Will Chris Daggett Fall Victim To The Ballot Order Effect?

New Jersey's independent, Springsteen-loving gubernatorial candidate, Chris Dagget, is on a roll. He's finally getting solid attention from the Manhattan television markets, he's getting major endorsements, and one of his opponents is making fun of another for being fat. But Daggett faces a ballot problem. Not ballot access itself ... he's on the ballot ... It's ballot design.

In New Jersey, the ballot features the Democratic and Republican candidates first -- the order depends on a coin toss -- and the independent candidates, second. Pointing to political science literature on ballot order, Daggett claims that the placement of independent candidates below the major party candidates is plainly unconstitutional. The science isn't as clear cut: ballot order does, in certain low-information races, seem to influence voter decisions, but it competes with numerous other exogenous factors for a voter's attention in the polling booth. One is whether the candidate has been effective, or not. Ballot order effects are more prevalent when the "top" candidates listed have run good campaigns than they are when first candidates stink up the joint. Daggett has a point in claiming that ballot order effects hurt independent candidates more than major party candidates. But partisan labels on ballots also influence whether ballot order will be salient. So does the design of the ballot, regardless of order. So does the number of other candidates who are running -- a total of 12, in this election.

The New Jersey Supreme Court is probably going to stay out of this dispute. Though there does appear to be a ballot order effect, isolating it from its context is, given the state of current research, fairly difficult. The Court can find social science to back up whatever result it wants to achieve. If it does intervene, it'll be to Daggett's perhaps unfair advantage -- his campaign is premised on the argument that the two party system is responsible for the failure to mend the state's corrupt ways. The current ballot order law goes back to 1948. Since well before then -- back to 1911, according to ballot access expert Richard Winger, no independent candidate for governor has gotten more than 10% of the vote.