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City turns to Scrabble tiles to help set election ballots

Nathaniel Herz
Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones, center, calls out a letter on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, during a drawing to determine the random alphabetical order in which the candidates' last names are placed on the ballot for the upcoming municipal election on April 1. Amanda Moser, Deputy Clerk-Elections, left, and Election Coordinator Pat Oldenburg, right, assist with the drawing that was open to the public.
Bill Roth
Scrabble letters are placed on a counter in the Municipal Clerk's office on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, in the order they were drawn to determine the random alphabetical order in which the candidates' last names are placed on the ballot for the upcoming municipal election on April 1.
Bill Roth

On Thursday afternoon, Anchorage Assembly candidate Bill Evans won the allegiance of up to 3 percent of the voters in his district -- and he didn't even have to leave his office.

Evans can thank Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones, who pulled a Scrabble tile marked with the letter E out of a Tupperware jar before the tile marked with N, during a drawing at City Hall.

That means that Evans will appear on the April 1 ballot above the other candidate in his South Anchorage race, Pete Nolan -- a configuration that experts say could give Evans an advantage on Election Day.

The drawing was held Thursday in City Hall based on a provision in section 28 of the municipal code, which covers election law. It requires names to be placed on the ballot in a random order set by a "chance selection of each letter of the alphabet." The clerk's office publicized the drawing this year, in part to raise the visibility of the April election following high-profile discussions about moving a referendum, or even the whole city election, to the fall.

Just after 1 p.m., Jones stuck her hand into a Tupperware jar holding 87 points worth of Scrabble tiles, from A to Z. (The whereabouts of the associated board, and the rest of the tiles, are unknown.)

Jones pulled out an R, then an S, a J, and a K, as a colleague dutifully recorded each letter. Halfway through, she turned over drawing duties to Amanda Moser, the city's deputy clerk for elections.

Moser, who has worked in the clerk's office since 2010, said the drawing is one her favorite events in the months-long process of preparing for a city election.

The results will affect candidates in six Assembly districts, plus those running for seats on the school board and local road service boards.

But the drawing is more than just a whimsical artifact of the law -- the position of candidates on a ballot can have a significant impact, said Dr. Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford who has studied how the ordering of names can affect election results.

Swapping the order of two candidates can swing election results by 3 percent, according to research -- flipping a 51 to 49 percent defeat into a 52 to 48 percent victory.

"Candidates gain votes when they're listed first," Krosnick said in a phone interview. "And they lose votes, relative to that, when they're listed later."

Krosnick said that a forthcoming paper he worked on demonstrates that about 85 percent of candidates get more votes when they're higher up on the ballot.

The effect is amplified, Krosnick added, when there's no incumbent in the race, and when candidates are not listed as being affiliated with a political party.

That's the case in the contest for the South Anchorage Assembly seat -- city races are non-partisan, and incumbent Chris Birch is barred by term limits from running for re-election.

Evans, the candidate whose name will be listed first, said he thought voters in a city election would be unlikely to make their selections based on ballot order. And he's right, to a certain extent -- Krosnick said that municipal and state elections tend to draw voters who are more informed about candidates than, say, a presidential race.

"If there's a benefit to being on top, I guess I'm glad I'm on top," Evans said in a phone interview. He added: "Other than that, no -- it doesn't really matter to me."

So far, there's only one other Assembly race with more than a single serious candidate. That's in East Anchorage, where challenger Pete Petersen will get to appear above incumbent Adam Trombley on the ballot.

If Trombley or Nolan objects to being relegated, there's one potential recourse -- they could lobby for the city to switch to a system that rotates the order of candidates by using different ballots in different areas of the city.

That's been shown to level the playing field, Krosnick said. And in fact, it's a procedure that Alaska elections follow, though legislators voted in 1995 to limit the rotation only to candidates running for state senate, governor, lieutenant governor, and federal office.

"I'm afraid your state is the only one that's gone in the opposite direction," Krosnick said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

See the Random Alphabetical Drawing sheet
By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com