Electronic Ballot Format Criticized

One of the hotter races this year in Montgomery County is the race for the four at-large seats. Incumbents Gabe Albornoz, Evan Glass and Will Jawando are seeking reelection. Incumbent Tom Hucker is looking to jump from his district seat to an at-large seat. Newcomers include Brandy Brooks, Dana Gassaway, Scott Goldberg and Gaithersburg Councilmember Laurie-Anne Sayles.

But the electronic ballot divides the candidates on two pages with only Sayles appearing on page 2. As you can guess from my listing of the candidates above, she drew the short straw due to her having the last name latest in the alphabet.

As we all learned in the 2000 election, ballot design can influence outcomes in close contests. It disadvantages Sayles to be on the second page. I don’t know what the Montgomery County Board of Elections can do to address this problem at this point.

In general, ballot order can shape outcomes. Candidates with names ending in A-L do better, on average, than candidates with names ending in M-Z for this reason. In polling, respondents are most likely to give the first or last choice as their answer.

One way to address these biases is to randomize candidate order. Pollsters purposefully scramble the choices to avoid these sort of biases. In statewide contests, California attempts to minimize the problem by having a different ballot order in each county.