|| Research Feature
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OHIO STATE RESEARCH MAY HELP CHANGE OUTCOME OF CALIFORNIA ELECTION
By Jeff Grabmeier
Sometimes faculty members have a difficult time explaining how their research might affect our everyday lives.
But that's not the case for Jon Krosnick, Ohio State professor of psychology and political science. His research helped decide - at least temporarily -- the winner of the mayor's race in Compton, Calif.
On Feb. 8, a Superior Court judge in California removed Compton's sitting mayor and replaced him with the previous incumbent, who had seemingly lost in a very close election last June.
The judge's decision rested heavily on court testimony by Krosnick, who testified about his research on the "primacy effect" in elections: specifically, how a candidate attracts more votes simply by having his name listed first on the ballot.
In the Compton mayor's race, the challenger's name was illegally placed first on the ballot. Krosnick testified that, based on his research, challenger Eric Perrodin received at least 306 votes - and probably more - based purely on the fact his name was illegally listed first. Perrodin beat incumbent Omar Bradley by 281 votes.
In her 33-page ruling, the Superior Court judge cited several problems with the election, but singled out Krosnick's testimony as particularly important to her ruling. (On Feb. 26, an appeals court judge blocked, at least temporarily, the ruling in Superior Court. A final decision by the appeals court on who should be mayor is pending.)
The decision made Krosnick at least semi-famous in star-studded Los Angeles, with interviews and stories in the Los Angeles Times and on local radio stations and the Fox television network.
Krosnick says he is very gratified to see his research make such a public impact.
"I love the fact that this work is of some value in helping to address real problems and, in this case, to making democracy work better," he said. "I must admit that I've always had an interest in studying phenomena that people would care about, and studying it in ways that people would find useful."
Krosnick's role in this case came about quickly and unexpectedly. A University of Southern California law student who was working on this case for the losing incumbent found an article on the primacy effect in a 1972 law journal. She contacted the author, who referred her to Krosnick. Lawyers for the losing candidate contacted Krosnick in late November - and he just happened to be in California on a research project. He was able to prepare his testimony with just two days notice.
"Normally, testifying in a major court case with such short notice would be ridiculous," he said. "But I knew the literature already so I only had to learn about the specifics of this election."
One reason that it was so easy for Krosnick to prepare was that he has been studying the primacy effect since 1982. He and other researchers have found that being first on a list is an advantage in a number of different areas. In surveys, for example, some people are going to pick the first provided answer simply because it is listed first, Krosnick said. Based on this research, most pollsters vary the order of possible answers to questions during their surveys.
But Krosnick is particularly passionate about how the primacy effect can alter the course of elections, as it did in the Compton mayor's race.
In a 1998 study published in Public Opinion Quarterly, Krosnick and his colleagues analyzed precinct-by-precinct vote returns for all the races in the 1992 elections held in the three largest Ohio counties. The results showed that candidates received an average of 2.33 percent more votes when their names appeared first on the ballots compared to when their names were listed last.
The study was possible because Ohio law mandates that candidates' names be rotated from precinct to precinct to eliminate the candidate name order bias. In the Compton case, the problem occurred because the wrong candidate - based on California law - had his name listed first on all the ballots. In Krosnick's view, the best situation would have candidate names rotated on ballots so no one candidate has an advantage.
"In my opinion, any election that involves a single name order isn't as democratic as it should be. Yet this is just what happens in most of the country."
And the results may matter beyond local races. The primacy effect may have played a role in electing George W. Bush as president, Krosnick said. By Florida law, Bush's name was listed first on all ballots in the state, "and that almost certainly allowed him to win that state, given the closeness of the contest," Krosnick said. Florida ended up being the key state that decided the presidential race.
Krosnick said he has testified one other time on candidate name order effects. That concerned the 1990 race for Ohio attorney general. In that case, Krosnick argued that the candidate name order did not have a large enough effect to influence the outcome of the election, and the Ohio Supreme Court agreed.
Krosnick is more than happy to talk about his research on the primacy effect - in or out of court.
"My personal mission here is to get this research visible, because I really do think it is stunning how unfair the system is around the country. I'm happy to use every opportunity to let people know what this literature shows."