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Positions on the ballot paper: big deal or much ado about nothing?

The meeting to settle political parties’ position on the ballot for Election 2020 led to heated debate and loud accusations of cheating. Our guest blogger Nii Tettey Ashong considers how important it is

On Tuesday night, moments before gory images of the shameful killings of #EndSARS protesters in Nigeria inundated the trends, social media had gone agog with numerical metaphors after representatives of the 12 presidential candidates in Ghana’s 2020 general election picked positions for their order on the ballot paper.

In the usual fashion, supporters of the two leading political traditions scrambled for the most auspicious PR message connected to their balloted position. With President Akufo-Addo’s NPP securing the first position and the former president John Dramani Mahama just below him at number two on the ballot paper, it seemed obvious that the political landscape would soon be resounding with slogans of Ɛsoro hɔ” and “Two sure” or the many trite options.

 

For political watchers, this has been a constant feature of Ghana’s electoral politics. And although it appears that some things won’t change after all, it makes one wonder whether the position on the ballot is actually that important, or really just a big fuss about nothing.

In the first part of this article, I will try to take a trip down memory lane, discussing the ballot positions the two major political parties have occupied in past elections. Then I will discuss the relevance or otherwise of a candidate’s position on the ballot – synthesising, of course, the two core perspectives on the subject.

Positions of NDC and NPP candidates on the ballot paper, 1992-2020

The 1992 election is historically important for being the one that ushered in Fourth Republican democracy, after years of military dictatorship by the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC). It featured a heated contest between the then PNDC chairman, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, and Albert Adu Boahen, the man hailed as having broken the culture of silence. Professor Adu Boahen was at number one on the ballot paper, leading a pack of five candidates, with Chairman Rawlings in a comfortable position at four. I can imagine members of the then newly minted National Democratic Congress (NDC) claiming that the figure 4 represented the Fourth Republic.

Following that contest came the 1996 election, again contested by Rawlings and this time, for the NPP, John Kufuor. Rawlings was at number one on that ballot, Kufuor at number two and Edward Mahama followed for the People’s National Convention (PNC) in a three-man presidential race. It is worth noting that in 1996 the NPP, although it ran under the banner of the famed Great Alliance with the Nkrumahist People’s Convention Party (PCP), lost again to Rawlings.

The general election of 2000, another milestone, represented the first political turnover and signalled, as turnovers do, a huge development in Ghana’s nascent democracy. It was also the first time that political parties drew lots for their slots on the ballot paper. In the two previous elections, the EC had determined the positions based on the order of filing of applications.

Placing seventh and in last position on the paper was the NPP’s John Agyekum Kufuor – who emerged victorious that December after a run-off. The NDC’s candidate, John Evans Atta Mills, was number two on the ballot in that eventful race. Although Kufuor was placed at number one on the paper for the run-off, the NPP’s memorable chants of “Aseε hɔ” continued to gain popularity throughout the campaign. Indeed, at President Kufuor’s inauguration on 7 January 2001, his portrayal of the “Aseε hɔ” thumb gesture sent the crowd into a frenzy.

For the 2004 election the NPP picked the second slot on the ballot paper, followed by the NDC’s Professor Mills at number three.

The election of 2008 was equally eventful. President Kufuor having finished his eight-year tenure, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo led the NPP into a heated election that he lost to the NDC’s Professor Mills in a runoff by a hair’s breadth – 40,000 votes. Akufo-Addo was number one on the ballot for round one with Mills at number three.

Many will recall with delight, Kwabena Kwabena’s Ɔyε number one” campaign tune and the NDC’s quite effective message that Professor Mills’s position represented the trinity, as it symbolised his third attempt at the presidency. The run-off ballot paper again had Candidate Akufo-Addo as number one.

We all recall how that election turned out. Yet four years on, in 2012, President Mahama was back at number one for the NDC with Nana Akufo-Addo at number three – and the NPP officially lost that election, too, to the then “first-timer” Mahama.

