If a political party wants increased votes with minimum effort, there is an easy way to do it - ensure your party is listed either first or last on the ballot paper. Psychological studies have shown why these are the two most coveted spots for parties or candidates contesting an election, and the reason has something to do with a cognitive process known as ‘primacy effect’.
The primacy effect, according to the American Psychology Association’s dictionary, refers to a psychological phenomenon where items that are presented first on a list have the tendency to be “better learned or remembered than material presented later in the sequence”. This can also result in a first impression bias that may have an “inordinate influence” on the subject.
In the same breath, the primacy effect also brings some advantage to items placed at the end of a sequence, which means good news for political parties who appear at the bottom of the ballot too.
So which political parties have a ‘primacy effect’ advantage?
In the spirit of fairness, the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) does a random draw to determine which party will be listed first on ballot paper. After the first spot is filled, all other parties follow below it in alphabetical order. This year, the prime spot on the ballot went to the African Security Congress (ASC), with the rest of the parties following in alphabetical sequence after it. Due to this, the African Renaissance Unity (ARU) takes up its position right at the bottom of the list.
In the 2014 general election the Vryheid Front Plus won the draw and appeared at the top of the ballot, followed by the Workers And Socialist Party, alphabetically last in the sequence. Parties beginning with ‘A’ followed thereafter.
None of the major parties represented in the South African National Assembly have gained the coveted spots on the ballot 2019 paper. The ANC, which has been the ruling party since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, has 249 seats in the National Assembly and is listed fourth on the ballot paper for the national poll. The Democratic Alliance, which leads the opposition with 89 seats, has taken its place at number 16 on the list. The Economic Freedom Fighters has 20 seats in the national assembly, and is sitting at 19 on the list.
How the 2019 ballot paper prevents voter confusion
For these elections the Independent Electoral Commission also appointed the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) to help eliminate incidents that could result from voters becoming confused between parties when casting their vote.
According to the HSRC, research showed that the three parties appearing in consecutive alphabetical order, the African National Congress (ANC), the African Independence Congress (AIC), and the African People’s Convention (APC) should be separated on the ballot paper in order to avoid confusion.
For this reason the IEC implemented additional measures to ensure that these parties, who share similarities in acronyms and logos, were separated on the ballots. To determine placement, the commission had another random draw. The winning AIC retained its usual place in the alphabetical sequence of parties starting with an ‘A’. The ANC came in second, gaining a new position in the middle of all parties starting with the letter ‘A’. The APC took the position at the bottom of the ‘A’-list, followed by the Better Residents’ Association.
The new system is not without complications. Because the list starts with ASC at the top, parties follow in alphabetical order, with just the ANC breaking the progression to AZAPO, and the APC listed below it. The sequence then moves from ‘B’ through the alphabet to the Women Forward party - lowest ranked in terms of the alphabetical sequence - before returning to the parties starting with an A that come before the ASC alphabetically.
Rather ironically, the traditional ranking of the AIC - between the African Democratic Change and the African Renaissance Congress - is now listed second from the bottom of the list. The two parties that lost the draw, namely the ANC and APC, now both appear higher on the ballot paper than the AIC.
Of shields, spears and possible voter confusion
In the 2014 elections, the AIC appeared directly above the ANC on the ballot paper and garnered 97 642 votes nationally. This earned the relatively-unknown party three seats in the national assembly. The ANC has since alleged that the AIC’s strong showing in the 2014 poll at a national level was due to similarities between the names and logos of the parties - both using similar colours of green, yellow and black. This is an accusation the AIC has consistently denied.
The party was formed by disgruntled members of the ANC in 2005 over the long-standing demarcation issues in Matatiele. The party’s logo retains the shield seen in the ANC logo, and also contains two assegais going across it from behind. This is very similar to the ANC’s logo, which features a shield, spear and wheel in its design. Before 2014 the party had only contested provincially in the Eastern Cape province in 2009. While it retained its provincial showing of 0.77% in the 2014 elections, its number of votes tallies went down from 17 306 votes in 2009 to 16 786 votes in 2014.
Soon after the elections the Daily Maverick reported on the disparity between the votes the AIC got nationally and the tally of votes it received from the two provinces it contested in 2014 - the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. While the party garnered 22 562 between those two provinces it was contesting, it received an additional 89 293 votes from other provinces, bringing its national count up to nearly 100 000 votes.
This year, however, the IEC has taken extra steps to ensure that the X on the page matches the intent of the voter.
Read more about the two parties at the top and bottom of the ballot list this year here.