By MICHAEL MELIA
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut’s Republican Party asked the state’s highest court on Wednesday to give GOP candidates the top line on the state’s November ballot, a challenge that could affect voting in the closely watched contest for an open U.S. Senate seat.
The outcome of the governor’s race determines which party holds the first line. But state Republicans argued the secretary of the state was wrong to list Democrats first because their candidate, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, relied on votes from a third party to put him over the top in the 2010 election.
Since lever voting machines have been replaced with optical scan machines, both sides in dispute say it matters less which party is on the top line of ballots. But academics say recent studies have demonstrated ballot order can make a small yet significant difference.
“If you look at the amount of money being spent on the Connecticut Senate race, it seems a reasonable use of resources to see what the court will do,” said Marc Meredith, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is currently a fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University.
Meredith said studies have shown ballot order can sway voting by as much as half a percentage point to 2 percent, but the effect is greater in local races where candidates are not well known.
The case before the state Supreme Court will determine the ballot order for November elections including the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who is retiring at the end of this term. Currently, U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy is to be listed first. If the GOP challenge is successful, his Republican opponent Linda McMahon would be listed first.
The judges did not say when they would issue a ruling. A spokesman for the secretary of the state’s office, Av Harris, said they will need to know soon because they are facing a deadline Saturday to inform towns of the ballot order.
“The people’s ability to cast ballots is at stake,” he said.
The arguments Wednesday centered on dueling interpretations of the state law that says the top line goes to “the party whose candidate for governor polled the highest number of votes in the preceding election.”
In the 2010 governor’s race, Republican Tom Foley received 560,874 votes, while Malloy received 540,970 as a Democrat and 26,308 as a Working Families Party candidate.
Last month, the state Republican Party filed a lawsuit against Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, who determined that Democratic candidates would be listed first because Malloy was the overall winner. A lawyer for the party, Proloy Das, said Merrill is out of compliance with laws that date back a century.
“This case is not about politics. It’s about the law,” Das said.
A lawyer from the state attorney general’s office argued that Merrill’s determination is consistent with statutes and that she was acting within her discretion to interpret election laws.