To eliminate the advantage, some jurisdictions rotate the name order of the candidates on the ballot.

While political experts agree that being near the top of the ballot can add at least a few percentage points, they note that other factors carry greater weight.

"The consultant lore is that people at the top of the ballot do better," said former Mayor Dennis Zane, who is a political consultant. "It's a small factor I think.

"What will matter more is who's supporting" the candidate, said Zane, who is co-chair of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights (SMRR), whose endorsement has been a key factor in elections for four decades.

The impact of ballot placement is "relatively minor" compared to building name recognition through such means as direct mail," Zane said.

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