Election 2012 Kwabena Kwabena "Oye number 1" still
Still from Kwabena Kwabena’s “Ɔyε Number One”

As fate had it, the next election in 2016 was another turnaround. The buzzing sound of the NDC’s “John 3:16” campaign tunes became remarkably familiar, speaking of what the NDC symbolised as the coming of the Third John and a third term for the party. It was never to be. Nana Akufo-Addo won a landslide victory by the biggest margin ever in Ghana’s electoral history. He was placed at number five on the ballot. The NPP chants that year of “High-Five” are never to be forgotten.

Four years later, Akufo-Addo is back in the number-one spot, with the NDC’s Mahama this time in a comfortable second position. The NPP has said that President Akufo-Addo’s first position on the ballot paper this year represents top-class governance and a one-touch victory. The NDC, as one might expect, has said its own placement is a sign of the second coming of John Mahama.

Election 2016 Akufo-Addo High-Five
Candidate Akufo-Addo on the “High-Five“ campaign tour, 2016

Does position on a ballot paper matter?

It would appear from the above analysis that the NPP’s primary ballot positions in the past have been one, two, seven, two, one, five and number one again for 2020. The party’s candidates had won elections with “Aseε hɔ”, “Two sure for positive change” and “High-Five”. The NDC’s lucky numbers have been four, one, three and three again, even though they have lost with the number two and twice with the number three.

Whereas people may explore these numbers for their own superstitious significance, my review of the dominant literature points to an actual nexus between a candidate’s position on the ballot and electoral success. For example, the theory of the name-order effect posits that “candidates who are first on the ballot are more likely to win”. Delbert A Taebel has shown in a recent JSTOR publication that not only do candidates listed first enjoy a favourable advantage, but this advantage is greater in contests further down the ballot. It has also been emphasised, however, that the advantage does not hold when voters have high recognition of candidate names. This suggests that in presidential elections, as in the case of Ghana, where there is generally much higher name and party recognition, the effects of name-order would be weaker. This thesis is corroborated by Jonathan G Koppell and Jennifer A Steen in a much-cited publication from 2004.

 

To consolidate this narrative on the general relationship between position on the ballot and electoral success, I gathered some insights from a design perspective. Jude Nyoagbe, a technology design expert, makes the point, quite persuasively, that graphic designers generally consider several patterns when designing. With these patterns connoting a certain hierarchy, designers are sure to put the most significant information at the topmost left.

In effect, design elements situated at the top attract the eye of the user even though, naturally, other elements such as font size, consistency, length of text and colour also come into play. The overall sense is that there is a theory in communication design where the position of elements either in text or graphics could influence what grabs the user’s attention immediately. This perspective may be relevant in considering the phenomenon of spoilt ballots, especially in instances where a voter thumbprints for more than one candidate, either because of indecision or an inability easily to identify his/her preferred candidate.

It goes without saying that perhaps the political parties understand these facts better, hence their emphasis on party symbols, colours and position on the ballot paper. With a fairly significant illiterate and aged voter population in Ghana as well as many first-time voters, who often have a certain rush of anxiety in the voting booth, being first or even last on the ballot paper may come with its own convenience, as the eyes direct attention to those positions, making voting faster and seamless.

I may have my own measured enthusiasm about the significance of the candidate’s position on the ballot paper, yet it appears that for those who have come to understand that a candidate’s victory on election day is about how many voters actually enter the box and thumbprint a ballot paper accurately, nothing must be left to chance. Whichever way this works, it is to be determined in the next few weeks whether the NPP’s number one will yield their expected “one-touch victory”, or if the NDC’s acclaimed second coming of John Mahama will prove to be what it is meant to be. For the time being, we can all enjoy the pantomime of numerical metaphors and PR charades.

Nii Tettey Ashong

The writer is a grandson of Tito Lee, aspiring for a better life than Tito Lee. Follow him on Twitter: @Ashong_Tettey
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