Lefties May Be Biased Toward the Left-Hand Side of the Ballot

Democracy is more subliminal than you think.

National Journal
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Brian Resnick
March 25, 2014, 8:20 a.m.

Say it’s Elec­tion Day. Once in­side the booth, a voter feels a pang of anxi­ety. He’s am­bi­val­ent and de­cides to pick a can­did­ate at ran­dom.

The voter is a lefty. And though he may not real­ize it, the hand he writes with has in­flu­enced the can­did­ate he votes for — the one lis­ted on the left side of the booth. When his friends ask him how he voted, he says he guessed. But a sub­lim­in­al bi­as is at play.

In a re­cent ex­per­i­ment pub­lished in the journ­al Polit­ic­al Psy­cho­logy, can­did­ates lis­ted on the left-hand side of the bal­lot en­joyed a 15 per­cent bump among lefties com­pared with right-handed voters. “Righties im­pli­citly think right is good, lefties im­pli­citly think left is good,” says Daniel Cas­as­anto, a coau­thor of the study.

And for such an ar­bit­rary sound­ing reas­on, a race can be won or lost.


It wasn’t a leap for Cas­as­anto to hy­po­thes­ize that left- or right-hand dom­in­ance would in­flu­ence vot­ing be­ha­vi­or. He’s found a sim­il­ar ef­fect be­fore in non­polit­ic­al set­tings. In one such ex­per­i­ment, he showed par­ti­cipants pairs of ali­en draw­ings called Fribbles, and asked how in­tel­li­gent, hon­est, at­tract­ive, and happy they were — strange ques­tions when you con­sider that a Fribble looks like this. The lefties re­spon­ded more kindly to the ali­ens on the left, the righties more kindly to those on the right.

“Our bod­ies are an ever-present part of the con­text in which we use our minds, and should there­fore ex­ert a per­vas­ive in­flu­ence on the rep­res­ent­a­tions we tend to form,” Cas­an­anto writes. Ac­cord­ing to that the­ory, what’s true for the ali­ens should be true of politi­cians.

And it was. In an ex­per­i­ment­al elec­tion of two hy­po­thet­ic­al can­did­ates, each di­ver­ging on is­sues and each ran­domly sor­ted in­to a left or right spot on the bal­lot, “every­one, even righties, had a bi­as to se­lect the can­did­ate on the left, but that tend­ency was stronger in lefties,” Cas­as­anto says.

Some of the many controversial 2000 presidential election ballot boxes and voting booths sit in storage on Nov. 6, 2001, in Palm Beach, Fla. How might have the world been different if Al Gore was listed first?  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Let’s back up a bit.

Cas­as­anto’s re­search at­tempts to an­swer the “why” to one of the more con­found­ing phe­nom­ena in demo­cracy: the primacy ef­fect, which is the tend­ency of can­did­ates lis­ted first on the bal­lot to re­ceive more votes than they would if they were lis­ted later.

A forth­com­ing pa­per in the journ­al Pub­lic Opin­ion Quarterly is per­haps the largest study on the primacy ef­fect to date, ana­lyz­ing all statewide Cali­for­nia elec­tions between 1976 and 2006. Cali­for­nia ro­tates can­did­ate bal­lot or­der dis­trict by dis­trict. While that ran­dom­iz­a­tion is not of the same rig­or that a lab study would em­ploy, it’s as good of a nat­ur­al ex­per­i­ment as the re­search­ers can ana­lyze.

The ana­lys­is found when can­did­ates were lis­ted first (no mat­ter the bal­lot type), “on av­er­age, across all con­tests, can­did­ates re­ceived nearly half a per­cent­age point of ad­di­tion­al votes com­pared to when they were lis­ted either in the av­er­age of all later po­s­i­tions.”

Fur­ther­more, “82 per­cent of all can­did­ates per­formed bet­ter when lis­ted first than when lis­ted later.”

“Sim­u­la­tions sug­gest 9 per­cent of the races could have been dif­fer­ent due to the primacy ef­fect if one par­tic­u­lar name or­der had been used throughout the state in­stead of ro­tat­ing,” the study’s con­clu­sion reads.

Con­sid­er­ing this data, and as­sum­ing what’s true of voters in Cali­for­nia is true across the coun­try, it’s not an over­state­ment to say the fate of Amer­ica has been forever changed be­cause of this ef­fect. In 2000, in Flor­ida, George W. Bush won by less than 1 per­cent­age point. And every bal­lot in Flor­ida lis­ted Bush first.

