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Order of names on judges’ ballot sometimes matter of chance

Aaron Aupperlee

The race for four seats on Allegheny County Common Pleas court could hinge on the order in which the six candidates appear on the ballot.

The person listed first in a race crowded with candidates sometimes has an advantage, election experts said.

“As crazy as it seems, some voters make decisions based on ballot positions,” said Lynn Marks, executive director of the nonprofit Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. “So many factors go in to who becomes a judge. And certainly ballot position is not the most important factor, and it has the least to do with qualifications.

“It’s a shame. Someone ends up first, and someone ends up last.”

Marks’ organization would prefer some judges not appear on the ballot at all. Her group advocates for appointing state judges based on merit instead of electing them. Being listed low in the ballot order has prompted some judicial candidates to withdraw from primary elections, Marks said.

In Allegheny County, Republican Bill Ward will appear first on the list. Democrat Eleanor Bush will appear last. Mark V. Tranquilli, Paul E. Cozza, P.J. Murray and Jennifer Satler occupy the spaces in between.

“It’s not really my concern,” Bush said of her ballot position. “I’ve trusted that once voters get to know me, they will find me on the ballot.”

Ballot order can play a pivotal role in judicial elections because voters typically do less research on such races, said George Dougherty, an assistant professor of public policy and management at the University of Pittsburgh.

“It’s hard to assess if a person is going to be a good judge or whether or not they are really qualified because, except for the couple of inches of print that (newspapers) give them, you really have to do some research,” Dougherty said.

He said voters typically will first look at a candidate’s party and then for their name when weighing how to vote.

“If a voter still can’t make a decision, and they are presented with a choice, they are more likely to choose the first person on the ballot,” he said.

For a general election in Pennsylvania, candidates in the party of the current governor — Tom Corbett is a Republican — are listed first, according to state law.

The state’s next major party, the Democrats in this election, follows. If there is more than one Republican or Democrat, the top vote-getter in the primary is listed first.

In New York, names of candidates in general elections appear on the ballot based on the results of the most recent gubernatorial election. The party winning the most votes — and moving into the governor’s mansion — is listed first, the second-place party second, and so on for the state’s six major parties, said John Conklin, a New York State Board of Elections spokesman.

Ohio rotates candidate order in precincts throughout the state, said Matt McClellan, press secretary for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.

“We do that to give each candidate that ability to appear at the top of the ballot for any race,” he said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or [email protected].


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