Sample ballots are now available for viewing in North Carolina, and it would pay to take a moment and peruse your choices before stepping into the voting booth.
That’s because ballots will look a little different this year due to actions taken in Raleigh.
Wrinkles in the ballot have a long history in North Carolina. For example, there was a time when you could simply choose to vote a straight party ticket instead of voting in individual races. That option has gone the way of the dodo.
Even this wrinkle had its own wrinkle. Through the 2012 elections you could cast a straight-party vote, but that didn’t include casting a vote for U.S. president and vice-president. That plan was hatched by state Democrats to boost local candidates as the GOP began to gain national popularity in the 1960s.
However, the plan has a serious flaw; a significant number of voters cast straight-party votes but failed to mark a choice for president. In 2000 the state recorded a 3.15 percent undervote – i.e., 92,000 Tar Heels went to the polls but failed to cast a vote for president. In 2004, that number was 75,000.
Straight-party voting was allowed through the 2012 election. The GOP-dominated legislature passed a bill in 2013 eliminating the option, a measure that went into effect in 2014.
When it came to electoral engineering, they didn’t stop there.
The new twist this year goes a little like this: Roy Cooper, a Democrat, had the temerity to be elected governor in 2016. Under law at the time, candidates in the governor’s party would be listed first on the 2018 ballot. That clearly wouldn’t do, so the legislature, under HB 496, decided candidate names would appear in random order.
In February, the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement held a random drawing determining the alphabetical order of candidates in the May primary. The letter “F” was drawn, meaning a candidate with a last name starting with F would appear in the first ballot position, cycling through the alphabet and ending with “E.”
In previous elections, candidates in the governor’s party were listed first. This year the order will be under the alphabetical drawing regardless of party.
So, does ballot order matter? The short answer is yes. The long answer was provided in an article by University of Virginia Center for Politics director Larry Sabato.
In poring through eight research essays on voting order, it was found that for voters who walked into their polling place without well-defined determinations voted as much as 5 percent more in favor of the first name listed.
Of course, there are plenty of caveats. Well-known candidates, such as those running for president, governor or U.S. Senator, tended to produce fewer additional first-name-listed votes. Lesser-known candidates in the middle and toward the bottom of the ballot gained more of an advantage by being listed first.
Partisan races have a lower first-name bias than non-partisan races. Primaries have a larger bias than general elections. In races with multiple candidates, those listed first or last tend to fare better than the crowd in the middle.
First-place bias will likely tilt the vote for the six constitutional amendments appeared on North Carolina’s ballot. “For’’ is the first option, and undoubtedly many people will choose it despite some of the … creative wording that appears, such as in the following measure:
“Constitutional amendment to change the process for filling judicial vacancies that occur between judicial elections from a process in which the Governor has sole appointment power to a process in which the people of the State nominate individuals to fill vacancies by way of a commission comprised of appointees made by the judicial, executive, and legislative branches charged with making recommendations to the legislature as to which nominees are deemed qualified; then the legislature will recommend at least two nominees to the Governor via legislative action not subject to gubernatorial veto; and the Governor will appoint judges from among these nominees.”
That’s about as clear as mud. It’s easy to see voters puzzling over it, and then simply punching “For’’ and moving on to the next amendment.
It’s our responsibility to vote, and our responsibility to know what/who we’re voting for. Take a few minutes to check out your ballot. Go to www.nc.gov/voter-lookup-sample-ballot to see the political landscape you’ll be facing come early voting or Election Day.