“If Flor­ida had done what Cali­for­nia or Ohio do, by ro­tat­ing name or­der, we have very strong evid­ence to sug­gest, that most likely, Al Gore would have been elec­ted pres­id­ent,” Jon Kros­nick, a study coau­thor (and jazz drum­mer) tells me. “That’s a pretty power­ful im­plic­a­tion that as we head up to the 2014 and 2016 elec­tions — that there’s something broke about this sys­tem.”


So is hand dom­in­ance a strong enough factor to in­flu­ence a pres­id­en­tial race? Could a tar­geted lefty get-out-the-vote cam­paign tip a vot­ing pre­cinct one way or the oth­er?

Let’s break down the res­ults of the Polit­ic­al Psy­cho­logy pa­per. Righties showed a bi­as for the can­did­ate on the left be­cause it is the first name they read. That’s con­sist­ent with oth­er re­search on primacy, that there’s a bi­as for the first in a list. Lefties showed that ef­fect, as well as an ad­di­tion­al left-hand bi­as: Lefties chose the can­did­ate on the left be­cause his was the first name they read and be­cause they have a pos­it­ive as­so­ci­ation with things on the left. Where­as among righties, the can­did­ate on the left showed a 21 per­cent ad­vant­age, among lefties, that jumped up to a 36 per­cent ad­vant­age.

There’s a huge caveat here. These res­ults were pulled from an ex­per­i­ment on a fic­ti­tious elec­tion. And they are the first of their kind — it takes years of re­pet­it­ive res­ults to nail down a phe­nomen­on. So take cau­tion in ex­tra­pol­a­tion. “I don’t ex­pect that we would see any­thing like that enorm­ous, ri­dicu­lous, per­cent­age point dif­fer­ence in real elec­tions,” Cas­as­anto says of the 21 per­cent and 36 per­cent ad­vant­ages. “But in light of Jon [Kros­nick]’s pre­vi­ous data. I think we have every reas­on to be­lieve that these ef­fects are and can be found in real elec­tions.”

Aside from the in­flu­ence of hand dom­in­ance, Cas­as­anto and his col­leagues (Kros­nick was also a coau­thor on the Polit­ic­al Psy­cho­logy pa­per) found the primacy ef­fect was most prom­in­ent among people provided with the least inform­a­tion about the can­did­ates, those who were most am­bi­val­ent about the can­did­ates, those who had lower levels of edu­ca­tion, and those least en­gaged in think­ing about the elec­tion. Curi­ously, there’s a stronger primacy ef­fect for top-tick­et can­did­ates, such as for pres­id­ent or gov­ernor, than for down-tick­et can­did­ates. Kros­nick the­or­izes this is true be­cause people feel more of an ob­lig­a­tion to vote in these con­tests, even when they don’t have a clear opin­ion.

But as com­plic­ated as pars­ing down why people be­have like this is, the solu­tion to mit­ig­ate the bi­as is su­premely simple: ran­dom­ize the bal­lot or­der dis­trict-by-dis­trict, like Cali­for­nia does, and present the names ver­tic­ally to dis­count the left-hand bi­as. Though some states do ro­tate bal­lot or­der, Cas­as­anto and his col­leagues find most do not have such safe­guards.


The ques­tion lurk­ing in the back­ground here is this: What does it say about demo­cracy if elec­tions can be thrown by the sub­lim­in­al quirks of the brain?

Bal­lot or­der isn’t the only psy­cho­lo­gic­al factor at play. Con­sider that chil­dren can pre­dict elec­tion out­comes just by choos­ing among can­did­ate head­shots. That’s how power­ful our bi­ases to­ward cer­tain, com­pet­ent-look­ing faces are. Face­book might have in­flu­enced thou­sands of young people to go to the polls in 2012 be­cause the site told users which of their friends voted, in­creas­ing the so­cial pres­sure to do the same.

“It would be really un­for­tu­nate if some­body learned about this lit­er­at­ure and said, ‘Oh boy, voters are idi­ots,’ ” Kros­nick says. After all, it’s just at most a few per­cent of voters who are show­ing these ef­fects. But at the same time, our elec­tions have to re­cog­nize that hu­mans aren’t com­pletely ra­tion­al. And when races be­come so tight, these quirks can­not be dis­coun­ted.


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