On Election Day, Bias Starts at the Top

elections political parties voter behaviour
Wednesday, 9 April, 2014 - 10:35

In this article, the author looks at the advantage that political parties could have in occupying the first spot on the ballot paper, as well as how voter behaviour influences their choice of candidates in the elections 

Part of the folklore of politics is that being first on a ballot paper is worth at least some extra votes in any general elections. That perhaps explains the broad smile on the faces of the Freedom Front Plus leaders the moment they snatched the first place on the ballot paper for the 7 May elections, after the names of political parties were drawn randomly out of a large bowl.

The order of how the political parties contesting the elections will appear on the election ballot papers was decided at a ceremony hosted by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in Midrand on 19 March 2014, the same day that political parties signed a pledge to observe the Electoral Code of Conduct.

Thankfully, the question of bias and political party placement on ballots has long been given the attention it deserves in our electoral system which makes provisions for the IEC to determine the design of the ballot papers to be used in an election. When it comes to our ballots and our elections, integrity has to come first on the list. That is why, as a nation, we should acknowledge the wisdom of the drafters of our Constitution for ensuring early in our democracy that we adopt the rotating name-ordering procedures, and therefore provide a fair and equal opportunity to all contesting political parties.

This time the Freedom Front Plus has the opportunity to be at the top, which might just push it into a brighter future in the political landscape of our maturing democracy. How many seats these prospective votes will actually translate to and from which traditional political party supporters they will be drawn from remains to be seen as high voter turnout and the intensity of campaigns in previous elections has leaned towards the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in a way that often made the two-thirds majority victory a whisk away.

According to the IEC, just over 24.1 million South Africans have registered to vote. This is 76.7 percent of the estimated voting age population which, according to Statistics South Africa, is 31.4 million. South Africa has a large population of young voters and this time 2.3 million young people have registered to vote for the first time. Also, two voter registration drives were held out in South Africa's 123 missions in 108 countries around the world, yielding over 3 703 potential voters from about 70 missions. Also important is that a significant number of prisoners in South Africa's 235 correctional facilities are expected to participate in these elections.

Even in today's standards of advanced technology and instant communication, it is not difficult to figure out that people who are first in line at the entrance of a sports stadium know they have the best chance of getting the seats they want. Similarly, when students answer multiple-choice questions incorrectly, they usually choose one of the first options offered. When people taste-test four or more brands of wines, they tend to prefer the one they try first.

And so it is with voting. Candidates listed first on the ballot usually get about two percentage more votes on average to the percentage they would have realistically achieved if they had been listed towards the end (in simple terms, flipping a 49 to 51 defeat into a 51 to 49 victory). In fact, in about half of the by-elections I have observed since the year 2000, the advantage of first place is even bigger - certainly big enough to win some additional seats in national, provincial and local legislatures, or to give a small political party a swing vote in municipalities where no single political party emerges with an outright majority support.

It remains to be seen in these elections whether voters will follow the norm established in previous voting patterns

Indeed, the question of what motivates voters in South Africa to cast their vote for one candidate or another has been studied by a number of researchers, particularly since the first democratic elections in 1994.

Lessons from both the national and local government elections have shown that many factors are involved, but a particularly undesirable one that continues to be a subject of my research is the tendency of some voters to vote for those near the top of the ballot paper. This effect can be appreciable when a large number of candidates are presented and each voter is allowed to cast two or more votes for political parties contesting for seats in the national and provincial legislatures, or for political parties on the proportional representation list and candidates on the district or ward council list in the local government elections.

Also, when voters know little or nothing about the political party or the candidates, or when the incumbent (who voters typically know at least somewhat) is not running for re-election. Therefore, some voters apparently feel an obligation or desire to vote even when they have no basis for choosing a candidate and are drawn to the first familiar name they read.

This is an important factor to observe in these elections given that the ruling ANC no longer has former President Nelson Mandela to help canvass for voter support as it has always been the case in the past.

But even in elections with well-publicised manifesto promises, as currently witnessed by the sea of posters and the high volume of messages on broadcast and social media, being listed high up can help. Some people, including first time voters, walk into the voting booth feeling ambivalent, and in the end just grab the name on top - if not on the top five - so they can get out of the voting booth feeling that they have accomplished something by participating in the elections.

This could be because voters also tend to evaluate political parties with a confirmatory bias. Specifically, voters usually begin a search of memory for information about a political party by looking for reasons to select answer choices rather than reasons not to select a specific political party. Because of this, when considering a list of candidates, voters probably search memory primarily for reasons to vote for each contender rather than reasons to vote against him or her.

It remains to be seen in these elections whether voters will follow the norm established in previous voting patterns, whether when working through a list on the ballot voters will think less and less about each subsequent alternative, because they have become increasingly fatigued by the experience of unfulfilled election promises and corrupt politicians. Also, it remains to be seen whether the short-term memory of voters will become increasingly clogged with these thoughts and thereby put their mark next to the Freedom Front Plus at the top when they stand in the voting booth.

We are all watching.

- Nkosikhulule Nyembezi is a researcher, policy analyst and human Rights activist. He is also the Co-Chairperson of Elections 2014 National Co-ordinating Forum. This article first appeared on the South African Broadcasting Corporation News website.

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