Jim Orr: Alphabet spells trouble for would-be councillors

Candidates' surnames could put them at a disadvantage on ballot papers. Picture: John Devlin
Candidates' surnames could put them at a disadvantage on ballot papers. Picture: John Devlin
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As voters go to the polls in the May 2017 elections, spare a thought for those most unfortunate of council candidates: those with surnames at the end of the alphabet.

In the coming election, candidates will as usual be listed alphabetically on the ballot paper. This is more or less no problem if you’re the only candidate for your party but, where there are two or three candidates from the same party, the one listed first has a huge advantage.

Independent Councillor Jim Orr

Independent Councillor Jim Orr

Understandably many voters simply have a preferred party and don’t know how many candidates that party is putting up. So they scan down the ballot paper until they find their party and put a “1” next to their name before continuing with their preferences. They may well not notice a second candidate from their party until they’ve already put their “2” somewhere else. The advantage this gives certain candidates was easily demonstrated at the 2012 elections. Across the 16 wards there were 17 cases where one party (either SNP, Labour or Conservative) put up two candidates in the same ward, as is now common practice with multi-member wards. On seven occasions, both were elected. However, of the remaining ten occasions where only one of the two was elected, the candidate listed first on the ballot paper was the one who was elected on nine out of ten occasions. The exception was in Inverleith ward where Councillor Iain Whyte was elected and fellow conservative Scott Douglas was not. The fact that Whyte is a long-standing councillor would have helped him. Had both been “unknowns”, it might well have been different. This all means that statistically, where a party put up two candidates in Edinburgh in 2012, the second listed candidates had only a 47 per cent chance of being elected whereas the first ones had a 94 per cent chance. The candidates who were listed first were literally twice as likely to be elected.

Political parties and campaigners are, of course, well aware of such unfortunate trends and in their materials will remind voters that there is more than one candidate and encourage them to give both the first two preferences.

More materials will usually be distributed in each ward encouraging voters to put their first preference next to the second listed candidate. However, as we have seen, the first listed candidate still enjoys a huge advantage.

That an accident of birth can have such a dramatic effect on the likelihood of electoral success does a real disservice to what are vitally important local elections.

Ballot papers for local government elections are scanned and processed automatically by machine and the position of the government appears to be that rectifying these alphabetical advantages is too tricky and expensive. However, it can’t be beyond the wit of man to solve this, for example by issuing half the ballot papers with candidates listed from A to Z and the other half from Z to A. This would wipe out any advantage.

Free and fair elections are regarded as a pillar of democracy, but in truth our local government elections could be a lot fairer here in Scotland.

Independent Councillor Jim Orr is not standing for re-election