The NCSL Blog


By Dylan Lynch

Voters at polls in DenverA lot goes into a name.

Parents sometimes spend months, years planning, picking, and guarding the “perfect” name of their soon to be child. My parents joke, at least I think they are joking, that when my twin and I were born, they had only gotten as far as “B” and “D” in the baby name book before we entered this world.

Nonetheless, names often convey a meaning (intended or not), whether historical, cultural, religious, or otherwise. This idea isn’t lost on the public at large, nor upon those seeking elected office. There was a recent spotlight on this topic in Texas, between Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz and Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke.

With seemingly so much importance riding on a name, it may not come as a surprise that many states have decided to codify what can or cannot be included as part of a candidate’s name on a ballot.

Alaska allows “any nickname or familiar form of a proper name of the candidate” to be included on the ballot. North Carolina allows for the presentation of any “legitimate nicknames in ways that do not mislead the voter or unduly advertise the candidacy.” Prefer Jimmy to James, you’re in luck!

Other candidates identify themselves with titles, such as a doctor. Additional labels to a candidate’s name, such as a rank, degree, or professional title, are often referred to as “ballot designations.” But is that fair? Imagine seeing someone listed as “General …” on the ballot. If you knew nothing else about the candidate, the rank of general could convey an impression of discipline, experience, authority and sacrifice. Not bad traits for an elected official, right?

Whether that is the case or not, many states are quite specific that ballot designations are not allowed. In New Hampshire, any designation that even creates the perception of professional or vocational affiliation is prohibited; sorry “Doc.”

In Kansas, if you are known as “Farmer John,” you’d need five residents of your county to, under oath, attest that that is your bona fide nickname for it to be permitted on the ballot. In Texas, only if two or more candidates for the same office have similar names is a distinguishing title or description, limited to four words, permitted. John Doe, Rancher vs John Doe, from El Paso, your choice.

On the flip side is California, where candidates have the option to include a designation, limited to three words, indicating the current elected office they hold or their principal profession. Examples from previous elections include “Farmer/Small Businessman” and “Emergency Room Doctor.” If you feel that this could get out of hand, fear not.

Enter the Ballot Designation Worksheet. This six-page document is required reading if you choose to include a designation. Not only do you have to provide a proposed designation, a first and second alternative, you must also provide a justification for your choice with any documentation that may support your claim.

What’s in a name? My grandmother is known in our family for a phrase she would often repeat. When she heard a name she liked, for whatever reason, she’d simply utter, “What a name!” I never witnessed her vote, but I can imagine her walking into a polling booth, ballot in hand, and as she read the list of candidates, quietly saying “What a name!” before filling in that oval and moving on.

As voters head to the voting booths this spring and fall, they will be looking for one thing, a name.

Dylan Lynch is a policy associate with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.