How your county voted in last governor’s election determines the order of partisan candidates on your ballot

Maricopa County ballots will have Republican candidates first in every partisan race, which could impact the results.
Published: Oct. 12, 2022 at 7:36 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — Maricopa County election officials began mailing out ballots on Wednesday and those ballots list Republicans first in all partisan races. Maricopa County does that because it’s following state law. “The ordering in partisan races for the general election on the ballot is determined by the successes of the respective parties in the gubernatorial contest that was held previously,” said Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer.

That’s right. The Arizona law enacted in 1979 ties name order to past election results at the county level. Within each county, the party of the candidate who won the most recent governor’s election gets their candidate names listed first. In 2018, a majority of Maricopa County voters chose Republican Doug Ducey. That means Republicans will appear first on every Maricopa County ballot until the next gubernatorial election – this November. Over the last 40 years, Republicans have enjoyed a first-name advantage in Maricopa County in all but two election cycles.

Decades of political science research has revealed that appearing first on a ballot can boost a candidate’s vote total by several percentage points. Democrats have called Arizona’s ballot order law unfair, and some groups are challenging it in court.

The advantage of appearing first is sometimes called the “primacy effect.” One study found the magnitude was nearly 10 points, although most research finds it’s in the low- to mid-single-digit percentages. “In very rare circumstances, they can change election outcomes,” said political scientist and former Arizona State University professor Jennifer Steen.

In 2004, Steen and Jonathan GS Koppell published a major study analyzing the 1998 Democratic primary in New York City. In that election, the city randomized and rotated candidate names by precinct, allowing Steen and Koppell to compare the effects of having a candidate’s name appear in different positions on the ballot.

In 71 of New York’s 79 precincts, candidates received more votes when they were listed first than when they appeared in any other position. “What we found in our study was that the effect could range from a low of about 2% up to about 8%,” she said. In about 10% of the cases, the advantage from appearing first exceeded the candidate’s margin of victory.

Studies show the primacy effect diminishes in high-profile elections when the electorate is familiar with the candidates. Steen said the effect will be “very, very small” for high profile top-of-the ballot races like the ones in Arizona for governor and U.S. senate. But in lesser-known, down-ballot races, these ballot order effects can have a moderate impact, she said. It’s all because of how people process information cognitively. For example, studies show that when people are presented with a list of choices and they lack a firm preconception or preference, “they will conserve their own time and resources by making the first choice that’s presented to them that is acceptable.” “Or, often in elections, they’re making the first choice that’s presented to them that’s not objectionable,” Steen said. For this reason, many states randomize the order of names on the ballot.