Letter advantage no longer a secret in civic politics

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

9 comments

Sing_the_Alphabet
The ABC's of civic politics show not all politicians were created equally

Shhhh...don't tell anyone. But did you know that if the first letter of your last name starts with A, B or C  you stand a better chance of becoming a city councillor or the mayor? Okay, truth be told, researchers who've been looking into this phenomenon recently released their results, so it's no longer a big secret any longer. Researchers have now published a study which indicates conclusively that people with last names that start with A B C or D have an Alphabet Advantage over their rivals.

The study was co-authored by Yuval Salant, assistant professor of decision sciences at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management. He found that current and former elected city councillors such as Suzanne Anton, Heather Deal, George Chow, Elizabeth Ball, Jordan Bateman, Kim Capri, Jennifer Clark, to name but a few, have a slight advantage over other politicians. The theory is that Suzanne Anton would get elected more often than Bill Zoolander, simply because her last name starts with an A rather than a Z.

For years, backroom politicos have watched closely to see how many ABCs made it onto their slate after all the nomination ballots were counted. Too many QRSTs compared to ABCDs and you might just lose the election. However, much like the civic ballot which is also listed in alphabetical order, the nomination ballot also tends to favour ABC candidates.

It's for this reason that many people have advocated for a random ballot that would help to eliminate the Alphabet Advantage. The only problem with this theory is that the advantage would still be there, it would just now be afforded to the top 5 or 6 names on the ballot, regardless of what letter they start with. Researchers say the only way to completely eliminate the Alphabet Advantage is to randomize each ballot individually.

The theory behind the Alphabet Advantage is that most people start voting in municipal elections from the top ot the ballot to the bottom. In Vancouver's case, the at-large system provides each voter with up to 10 ballots (or checkmarks) to vote for their preferred city councillor. For the people at the bottom of the ballot, there are almost always fewer ballots (or votes) left for them as the voter has already marked up the top part of the ballot with their preferred candidates. Is this all making sense? I certainly hope so.

Salant has scientifically demonstrated that being higher up on the ballot provides you with a 5 perecentage point advantage over your political rivals. Here is what he had to say:

It means that in one out of 10 elections in which the candidate listed first won, he won only because he was listed first.

And if a candidate gains from being listed first, that means someone has to lose; that's the candidate who's in the middle.

According to a Vancouver Sun story:

Researchers found the person listed first on a ballot was 4.8 points likelier to win his or her seat than predicted by chance (the number of winners listed in first position were calculated and compared to the number statistically expected to win in that position).

By contrast, the candidate listed in the middle position saw the likelihood of victory slide by 2.5 percentage points, or a 7.2-point disadvantage from the candidate listed first, because of the placement.

The data are based on the outcomes of city council and school-board elections in California, where the State draws a random order of the alphabet and then lists nominees accordingly.

So if anyone ever asks you to explain to them the ABCs of municipal politics, you now know how it really works. As for Vancouver's NPA, Vision, Green and COPE parties, rest assured they will be looking very closely at the first letter of their newly minted candidates last names to see if it gives them that slight Alphabet Advantage.

- Post by Daniel

9 Comments

I believe they call this the Donkey Vote in Australia.

I think the ABC problem is combated (at least slightly) by the party system in Vancouver. For school trustees and parks board, people blindly vote for the party of choice, since name recognition is low. If there were no parties, you'd see more ABCs elected.
Look at the last park board results:
http://vancouver.ca/electionresults2008/#50
there doesn't seem to be any bias towards candidates with higher names.

When I lived in Winnipeg (which doesn't have municipal parties) there was a more pronounced ABC effect.

@chris. You are spot on. The researchers did note how the party system does reduce slightly the alphabet advantage. In cities without a party system, the ABC voting pattern is much more pronounced.

The ABC 'problem' is nothing compared to the myriad of problems with the party system we have...

This has been well known for a long time.

If you replace it with a randomized list, there is still someone at the top who, equally irrationaly, becomes the beneficiary. If you allow the parties to decide the order you entrench backroom dealing.

This is just one of the problems inherent in any system which requires voters to sift through a long party list where they cannot conceivably know all the candidates. Selection not election is what counts. Of course that's why parties love it, they'd do it nationally if they could but have to make do instead with overlarge ridings.

Wards are the solution, of course, as used throughout those parts of the democratic world where Aaron Aardvark standing for the AAAdvance party is not considered an ideal candidate.

An important matter. Just ask Marty Zoltnick & George Taylor, 2 excellent candidates who were stymied. Marty did eventually make Park Bd. A random ballot can & should be done with a bit more cost [10 separate print runs].

So it was the alphabet system that kept Zlotnick out of government for so long. Knowing that I say let's keep the same system of voting for a while longer.

Jason, your reply speaks volumes of your lack of respect for fair play, especially with respect to the selection of our elected representatives.

Zlotnick out-performed every other NPA nominee expect Ian Robertson. I don't think his loss had anything to do with his last name, but rather the NPA initials next to it.

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