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Keywords:

  • ballot name order;
  • primacy effect;
  • information;
  • ambivalence;
  • cognitive skill;
  • cognitive effort

Past studies of elections have shown that candidates whose names were listed at the beginning of a list on a ballot often received more votes by virtue of their position. This article tests speculations about the cognitive mechanisms that might be responsible for producing the effect. In an experiment embedded in a large national Internet survey, participants read about the issue positions of two hypothetical candidates and voted for one of them in a simulated election in which candidate name order was varied. The expected effect of position appeared and was strongest (1) when participants had less information about the candidates on which to base their choices, (2) when participants felt more ambivalent about their choices, (3) among participants with more limited cognitive skills, and (4) among participants who devoted less effort to the candidate evaluation process. The name-order effect was greater among left-handed people when the candidate names were arrayed horizontally, but there was no difference between left- and right-handed people when the names were arrayed vertically. These results reinforce some broad theoretical accounts of the cognitive process that yield name-order effects in elections.