Are Ballot Order Effects Heterogeneous?


  • *Direct correspondence to Andrew Leigh, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, ACT 0200, Australia 〈〉. The second-named author will share all data and coding information with those wishing to replicate the study. The authors are grateful to Murray Goot, Antony Green, Erzo Luttmer, Simon Jackman, Graeme Orr, and two anonymous referees for valuable discussions and comments on earlier drafts, to Robert Pugh for providing them with historical election data, and to Susanne Schmidt and Elena Varganova for outstanding research assistance. An earlier version of this article was circulated with the title “Ballot Order Effects Under Compulsory Voting.”


Objective. Past research on ballot order effects has typically focused on the average benefit a candidate receives if placed at the top of the ballot. This study addresses a gap in the literature by examining the possibility that a simple average may mask systematic differences in how the ballot order effect varies across candidates and voters.

Methods. Using data from all Australian federal elections between 1984 and 2004, a sample that covers 1,187 separate electoral contests and 7,113 candidate × election observations, this study estimates the effect of ballot order on a candidate's share of the primary vote. To determine whether ballot order effects differ across voters as well as candidates, the study also makes use of electorate-level demographic data from the 1996 and 2001 Australian censuses.

Results. The results of these estimations indicate that being placed first on the ballot increases a candidate's vote share by about 1 percentage point. As a proportion of their total vote, this effect is much larger for independents and minor parties than for major parties. The ballot order effect appears to be similar for male and female candidates, and does not show strong trends upward or downward over the 20-year period covered by our study. Across electorates, the ballot order effect is higher in places where voters are younger and fluency in English is lower.

Conclusions. A statistically significant ballot order effect was a consistent feature of Australian federal elections between 1984 and 2004. Moreover, this study challenges the assumption that ballot order effects are homogenous, and finds that the effect of being placed atop the ballot varies across both candidates and voters.