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A sign that reads, “early voting” is posted on the first day of early voting at the Loop Supersite at 191 N. Clark St., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

A sign that reads, “early voting” is posted on the first day of early voting at the Loop Supersite at 191 N. Clark St., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

Pat Nabong

Who to vote for? Too often, it’s about who’s first on the ballot.

Sharon Waller faces an uphill battle in her campaign for a commissioner seat on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

She’s challenging three incumbents whose seats on the obscure panel are up for nomination in the March 19 Democratic primary — Kari Steele, Marcelino Garcia and Daniel Pogorzelski, all of whom have the backing of the powerful Cook County Democratic Party.

While their reelection campaigns figure to benefit from the political financing, foot soldiers and familiarity that come with the establishment endorsement, Waller’s got one advantage they don’t. Her name is at the top of the ticket in this down-ballot race.

Political lore has long held that candidates gain an electoral edge when they’re listed first on the ballot, especially for offices that many people aren’t familiar with. A large body of research also backs up the ballot order benefit, suggesting the top position can net a candidate an extra three percentage points in many races — more than enough to swing a close contest.

“I know that I need to play a statistics game on this,” said Waller, who won a lottery for the top spot on the water reclamation primary ballot. “I’m not going to be able to compete when it comes to money and power, but I can work the statistics.”

It’s a numbers game that highlights how little voters know about many of the races they’re expected to research, consider and decide on — instead often opting for the first name they see. And that’s among the minority of residents who even bother to participate at all. Less than 38% of registered Chicagoans cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential primary.

The Democracy Solutions Project

The problem: Too often, voters know little about many of the races they’re expected to research, consider and ultimately decide on.

Possible solutions: States like California distribute comprehensive voter guides with candidate information and policy statements for statewide races and ballot initiatives. But the lengthy documents generally don’t cover local races, and it’s up to candidates what information to submit. One possible remedy may lie in efforts like BallotReady, a company that aims to provide nonpartisan information on every candidate and ballot measure for voters across the country. Its staff of researchers compiles thousands of candidates’ stances, credentials and endorsements every election season.

It’s not only an issue of apathy in an increasingly polarized political world, according to researchers, civic engagement advocates and eligible voters who spoke with the Sun-Times as part of the Democracy Solutions Project, a series in partnership with WBEZ and the University of Chicago examining the challenges facing our democracy.

Many voters said they would feel more assured in their picks — and, experts say, a significant share of non-voters might be more inclined to join the process — if they had better access to clear, unbiased information to help them make a choice.

But voters say that type of concise informational breakdown can prove hard to come by, even for people who closely follow local campaigns.

Stevie Dickens said television news coverage and the barrage of political brochures sent to his South Side home helped inform the ballot he cast on the city’s first day of early voting on Feb. 15. But he didn’t have much information to work with when it came to the lengthy list of judges up for election toward the bottom of the Democratic primary ballot.



Chicago voter Stevie Dickens, pictured outside a Loop early voting site on Feb. 15, 2024.

Chicago voter Stevie Dickens, pictured outside a Loop early voting site on Feb. 15, 2024.

Mitchell Armentrout

“It’s hard. I’m familiar with some of the names, but you don’t have time to research every single one of them,” Dickens said. “Sometimes, I guess it’s just a choice.”

Fellow early voter Sharon Henderson said she reads newspapers, follows broadcast coverage and looks up candidates’ websites — but when it came to some of her down-ballot selections, “I’m going to have to place that in God’s hands.”

“They want us to vote for these judges, but if you’re not in the penal system, you have absolutely no criteria to judge them on,” Henderson said, adding that her selections sometimes come down to “a feeling. You just have to go with it.”



Chicago voter Sharon Henderson, pictured outside a Loop early voting site on Feb. 15, 2024.

Chicago voter Sharon Henderson, pictured outside a Loop early voting site on Feb. 15, 2024.

Mitchell Armentrout

Asking voters ‘to do a lot’

That’s when the inclination to go with the first listed candidate can kick in, according to Stanford University Prof. Jon Krosnick, who researches the psychology of political behavior and has extensively studied the effect of candidate ballot name orders on election results.

In analyzing the results of more than 1,000 elections worldwide, Krosnick has found that in about 80% of races, the candidate listed first in the ballot order saw an average boost of three percentage points — not readily explained by other factors — over their lower-listed opponents.

The first-spot advantage was as high as seven percentage points in some cases, a documented bias that has prompted some states — not Illinois — to rotate candidate name orders in different precincts.

