A COUNCILLOR has been accused of trying to secure an alphabetical advantage on the election ballot paper – by changing her surname just weeks before polling day.
Norma Hart’s decision to become known as “Norma Austin-Hart” will place her at the top of the Liberton/Gilmerton list and ahead of Labour colleague Bill Cook.
Under the Single Transferable Vote system used in council elections – where voters rank candidates in order of preference – research has shown that where two candidates from the same party are standing, the one higher up the ballot paper has a better chance of being elected.
Among the most striking examples in the last election was when Leith Walk councillor Professor Trevor Davies, a former TV producer, failed to get back in while Labour colleague and newcomer Angela Blacklock did.
Cllr Hart today denied the name change was anything to do with the ballot paper and insisted it was down to her re-marrying. Instead of taking the surname of her new husband, however, she will join her maiden name – Austin – with her current name – Hart.
Labour group leader Andrew Burns also insisted the timing was coincidental, but long-standing Labour supporters have warned that the move is damaging.
One member, who declined to be named, told the Evening News: “This is deeply disappointing for a Labour councillor to do this for the purpose of advancing her position on the ballot paper. It doesn’t reflect well on Councillor Hart or her respect for the party or the electoral process.”
Another questioned the wisdom of appearing in Liberton/Gilmerton, a ward with significant pockets of social deprivation, with a now double-barrelled surname. He added: “She won’t be doing herself any favours by standing as a Labour candidate with a double-barrelled name, especially in that part of the city.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Conor Snowden, who is not standing for re-election, said the move would give Cllr Austin-Hart, a project management trainer, far more votes than Cllr Cook, an engineer for defence contractor Selex Galileo.
He said: “It is recognised across Scotland that where there’s two candidates from the same party standing, the one with the name closer to A will get more votes. In 2007 even though Norma was a standing for the first time she gained far more votes than incumbent Ian Murray, who only scraped through in the end.
“Ian would have been more well known in Liberton/Gilmerton but because she was higher up the alphabet she was first. Changing her name will undoubtedly give her an advantage over Bill Cook but not over other parties.”
Cllr Austin-Hart, who is in her early 50s, told the Evening News there was no truth in allegations that her name-change was politically motivated.
“The truth is I’m getting married. I’m taking it as an opportunity to line up my personal name, my business name, and my political name.
“Austin-Hart Project Management has been my business name for seven years and in my business world people are accustomed to it.” Asked whether it was to benefit the ballot paper, she said: “Absolutely not. It’s a very personal, happy decision.
I’m choosing to use my maiden name rather than my [new] husband’s name.”
Cllr Burns added: “She’s taken the opportunity to align her maiden name and her business name, which has been Austin-Hart for seven years. It’s a perfectly rational explanation.” He said the perception that the move would be advantageous in the election was “entirely incorrect”.
Cllr Cook declined to discuss the move when contacted by the News.