Does ballot order matter in elections?

Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer proposes names on municipal ballots be listed by random draw, not alphabetically

An exiting Vancouver city councillor wants names on the next municipal election ballot to be listed based on a random draw.

Since Vancouver uses alphabetized ballots, Vision Vancouver’s Andrea Reimer is concerned candidates with last names starting with A, B, C or D have an unfair advantage. She’s put a motion on notice for the April 17 council meeting calling for a change in the way names are ordered. The motion is being seconded by Green Party councillor Adriane Carr.

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Five of 10 councillors elected in the 2014 civic election have surnames from the early part of the alphabet — Carr, George Affleck (NPA), Elizabeth Ball (NPA), Melissa De Genova (NPA) and Heather Deal (Vision Vancouver).

Reimer said she’s presenting the motion now, so that if it’s adopted there’s enough time to draft a bylaw and make the change for the October vote.

She didn’t propose it during previous terms on council because while the issue has always bothered her, she felt that it could have the appearance of bias on her part since her last name starts with R.

“I was running in those other elections, but I’m not running in this one,” she said.

Reimer said in the five elections she's run in, the A, B, C, D names have done much better than the others.

"You could make an argument they are just better candidates, but I think the point of randomizing would be to help find that out. Maybe that gives us more data about whether it’s a top of the ballot issue or it’s just that people with last names starting with A, B, C or D are much more attractive to voters.”

Councillors elected to Vancouver city council between 2002 and 2014 who have last names starting with either A, B, C or D:

  • 2014: 5 of 10 (Adriane Carr, George Affleck, Elizabeth Ball, Melissa De Genova, Heather Deal)
  • 2011: 4 of 10 (Heather Deal, Elizabeth Ball, George Affleck, Adriane Carr)
  • 2008: 4 of 10 (Heather Deal, George Chow, David Cadman, Suzanne Anton)
  • 2005: 6 of 10 (Suzanne Anton, Kim Capri, David Cadman, George Chow, Elizabeth Ball, Heather Deal)
  • 2002: 2 of 10 (Fred Bass, David Cadman)

The issue of name placement has been debated over the years, but Reimer said a switch to randomized ballots hasn’t happened because the conversation has been difficult to hold at the council level.

“Those of us who aren’t A, B, C or D feel conflicted or at least there’s a perception that we would have a bias against alphabetization because we’re so far down the ballot. And those that are A, B, C, D — it’s been difficult to get a conversation going with them because it’s hard to contemplate that your electoral victory may have been related to your name as opposed to your accomplishments,” she said.

“In randomization, it’s possible that, through lot, it ends up A, B, C, D as well, but at least then you’re depending on random chance as opposed to, frankly, your ethno-cultural background, which would greatly determine the likelihood of you having an A, B, C, D name.

One of the points in Reimer’s motion states:

An alphabetical bias in the ballot would have a particularly negative impact on people who have last names that are Chinese, South Asian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese or Latino — among others — as people from these cultures are much less likely to have last names with A, B, C or D.

Carr, meanwhile, said she’s happy to second Reimer’s motion, calling a randomly ordered ballot the “most democratic.”

“Obviously, what I’m thinking about here is what’s the most fair way to go, the most democratic. I’m a real believer in fairness and democracy and everyone having a fair chance. It doesn’t matter what letter your last name starts with, you ought to have an equal chance in terms of just the position on the ballot,” she said.

Carr acknowledged other factors affect election results, such as party affiliation and candidates’ records, but she maintains name ranking can also play a role.

She suspects the fact her name starts with C gave her an edge in the 2011 civic election when she first won a city council seat. In that race, she earned the 10th and final spot at the council table with 48,638 votes — only 90 votes more than COPE’s Ellen Woodsworth who failed to get re-elected.

By the 2014 race, Carr topped the polls with 74,077 votes — 5,658 votes more than the second place finisher, NPA Coun. George Affleck who earned 68,419.

“I won by 90 votes [in 2011], which was a squeak in. Obviously, with my next election in 2014, I topped the polls so I don’t think the positioning of my name at that point had anything to do with it,” she said.

“I wouldn’t have gone from a 90-vote margin, and squeaking in, to 74,000 votes — more than anyone but the mayor — if it wasn’t people actually recognizing my name and looking on the ballot for my name. So I think once you’re in it’s a different story but I think in getting in it can be an influence.”

Reimer's ideal scenario would be a computer voting system where the name order on every single ballot was randomly generated.

In any case, she notes in her motion that the original writers of the Vancouver Charter contemplated alphabetical bias being a problem and provided for a ballot order alternative in Section 19 of the charter, which enables the ballot for council candidates to be ordered by random draw.

Reimer's motion could be voted on next Tuesday or it could be referred to a future meeting.

Meanwhile, in the 2017 byelection, candidates elected for the 10 seats on the Vancouver School Board included five with A, B, C or D last names — Joy Alexander (Vision Vancouver), Fraser Ballantyne (NPA), Carrie Bercic (OneCity), Ken Clement (Vision Vancouver) and Lisa Dominato (NPA), as well as one at the bottom of the ballot with a Z last name —Judy Zaichkowsky (Green Party).

@naoibh

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