published Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Rules decide which party gets top billing on ballot

How come Republican candidates are listed first on election ballots across Georgia and Tennessee, when adherence to alphabetical order would give Democrats top billing?

Turns out that both states have rules that determine a party's placement.

In Georgia, the party that controls the governor's office is listed first on the ballot. In Tennessee, the party that has the most representatives and senators in Nashville gets the primo position.

"It's an advantage the Democrats enjoyed for many years, and now that's changed," said Blake Fontenay, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of State. Fontenay works for Secretary of State Tré Hargett, a Republican.

The Legislature's balance of power shifted to Republicans in 2008, and Fontenay believes this is the first Tennessee presidential ballot since the Civil War to give Republicans top billing.

"I believe this is the first time since Reconstruction," he said.

"If it were alphabetical, it would be a permanent advantage to one party. Your party names would be like your businesses in the phone book," he said, alluding to the likes of A1 Auto Repair, which is on page one of Chattanooga's white pages.

Still, Fontenay doesn't think ballot placement should have too much effect on a party's prospects.

"I would hope that when people go into a [voting booth] that they're not just pulling the first lever they see; they're making informed decisions," he said.

But Joe Lance, whose website aims to cover "every candidate and every initiative on every ballot" across the state, says a candidate's position can make a difference.

Case in point, Lance said, is Democrat Mark Clayton's out-of-nowhere primary win to face incumbent Republican Bob Corker today in the U.S. Senate race. The Democratic Party disavowed Clayton for opposition to gay rights, support of school prayer and other positions antithetical to the party platform.

"Most agree that his win is attributed to being listed first," Lance wrote in an email. "When voters are less than fully informed about the candidates, if they are not particularly partisan or invested in a race, they often pick the first name in the list."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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