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Now I know my ABCs

Perhaps I'm just missing something really obvious, but I can't quite figure out the point of the California alphabet lottery. If they're going to rotate the alphabet from district to district in order to be fair, well, that part makes sense. Different people will be at the top of the ballot in different districts, so nobody gains the advantage of being first all the time.

But if they're going to do that, then why do they need to pick a random alphabet? What exactly does that do for them? Ultimately, ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ is no more or less random than RWQOJMVAHBSGZXNTCIEKUPDYFL. The former, of course, is more familiar, so it seems more "ordered," but it's no more or less arbitrary than the latter, and hence no more or less fair.

Or am I missing something really obvious?


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Comments (10)

Partha Mazumdar:

I think it's because:

There's a two step process. (1) The state (California) randomizes the candidates' last names and produces a list. Then (2) the local precints take this list and then start/end at different places.

Like, if California would have picked this random order: ABCDEF. Then some precints would start at C and wrap around producing CDEFAB and others would start at E and go EFABCD.

So basically, the radomization happens once but the order is determined locally.

This would save a lot of money. Radomization cost money, and instead of doing it hundreds of times for each municpiality, it was only done once.

This doesn't explain, of course, why each local precint needs a different ballot. Why couldn't they all have just used the order produced by the state. Also, this may also be giving the California elections process too much of the benifit of the doubt. Who really knows why they're doing it this way?


Partha: I don't understand what you're talking about. The randomization is done once, and then the new alphabet is rotated throughout the districts. Like David said, there's no need for the randomization in the first place. ABCD is just as arbitrary as RWQO, and since it's rotated, no one letter has an advantage.

David, I don't think you're missing anything. I don't see why they can't just use the normal alphabet, rotate it through each district, and also rotate it through each election, so that if one time, district 1 uses ABCD, in the following election it will use BCDE.

E. Rey:

Ben, under your scheme, the names would remain alphabetized within each four-letter block.

Randomizing the alphabet completely eliminates the arbitrary advantage or disadvantage of the spelling of any particular name.

E. Rey:

On the other hand, if the advantage or disadvantage of a particular name's spelling is truly arbitrary, then so would be any advantage or disadvantage conferred by randomization. Hmm. Oh well.


Actually, you all missed the true purpose of this. You remember the IMP from the 5th dimension in the Superman comics. All we have to do is get one of the candidates to say the name RWQOJMVAHBSGZXNTCIEKUPDYFL and California disappears back into the 5th dimension. (Or, so we can hope!)

E. Rey:

OK, I know. They randomize the alphabet to mitigate the tyranny of alphabetization, which, while ostensibly arbitrary, is really an oppressive, western, dead-white-male construct...

This being California and all...

You don't want to use one ballot for the entire state, because then the person at ballot space #1 will have a significant statistical advantage over the person at ballot space #150.

Also, I have read that California randomizes its alphabet for *all* its elections, though I don't remember where I read that.

I think you're still missing the point, Peter. I'm not saying that they shouldn't rotate the ballot per district; I'm saying that they can use ABCD... instead of RWQO..., and then rotate the former.


OK, I think I got a justification:

Assume we use ABC..., permuted cyclically in different districts.

Abbott and Babbott are two up-and-coming politicians running for, say, governor, and they're very similar. In 25 out of 26 districts, Abbott will be before Babbott, giving Abbott a slight advantage. So Abbott wins.

Four years later, Babbott runs once again against Abbott. Once again, Abbott has the advantage in 25 out of 26 districts, and once again Abbott wins.

Four years later, Abbott has the same "unfair" advantage, wins again, and Babbott quits politics out of frustration.

With randomization, that wouldn't happen, because four years later, B would not necessarily follow A in the alphabet.

Yea, it's a bit of a stretch, but at least semi-plausible.


The randomization also lessens the incumbant's advantage a tiny degree -- people have to actually look through all the names, and can't skip straight to the ones they know.


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