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In elections, your vote may be influenced by design of the ballot itself, especially when you don’t have strong feelings about which candidate to elect.

Political Questions on SciShow Psych: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NYaDNK0xvM

Hosted by: Michael Aranda

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Sources:
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0261379415300998
https://academic.oup.com/poq/article-abstract/62/3/291/1936633?redirectedFrom=PDF
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1022946710610
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0888325419874427
https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-political-science-review/article/butterfly-did-it-the-aberrant-vote-for-buchanan-in-palm-beach-county-florida/90253BB8ADFD43F862FCBFA4F0BF00A3
https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-21800-012
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=496863

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[♪ intro].

At least here in the US, election season is upon us! Going into November, we often have a good idea of who we want to vote for when it comes to the big positions — but that’s not always the case for the smaller, more local offices.

Sometimes, there are so many positions and candidates that it can be hard to have strong feelings about whom to elect. And when that happens, it turns out the actual design of the ballot can influence your decision more than you might think. Overall, ballots seem pretty neutral — just a list of names of a piece of paper.

But how they’re designed can throw your brain for a loop.  Even something as simple as the order the names are listed can give some candidates a boost. For instance, a study published in 2016 looked at the results of the 2014 Belgian elections. The researchers broke things down by political party, then looked at who got the most votes in each one.

They also tried really hard to separate the effects of things like media coverage and overall popularity, and to just focus on the order names were listed on the ballot. And when they did, they found significant evidence of what’s called a name-order effect. In other words, candidates listed higher on the ballot appeared to receive extra votes just because they were listed higher up.

The researchers couldn’t tell exactly how many more votes these candidates got in this specific election. But overall, we do know that this isn’t a rare thing. This effect has been observed in tons of elections.

Like, an analysis of the 1992 election in Ohio found that the candidate listed first got an average of 2.5 percent more votes. And in Illinois’s city council elections in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was anywhere from a 0.7 percent up to a 5.2 percent advantage. These are the kinds of numbers that swing races!

In fact, a study on California’s elections from the late ‘70s all the way to the early 2000s suggested the name-order effect changed the outcome in 12 percent of primary races! As for why, it might come down to interest. According to the Heuristic-Systematic Model of information processing, we process information differently depending on how interested we are in it.  If we’re super invested in the decision and the outcome, we process systematically, taking in all the info we can and analyzing every piece of it.

But when we’re less invested, we use heuristics — or mental shortcuts. So, when you’re presented with a list of names, and you don’t have a firm preference, the most readily-accessible shortcut you can take to pick a candidate is the order of names on the ballot. Now, areas could get around all this by randomizing the order in which names appear on ballots.

That way, the effect would get balanced out over all the voters. But this isn’t something many places do, because it’s much harder, logistically. And you know, psychologists aren’t usually in the room for those meetings.

It’s not just the order of the names that messes with us, though. The overall design of ballots can trip us up, too. Research has shown that the flow and quality of information on the ballot is super important.

Which like… yes, that makes sense, but this also manifests itself in ways we might not think of — like, where you put your instructions, and how long your sentences are. If the ballot is too complex, unfamiliar, or poorly-designed, the number of invalid votes goes up. For example, a study published in 2019 looked at local elections in Poland in 2014.

That year, a number of areas showed upwards of 10 percent of ballots being spoiled, as opposed to the typical 1.8 percent. And the researchers involved found that a switch in ballot design was largely to blame. That year, the ballot had gone from a single sheet showing all the candidates to a multi-page booklet.

And spreading candidates over multiple sheets had made it harder to vote, especially for newer voters or folks who weren’t familiar with the new process.  Voters in these regions were used to separate ballot cards being used for different races.   So when a whole booklet of ballot sheets was set in front of them, they assumed they could vote multiple times — when they were really only meant to mark one X beside their chosen candidate.  Similarly, in the US back in 2000, a new, two-column butterfly ballot was used in Palm Beach County, Florida.  If you’ve never seen one of these things… they’re kind of weird. There’s a big column of holes down the middle where you can punch in your vote. Except… which hole corresponds to which candidate isn’t obvious.

The first hole is the first candidate on the first page… but then the second hole is the first candidate on the second page. And this was so confusing that more than 2000 voters mistakenly voted for the wrong candidate. Which could have changed the outcome of the Presidential election.

All this could be avoided by making ballots more clean and simple… and maybe letting a few psychologists help out with the design. So, how do you get around all this? Well, if the ballot seems confusing, read the instructions carefully, and don’t be scared to take your time.

Some advanced research might also help you out. And similarly, the strongest way to avoid heuristics is to have a firm decision in mind before you sit down with your ballot. So overall, if you’re able to do some research in advance, you can be more confident that your vote is actually what you want — and not based on a shortcut from your brain.

That said, there are a lot of shortcuts our brains try to take when we’re making a big decision. And that’s why we’re talking a lot about the psychology of voting both here and on SciShow Psych. If you want to learn more, you might like our episode about how political questions mess with your brain.

You can watch it after this. [♪ OUTRO].