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The true role of sample ballots

McArthur Myers
Andrew Harnik
McArthur Myers fills out his ballot at an early voting location in Alexandria, Va., Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

When approaching an election location, voters might be presented with a sample ballot. They’re often the product of party advertising.

Your local registrar has a sample ballot that’ll show you what's on the ballot where you live. But political parties also have sample ballots, pieces of paper that are mailed to members of a political party and handed out at polling places.

Amanda Wintersieck at Virginia Commonwealth University says this is particularly true in nonpartisan local elections.

"We refer to this as low-information rationality — that is, it's not feasible in terms of the cost for voters to collect full information to make a vote choice," Wintersieck explains. "Instead, they rely on heuristics, that is trusted sources, to help them make those decisions."

Political parties will often endorse in races that are ostensibly nonpartisan, but getting a party's endorsement is often the key to victory.

Virginia legal expert Rich Kelsey says voters should probably do their own research.

"At some point, it is the responsibility of the voter to know for whom they are voting and why," Kelsey says. "And a lot of these sample ballots unfortunately exist because people are asked to go out and vote and a lot of times they don't know who to vote for unless they associate that individual with a party."

Those sample ballots that are handed out outside polling locations are often from political parties or political action committees. The competition is most fierce in local races where candidates might not be as well-known as the top of the ticket.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.