Jockeying for position: A to Z of SA’s alphabet soup ballot paper

Studies have shown that the order in which candidates’ names appear on the ballot affects voters’ decisions, says the writer.

Studies have shown that the order in which candidates’ names appear on the ballot affects voters’ decisions, says the writer.

Published May 21, 2024


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

How much does a candidate’s ballot position matter for electoral success in these elections? I am talking about ballot paper appearance order: where candidates fit into the run of their competitors.

That is a subject of my conversations with friends and relatives over braai and wine on Freedom Day and Workers Day holidays, poking their brains with my election specialist instruments.

The conversations were reflective, uninhibited, and unsanitised, and they reached a consensus informed by our South African experience that winners of undecided votes mostly come from first, second, or third, even fourth of the top 10 on the ballot paper. It is usually not from the bottom 10’s last or even second last.

For decades, specialists in voting mechanics have studied whether the order in which voters see candidates on the ballot impacts election results.

They have long recognised that the order in which candidates’ names appear on a ballot influences voters’ decisions.

Some have found that candidates listed at the top of a ballot earn a more significant share of the vote than they would receive in any other position, regardless of their policies and personalities, as being listed first on the ballot can translate into an electoral advantage of as much as 5% in the South African national and provincial elections.

Typically, others have found little or no evidence of a relationship between where a candidate appears on the ballot and the final election results in by-elections.

Why is there a renewed interest in these national and provincial elections? Now, conversations on voting patterns 30 years since the dawn of democracy have taken the issue further by confirming popular sentiment that the first listing on the ballot also increases a party’s chances of winning additional seats and, this time, this is even more significant in an atmosphere with high prospects for coalition governments.

In some voting districts, this advantage is likely to flip a 46 defeat into a 51 victory in a proportional representation seat allocation formula where the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) applies a formula to distribute votes for unsuccessful parties below the minimum threshold for winning a seat in the legislatures among those that succeed.

Also, we have a natural experiment: a situation in which we determine the order of candidates on the ballot randomly because the Electoral Commission uses a unique method of assigning ballot positions to ensure that political parties whose names start with the letter “A” do not dominate the top of the ballot.

Owing to its randomly allocated top national ballot position this time, the newly-formed Alliance of Citizens for Change (ACC), led by Masizole Mnqasela – former DA member and speaker of the Western Cape legislature – has about 5% more bonus of winning a seat in the National Assembly.

The ballot position clearly and robustly affects the number of undecided and switched votes for the top candidate.

This effect also happened when the Freedom Front Plus got the first spot in 2014, and many new parties contested for the first time. It was the perfect storm regarding the ballot order effect.

Even when some people had said to themselves – I am going to vote for the ANC, when they went to the ballot, they discovered there is also the AIC (African Independent Congress), which makes two of those. And they were not sure which one, especially in cross-border municipalities such as Matatiele. So, the ballot order effect was even more of a material factor in that particular race.

One of my cousins said: “In the last three elections when most voters get into that ballot booth, they have to make many lower-profile choices as well – think about the proliferation of new parties touting as an alternative. So some voters choose the party on top when they come by these unfamiliar choices.”

“I plead guilty here,” confessed another cousin, “because although I had the chance to examine information about policies and promises of political parties, I have been choosing my favourite from the top five after wondering who the rest of these people are and how to distinguish one from others.”

Prior experience indicates how candidate listing on ballots influences some percentage of votes cast when information about candidates is limited. For example, voters cannot easily distinguish among candidates based on party labels in national and provincial elections.

My research estimates that in the 2014 and 2018 elections, some fraction of the electorate, perhaps 6–8% of voters in some voting districts, selected the first-listed party, occasionally providing that candidate with the margin of victory. We can understand this as a consequence of low information and switched voting.

Classic theories of voter behaviour present voters as rational actors who attempt to balance political preferences and civil duties against the costs of becoming politically informed.

Political knowledge is costly, so many voters enter ballot booths with very little information about candidates and issues.

If voters cannot differentiate among candidates based on party labels or lose interest in voting, they may opt for the first candidate they have no reason to oppose. This primacy effect benefits candidates with early alphabet names if candidates are listed alphabetically.

In the case of random listing, it still benefits the party on top of the list.

Which is why, with this in mind –and with the financial assistance of the Kagiso Trust – the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, the KwaZulu-Natal Religious Leaders Forum, the Election Monitoring Network and others have committed to conducting voter and civic education nationwide. They will deploy election observers and conflict mediators to ensure free and fair elections.

However, I caution against interpreting the research results as evidence that being first on the ballot always counts as the only electoral advantage.

Some discussions concerning ballot order effects concentrate on the impact of being first and ignore the implications of most other ballot positions and the aesthetic presentation of party names and symbols.

This consideration leaves the possibility that, while the difference between being listed first and being listed last may be significant, the difference between being listed first and being a first-time contestant may be relatively important in a political environment dominated by traditional parties.

A popular explanation is that voters indulge in evaluating candidates as they scroll down the ballot and choose the first one that meets their essential criteria instead of selecting the best candidate from the entire list.

However, I also caution against oversimplified explanations. Undoubtedly, the first name on the ballot will get a reward of additional votes and stand out as first among equals.

* Nyembezi is a researcher, policy analyst and human rights activist

Cape Times