Public Ballots May Be Changing Award Voting Behavior

My office was recently planning an offsite social event. During a team meeting, we brainstormed what activity to do together. Along with ideas like mini golf, hiking, and wine tasting, someone suggested karaoke. The team initially responded positively, so when everyone turned to me, I said “sure, that sounds fun”. Then someone put the options in a Google Form for us to all vote on privately. I opened it at my desk and immediately voted for karaoke dead last. I didn’t want to be a downer in public, but there was no way I was doing karaoke.

Being in public changes our behavior. It’s a natural trait and totally understandable. What’s interesting is understanding when and how it changes, and the NHL awards voting may have given us an opportunity to do just that. For the 2017-2018 season, the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA) made their individual voter ballots public for the first time, and it appears that this may have affected how some writers voted.

The PHWA is responsible for selecting the winners of six major NHL awards: the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke, Lady Byng, and Masterton, as well as the All-Star and All-Rookie teams (see here for more details). The 150+ voters are professional hockey journalists who spend an enormous amount of time watching, researching, and writing about hockey. Many of them are local beat reporters covering one specific team, but plenty are regional or national writers.

Much conversation surrounds the award votes before the decisions are due, and it is pretty clear who the favorites are for each award in advance. But individual writers could have understandable reasons for going ‘off the board’ with their votes. Beat writers see one team a great deal and may feel that a player on the team is underappreciated. They also may have an incentive to give one of their votes to a local player if it would help maintain the relationship with the team they cover. Or maybe the writer simply believes that a player – whether for their local team or another – is underappreciated but deserving of a vote.

Publicizing individual ballots disincentivizes voters from making less mainstream choices. There is little benefit to be had for picking someone that no other voter agrees with. On the other hand, having an unusual ballot opens oneself up to scorn and derision from snarky fans on social media (read: me). So while I’m sure every voter would try their best to remain impartial, it is reasonable to question whether publicizing ballots has had a ‘chilling effect’ on unusual choices.

How would we measure such an effect? I’ll suggest a few points. First, we would see a decline in the total number of players receiving votes. It would be safer to keep your ballot entirely focused on the mainstream contenders for the award. Relatedly, the dropoff would come from fewer “longshot” candidates who only receive a few votes. There’s no clear definition for this, so I’ll make the arbitrary cutoff that a “longshot” candidate is one who appears on five or fewer ballots. Finally, I’d expect the longshots to be more numerous – and the decline steeper – in the Selke, and Lady Byng races than in the Hart, or Vezina ones (I’m uncertain about Norris and Calder). [Edit: An astute commenter points out that general managers vote on the Vezina, not the PHWA. Given that, we should expect the results for Vezina voting to stay the same as past years.] The Selke and Lady Byng have harder to define qualities, so they are a more natural place to throw in someone unusual.

Enough preamble, what do the numbers say? While it’s a limited sample, it looks like the clustering towards mainstream choices did happen this year. Here’s how many players received any votes in each award in every year since 2007:

All Vote Getters

There’s quite a bit of noise, but the number of players who appeared on a ballot for the Selke or Lady Byng was much lower than it has been in previous years. It looks like players who may have gotten a couple of votes in the past were kept of ballots now that they would be seen. For the Selke, the only year that comes close is 2013-14. Vote-getters for the other awards stayed fairly constant, though the sample size is too small to see much.

“Longshot” players saw a similar decline in Selke and Lady Byng appearances:

Low Vote Getters

This evidence is limited, but it suggests that voters were less original with their choices, and we may see more homogenous voting patterns in the years to come. Note that this analysis does not take into consideration the fact that the number of voters casting ballots is slowly growing over time; we would therefore expect the number of players receiving votes to slowly increase, but the opposite happened this year.

Some will see this as an obvious positive; if previously, players were getting a couple of fourth- and fifth-place votes from their local beat reporter, then we’re now getting more reasonable and realistic results. On the other hand, the removal of secrecy may stifle genuine nonconformist opinions that recognized players who will now be left off the rolls.

Of course, the trend may also be totally ephemeral and reverse next year, just like it did after 2013-14. We have only one year of public voting, after all. Perhaps voters genuinely were more aligned on candidates than in recent years. It will be worth conducting this analysis again when we have additional years of voting.

Thanks to Hockey Reference for the data used in this post. The code and complete dataset is available here.

2 thoughts on “Public Ballots May Be Changing Award Voting Behavior

  1. Making the media ballots public would not affect the Vezina Trophy voting, since that is done by the league’s General Managers and not the hockey media.

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