“Seeing a name first is like somebody standing next to you and nudging your shoulder so subtly, you might not even notice it, but suddenly you’re inclined to settle for the first name you see,” Krosnick said.

The effect — which Krosnick calls a “huge problem” — is even more prominent on electronic voting machines, where voters are prompted to make selections in every race, potentially making them think incorrectly that they can’t leave any sections blank.

The arbitrary choice often arises from a lack of information the voter has on a given race, but it can also result from ambivalence if they’re torn on who to vote for. Krosnick contends that former President George W. Bush would not have been elected in 2000 if candidate name orders had been rotated in Florida precincts — and that former President Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected in 2016 if orders were rotated nationwide.

“A little butterfly wing flap can make a huge difference in the course of history,” Krosnick said. “There are overwhelming informational demands when it comes to the number of candidates, races and offices where people don’t know the responsibilities. We are asking American voters to do a lot, and we don’t necessarily set up the information environment to support it.”

‘Exhausting to think about’

North Side early voter Alan Peterson said “without a doubt” he would like more information readily available about candidates for less prominent offices.

“I follow the news very heavily and read the paper a lot. I try to listen when they have debates, and I try to make up my own mind that way. But not everyone is in the paper, and not everyone has debates,” Peterson said.



Chicago voter Alan Peterson.

Chicago voter Alan Peterson.

Mitchell Armentrout

Carmen Rodriguez said she also looks out for candidate forums in her neighborhood of Belmont Cragin in addition to keeping up with local campaign news coverage before casting a vote. “Still, with some of the races, you don’t know who’s running until you get here. So I just make my decision right at the ballot box.”

Sean Callahan, a marketing worker from West Town, said that’s a big reason he hasn’t voted in the last few elections. “I just don’t really know much about the issues, so I stay out. It’s exhausting to think about. I don’t have the time.”

Those are common grievances for voters and non-voters alike, according to Erik Nisbet, director of the Center for Communication & Public Policy in Northwestern University’s School of Communication.

“For the average person, they don’t care much about politics, and if they have to, they will make the most readily available mental shortcuts,” Nisbet said.

That tendency has helped lead to the hyper-partisan political environment today, especially at the national level, Nisbet said. “Some people won’t say explicitly that they vote Democrat or Republican, but habitually, they will always vote one party or another.”

And it’s only rational for people to take those shortcuts. “If someone is working two jobs, trying to support a family and kids, how do you make it important enough to take that effort to research a whole list of candidates?” Nisbet said.

Strong demand for more information

While only about 3% of the U.S. voting-age population is considered “persuadable” between parties, Nisbet said there’s more room for crossing over in local races.

But a dearth of local media outlets in many parts of the country has made it hard for voters to get the one thing surveys have shown they want from candidates: clear and concise policy positions.

Some states, like California, distribute comprehensive voter guides with candidate information and policy statements for statewide races and ballot initiatives. But the lengthy documents generally don’t cover local races, and it’s up to candidates what information to submit.

There’s enough demand for clear-cut electoral information to make it a commercial enterprise for Alex Niemczewski, the CEO of BallotReady, a company that’s aiming to provide nonpartisan information on every candidate and ballot measure for voters across the country.

Overwhelmed by more than 90 offices on her 2014 midterm election ballot, Niemczewski made a website for herself to compile information on offices she had never heard of and candidates she had never seen.

Since then, the for-profit BallotReady.org has grown through partnerships with Snapchat, Tinder and Levi’s, with a staff of researchers compiling thousands of candidates’ stances, credentials and endorsements every election season.

“We want to make it easy and even fun to get information about how to vote and who to vote for,” Niemczewski said. “That’s the most effective way for people to feel their sense of civic duty and the power they have when they vote.”

Welcoming people to the process and fostering a sense of confidence is key to getting more people to the polls, according to Caroline Mak, evaluations and learning manager for Nonprofit VOTE, a nonpartisan organization that consults local nonprofits across the country on ways to get more residents civically engaged.

“If people aren’t invited to that process, they feel like they’re locked out. They don’t get to be a part of that, and what it means to be American kind of narrows. It’s an issue of accessibility,” Mak said. “The more we can invite people, make space for them and start to bridge that information gap in democracy, the better.”


The Democracy Solutions Project is a collaboration among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center. Our goal is to help our community of listeners and readers engage with the democratic functions in their lives and cast an informed ballot in the November 2024 election.

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