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The 2020 Vote-by-Telephone Head Start: Press 2 for Biden… and 20 for Bernie, 23 for Warren?

(Photo / Steven Rosenfeld)

Many of the Democratic Party’s 25 presidential candidates are having a tough time standing out and meeting the DNC’s rules for qualifying for the early televised debates. When 2020’s caucus and primary voting starts in February, most of the contenders—but not former Vice President Joe Biden—will face a similar predicament. They will be buried in the ballots because the candidates’ names will be alphabetized in the new voting systems being deployed in key early contests.

According to ballot experts, numerous academic studies have found that being placed at the top of the ballot order can add one-to-three percentage points to a candidate’s totals. In the current field, Biden will be the second name heard, while Bernie Sanders will be 20th and Elizabeth Warren will be 23rd.

“We know that order effects are real,” said Whitney Quesenbery, co-director of the Center for Civic Design, which studies ballot design and usability issues facing voters. “Political science suggests that there is a 1 percent to 3 percent disadvantage to being lower in the list. The thing I do not see in the literature is any test that looks at the degree to which someone cares—the strength of intent” to vote for a specific candidate.

While presidential contests tend to have the most motivated voters, three of the four opening Democratic states will be using new balloting and voting systems which, in addition to being unfamiliar to voters, will list the candidates in alphabetical order.

In Iowa and Nevada, 2020’s first and third contests, state party officials estimate that tens of thousands of people will vote early or virtually. For the first time, these voters will use telephone keypads to punch in, or speak, a number corresponding to their presidential choices after hearing instructions listing and numbering all of the candidates. (They’ll first hear welcome messages and be asked if they want other roles helping the party.)

These “virtual voters” are to rank their presidential choices, one at a time, in successive rounds after hearing a recording where all of the names will be recited. Iowa wants its virtual voters to rank their top five choices. Nevada yet hasn’t decided on its number.

In the current field, Biden—who is leading in RealClearPolitics’ national average of polls on July 16 with 27.8 percent support—would be number 2 in the alphabetized phone-voting order. Sanders, who is tied with Warren, with 15.0 percent support, would be the 20th candidate to have their name read. Warren would be the 23rd. If it takes five seconds or so to recite each candidate’s name and number, the virtual voters would have to listen for about two minutes before hearing her name—after opening messages.

Other leading candidates are stuck in the middle. Kamala Harris, with 13.4 percent, would be the 12th name read. Michael Bennet, now polling at 0.6 percent, would be first. Andrew Yang, who has jumped ahead of Bennet with 1.6 percent, would be the last name read. Thus, in a current field where many candidates are within a point or two of each other, the ballot order is another factor to contend with in 2020’s early-voting states.

“I think it’s a little crazy that the Democrats are doing this,” Quesenbery said, referring to the introduction of telephone voting and wondering what field tests were planned before 2020’s caucuses. “If you are running as a candidate, I’d be wanting to have [a] sample of that [phone script]. I would be wanting to know what mistakes people might make, and I would be doing all of my campaign work around solving that.”

However, it’s not just telephone voting in Iowa and Nevada where the ballot order could nudge candidates up or down in the results of the 2020 nominating contests.

In New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s second contest and first primary, the ballot order will be scrambled—not alphabetical. Thus, voters backing lower-listed contenders will have to look a little harder to find their choice, Quesenbery said.

In South Carolina, the fourth contest, the state will be using a new touch-screen voting system listing candidates alphabetically. Its voters won’t find Warren until they reach the second page on their touch screens, Chris Whitmire, South Carolina State Election Commission public information director, said, noting their new system’s screen lists up to 16 candidates.

Academic research confirms that being listed at the top of a ballot boosts votes for any candidate—and more so in primaries than during November’s general elections.

“In primaries… we show that being listed first benefits everyone,” Daniel E. Ho and Kosuke Imai wrote in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2008. “Major party candidates generally gain one to three percentage points, while minor party candidates may double their vote shares. In all elections, the largest effects are for nonpartisan races, where candidates in first position gain three percentage points.”

Candidate order is one of several ballot issues that can affect a candidate’s vote. While some recent studies have shown that “the advantage of the first position exceeded the winner’s margin” in a handful of 2016 local races, poorly designed ballots—such as Broward County in Florida placing the 2018 U.S. Senate race on one ballot card page with no other contest—can lead to voters unintentionally skipping the race.

A confusing or poorly designed ballot with lots of candidates can also lead sizable numbers of voters to make mistakes and have their votes disqualified. In California’s 2016 U.S. Senate race, where there were 34 candidates, more than half of the state’s counties listed the candidates in two columns. That layout prompted “over-votes” by 3.6 percent of voters, meaning they voted more than once and their vote didn’t count.

Quesenbery was less concerned about South Carolina’s new touch-screen system than with the new telephone systems in Iowa and Nevada. South Carolina voters were used to voting on touch screens, she said, even if they were not very good. (Its legacy voting machines were being replaced for a range of age, security, performance and auditing concerns.) The same would hold true for other states deploying new touch-screen systems, she said.

“We have all gotten used to working on a screen and to be able to move through things,” Quesenbery said. “The other thing is that if you have a long list [of candidates], an alphabetical list makes some sense, because if you know you want to vote for Elizabeth Warren, and you can read English, you know where she’s going to be on the list.”

Chris Hayler, a partner with Stones’ Phones, the vendor creating the telephone-voting interface for Iowa and Nevada, said that his firm was programming options for voters to make some shortcuts in the virtual caucus process.

“We will enable coding so if you have voted as many preferences as you have, then you can basically stop and finish,” he said. “If you just wanted to caucus only for Bernie and nobody else, you could push their number. And as you start to begin the second round of your presidential preference voting, it would say, ‘This is your second round… if you don’t want to enter a preference or you’re done at any time, you can push or say 99, or whatever the number we program, so you can opt out.’”

Hayler estimated that it would take “five to ten minutes” for each virtual voter in 2020.

“It’s going to be read off alphabetically each time. So, ‘for Biden, press one,’ and it goes on like that, in the same number order each time,” he said. “Some folks will start to pick up on what their preferences are and they can enter their preference in advance of it. So, if in the second preference, they want to go with Elizabeth Warren, and then wrote down that she is number 22, or whatever it is, then they can just push in or say ‘22.’ And after each time they indicate a preference, we will read back that preference and ask them to confirm it, just to make sure that it is right.”

If people struggled with the telephone system, they could call a help-desk number and would be directed to Iowa or Nevada state party offices, he said.

There was no doubt that the ballot order could help or hurt certain contenders in 2020’s early contests, Quesenbery said. But such order effects occur when the voting system is working properly and easy to use, she said, raising her other expertise, usability issues. It was essential that Iowa and Nevada tested their virtual systems and planned for well-staffed help desks to deal with the ‘customer service’ problems that likely will arise.

“Errors that are big enough to have an impact on an election show up pretty easily,” she said, adding that relatively small-scale tests would reveal problems, especially for “people with low literacy, people who are not digitally savvy, [and] people who don’t speak English very well.” Otherwise, “it is like jumping off of a diving board and hoping someone has filled the pool.”

But even if deploying virtual voting in Iowa and Nevada, and new touch screens in South Carolina, work without any user issues, the large pool of Democratic hopefuls means that some candidates will face advantages or disadvantages due to the ballot order. And they will only have the alphabet to blame.

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