Tillis will appear first on GOP primary ballots under quirky state election policy

pgannon@ncinsider.comMarch 31, 2014 

His last name is last alphabetically among eight Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, but "Thom Tillis" will appear first on GOP primary ballots across North Carolina in 2014, a position some studies show will give him a slight advantage.

Tillis' name won't be first on May 6 ballots because he leads in the polls or because his name was picked out of a hat. His name will be there because of a policy adopted by the State Board of Elections more than a decade ago that determines ballot order for primaries.

Put simply, the ballot order, based on candidates' last names, switches back and forth on two-year cycles between alphabetical order and reverse alphabetical order, starting with a different letter each year. Confused?

More specifically, in 2002 and 2003, names were placed on primary ballots in reverse alphabetical order, starting with "z" and ending with "a." In 2004 and 2005, names went on ballots alphabetically, starting with "b" and ending in "a." For 2006 and 2007, the order was reverse alphabetical order, staring with "y" and ending with "z." In 2008 and 2009, it was back to alphabetical, starting with "c" and ending with "b." Using the same pattern, this year's order starts with "w" and goes in reverse back to "x." That puts Tillis at the top, followed by fellow GOP hopefuls Jim Snyder, Edward Kryn, Mark Harris, Heather Grant, Alex Lee Bradshaw, Greg Brannon and Ted Alexander.

"If (Tillis) had done this (run for Senate) two years ago or two years from now, it would be different," said Brooks Garrett-Jones, an elections technician at the State Board of Elections.

Bradshaw appears before Brannon because last names that start with the same letter are put on the ballot in regular alphabetical order.

Political scientists have long debated the ballot order topic, and much research has been done on its effects, sometimes with conflicting results. But many experts believe being first brings minor benefits. "You would rather be first than not, but you better not count on being first to deliver victory," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Sabato said there's no way to put a percentage on the ballot order’s impact in any particular race. In general, he said, being first may be worth "a percent or two or less.” Ballot order may have a greater impact on primaries because primary voters naturally assume they agree with most candidates on most issues, Sabato said. "Since some people voting might not care terribly about who the nominee is, it could increase the percentage of the people choosing the first candidate," he said.

But Sabato also said ballot order effects may shrink in high-visibility races, such as presidential or U.S. Senate contests, because candidates tend to be more well-known and voters have made their choice before entering the voting booth.

Mike Cobb, an associate professor of political science at N.C. State University, agreed that being at the top of the candidate list can help. He said when candidates with strong name recognition appear first, some voters may stop there rather than considering all of the options. "We're talking about marginal effects of maybe 3 percent," Cobb said. "In the case of Thom Tillis, that could be what he needs to get over that 40 percent threshold" to avoid a runoff.

Steven Greene, also a political science professor at N.C. State, suggested that North Carolina should move to a system in which candidate order appears differently on different ballots – as some states already do – so that each candidate is at the top on a roughly equal number of ballots. He questioned why any candidate in any election year should have an advantage based on the first letter of his or her last name.

"If Tillis wins by a few points, could you say it's the ballot order? You could say maybe," Greene said.

Asked why North Carolina doesn't rotate ballot order for candidates in the same race, Josh Lawson, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said the board is following the process put in place more than a decade ago. "The board’s process ensures a random ordering while responsibly allocating resources available for the administration of elections," Lawson wrote in an email.

Gary Bartlett, the former state elections director, said the biggest challenge in the ballot order debate early last decade was coming up with a policy that everyone agreed was fair. Since 2002, he said, lawmakers have been aware of the procedure and it hasn't been challenged. "No one has come forward with a better rule," he said.

Patrick Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer. www.ncinsider.com

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