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Sunday, July 03, 2016

So you think you voted wisely

So you think you voted wisely. Up until 1984 the candidates' names on the House of Representatives ballot paper were arranged alphabetically. So much did this advantage candidates whose names were near the beginning of the alphabet that half of those elected had names starting between the letters A and H.

Andrew Leigh, who with Amy King researched ballot paper order for his book The Luck of Politicssays the candidate at the top gets an extra 1 per cent of the vote. He says that since 1996 there have been nine such candidates who won by less than 1 per cent – one of whom was former Labor leader Kim Beazley.

Gender is also a matter of luck. Leigh says being a woman costs you one-third of a percentage point and makes it much less likely that you will be preselected at all. Of the 13 vacant yet safe seats up for election this time, 12 went to men.

Having a Muslim-sounding name sets you back as well. Leigh and King reckon it equates to 2.3 percentage points. An Asian name costs 1.5 percentage points and a continental European name 0.7 percentage points.

Their findings echo those of Queensland economists Redzo Mujcic and Paul Frijters who asked volunteers to get on buses, claim that their travel cards didn't work and ask to stay. They ran the experiment 1500 times. The success rate of the whiter-looking volunteers was 72 per cent, the success rate of those with darker skin was 36 per cent.

In the Northern Territory, where photos are allowed on the ballot paper, Leigh and Tirta Susilo analysed the results of the 2005 election and found that in predominantly white electorates those candidates with lighter skin did better. In the electorates with a high indigenous population, dark-skinned candidates did better.

And beauty itself is important. Leigh and King collected the photographs displayed on how-to-vote cards in the 2004 federal election and asked an independent panel to rate them. They found the best lookers (in the top 15 per cent) got an extra 1 to 2 percentage points. Oddly, beauty mattered more for male than female candidates.

Leigh is now himself a Labor politician, re-elected on Saturday. He is male, Anglo and symmetrically faced. But he is self-aware enough to acknowledge that his success is due as much to luck as competence. Most of us aren't.

In his new book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy Cornell University's Robert Frank writes that we are incredibly keen to believe the good things that happen to us are the result of our own actions. He says it's not such a bad strategy (it helps to take responsibility) so long as we realise that it isn't true.

Songs become hits if the first one or two web reviews are good, regardless of the others; unknown actors become megastars when they are chosen because the big names aren't available; VHS beat the Beta because it was adopted first by the porn industry.

Frank describes an experiment in which volunteers were sent into rooms and given a problem to solve. One member of each group was arbitrarily made the leader. After half an hour a tray of biscuits was brought in, with four for the three volunteers. In every case the randomly-appointed 'leader' grabbed the fourth biscuit.

It would be nice if those we elected on Saturday showed humility. It'd be nice too if they remembered that the richest among us might not deserve their tax cuts. It would be best if all of us acknowledged that, but for a few rolls of the dice, we would be somewhere completely different.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald