Alphabetic council ballot ‘gives unfair advantage’

Norma Hart changed her name to Norma Austin Hart weeks before polling day. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Norma Hart changed her name to Norma Austin Hart weeks before polling day. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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THE voting system for Scotland’s council elections is still giving an unfair advantage to people whose names are earlier in the alphabet, a new study has found.

Several prominent politicians who were kicked off the city council when the single transferable vote (STV) was introduced in 2007 blamed the fact they appeared lower down the ballot paper than colleagues.

Now an analysis by poll guru Professor John Curtice has shown the voting pattern was repeated at last year’s local elections, though the only major casualty was former deputy lord provost Rob Munn, who lost his seat, while fellow Nationalist Adam McVey was elected in the same ward.

The problem arises because STV elections involve multi-member wards, with voters asked to rank candidates in order of preference and it appears many people place a “1” against the first candidate of their chosen party they come to, sometimes leaving those lower down the list without enough first preferences to get elected.

After the problem was identified in 2007, there were calls for candidates’ names to be printed in random order or listed by party. But many local authorities backed alphabetical order on the grounds that was what voters expected and the Scottish Government decided against a change.

In his report, Prof Curtice said it had been thought that the separation of council and Holyrood elections might have helped people focus more on the individual candidates last year. But he found the problem persisted. “In no less than 80 per cent of those instances where one of the four main parties nominated a pair of candidates, the candidate placed higher on the ballot paper won more first preferences than their running mate did.”

Labour city council leader Andrew Burns said that in the six Edinburgh wards where Labour fielded two candidates it had managed to get all of them elected thanks to the way it campaigned.

“We were more structured in the way we divided a ward and, for example, in Sighthill/Gorgie made sure in certain areas our supporters voted Milligan 1, Wilson 2 and in other areas they voted Milligan 2, Wilson 1. We were very methodical about that across all the six wards where we had two candidates and we got them all elected.” The SNP had eight wards where they fielded two candidates, but in only one case did both get elected.

SNP group leader Steve Cardownie said: “There’s no doubt people tend to cast their first vote for the first name they see representing the party they want to support.

“But I’m not suggesting everyone changes their name to Aardvark. There are sophisticated ways you can attempt to counter that, which could include drawing lots. I’m just glad my name begins with C.”

From Hart to Austin Hart

LABOUR’S Norma Hart was accused of trying to secure alphabetical advantage when she changed her name to Norma Austin Hart just weeks before polling day in last year’s council elections.

It ensured she was top of the ballot paper in Liberton/Gilmerton ward – and she did get the most votes, though party colleague Bill Cook was also elected. She denied her name change was anything to do with the ballot paper.

Letter loss for planning chief

HIGH-PROFILE former planning convener Trevor Davies failed to be elected in Leith Walk ward in 2007 while his then unknown fellow Labour candidate Angela Blacklock got in.

He was one of six senior Edinburgh councillors whose defeat in those elections could have been caused by the alphabet effect. Others included Labour’s Lawrence Marshall and Lib Dems Tom Ponton, Sue Tritton and Liz O’Malley.

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