What Influences Local Voters’ Electoral Choices?
VOTERS IN PARTS OF COOK COUNTY, Illinois, periodically find a curious item on their ballots: a candidate named Jerry “Iceman” Butler. “Iceman” is not a name one often sees on a ballot. To those who don’t know Jerry Butler, they may be forced to wonder “Who is this ‘Iceman’ and why does he have this nickname? Was he a sports star? Or maybe a mob assassin? Would having a nickname like ‘Iceman’ make him a better commissioner or a worse one? Should I vote for him simply because his name is ‘Iceman’?” The mind reels. In truth, Jerry Butler was a very successful singer and songwriter in the 1960s and part of a soul band called “The Impressions.” He has been a political fixture on the South Side of Chicago since the 1980s and is firmly rooted in Chicago machine politics. Nevertheless, he keeps listing his nickname of “Iceman” on the ballot and, given his continued reelection, it seems to be working for him.
For most Americans, the story about the “Iceman” may sound familiar. Given the sheer number of elections and variety of offices we are asked to vote on, it is not uncommon to decide between two or more entirely unknown candidates. In most of these instances, people either employ some heuristic like partisanship or use some arbitrary criteria to make a decision (such as picking a name that sounds familiar or randomly choosing the first name here and the second name there). Or some of us simply choose not to vote at all. Yet this situation creates quite a conundrum for a democracy. After all, can a system really be called democratic if citizens do not know anything about whom they are voting for? If one votes for a county commissioner simply because his name is “Iceman,” what does this mean for the legitimacy of popular sovereignty?