America elected a new president on Tuesday. Perhaps you heard? Obama's triumph was the world's huge news story, but across the country many thousands more candidates were voted in and out of local offices. My ballot included a plethora of races for positions like Register of Probate and Regional Vocational School District. I'm sure I'm not the only reasonably well-informed voter who sometimes stares down at a list of local candidates and thinks "Uh-oh. Some of these are just random names to me."
An election of random names. Interesting, eh? For all of the attention that's been paid to Barack Hussein Obama's name, the fact is that a presidential candidate becomes so well known by the public that his name alone can't define him. But in local elections, especially elections for large slates of jobs, a typical voter is often asked to chose among a group of people knowing little but their names. If name-based discrimination really exists, could this be a place we'd spot it?
In fact, the Houston Chronicle thinks they might have spotted some. An article in this morning's paper describes a curious electoral pattern in Harris County, Texas. Harris County voters had over a hundred local races to decide, including 32 separate District Judge contests. We can't expect a typical voter in that situation to be genuinely familiar with all of the hundreds of candidates. So all many had to go on was name and party affiliation. Not surprisingly, party affiliation dominated: a wave of straight-party Democratic voting swept most of the 32 District Judge races. Most, but not all. The Chronicle reports speculation that the four Democratic candidates who lost were brought down by their "unusual names." They were:
Judging by surnames like Murray and Pierre, we can safely assume they're talking about unusual first names. And judging by the first name Andres, we can safely assume that "unusual" is a big, whopping euphemism. (A look at the NameMapper will show you that the familiar Spanish name Andres has ranked among the top-100 names in Texas for years.) So instead of "unusual," let's just be upfront and say "non-white." Meanwhile the winning candidates in those contests were named Sharon, Mark, Patricia and Joseph.
Keep in mind that most of the judicial races were decided by just a few percentage points. With only two factors to judge by, name and party, it's certainly conceivable that names could have influenced just enough voters to sway those races. But before drawing any conclusions we should look at the full body of candidates running for all 32 jobs. I've reviewed the full Harris County judicial election results; here are the names of the winning Democrats:
Of the 28, I see only three names that would typically be identified as non-white: Dion, Josefina, and Ruben. That totals seven non-white given names out of 32 Democrats, with all four losers selected from those seven. What are the chances that selection would happen randomly? By my calculations, less than one chance in a thousand.
Of course, it's just one set of races in one county. I don't pretend to know whether other issues affected those four candidates. But if I were a scholarly researcher trying to isolate real-world effects of baby names, I'd be mighty tempted to take a broader look at "name-only" contests like these across America.