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Changing the Ballot Paper

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

article for Cooperative News


The House of Commons has a number of ways an MP can raise an issue they think needs airing, one being the ‘10 Minute Rule Bill’. I recently used this procedure to introduce a Bill requiring ballot papers to be printed with candidates names in a random order rather than alphabetical as is the case now. Although my Bill will not progress further I hope the ideas within it will be picked up and this small but important change to the law be enacted.


The ballot paper is fundamental to our democracy. No candidate or party should receive advantage from it. If the political process is not fair and equitable to all candidates it strikes at the heart at our system of democracy. Currently in the United Kingdom the names of candidates are listed on the ballot paper in alphabetical order using the surname, and where the election concerns parties, such as in the European elections, they are also listed alphabetically.


In June 2003 the Electoral Commission produced a report entitled Ballot Paper Design which covered a whole range of issues regarding ballot papers, including the issues of alphabetical listing of candidates. The Electoral Commission received little evidence to suggest that in single vacancy elections there is any bias toward those higher up the ballot paper. An analysis of the 2001 election showed an almost equal split between the positions on the ballot paper in which the winning candidate were placed.


My concern arises in those elections where more than one candidate will be elected. The Electoral Commission share this concern and quoted academic research analysing the London Borough elections in 1994 and the English shire district elections in 1995.  The research indicated that a smaller proportion of ballots were cast for candidates found in the middle or at the bottom of the alphabetical order. The research also showed that amongst voters who cast all the available votes for one party’s candidates there was a marked bias towards those listed higher in the alphabetical order. Several councils also provided evidence that where ballot papers had 12 or more candidates for three seats a significant number of voters used only one or two votes - appearing not to find the third candidate of the favoured party.


There is little evidence that parties or candidates actively seek to exploit the alphabetical listing by changing their surnames. For example we have yet to see the appearance of a Robert Aardvark-Silk. However, Australia has had experience of people seeking advantage with the famous example in the 1937 Senate election in New South Wales, when four candidates where elected with the names Armour, Armstrong, Arnold and Ashley.


Many countries list candidates alphabetically but a research project on voting systems, the “Epic Project”, found 16 countries that use randomisation for elections to their first chamber. In Australia there is a double randomisation system, where all candidates are first randomly allocated a number and then the numbers are again drawn. This determines the outcome on the ballot paper. This process is not unduly bureaucratic and burdensome on returning officers and in my view would therefore not be in anyway detrimental to the process.


The Electoral Commission in its report on ballot paper design goes on to suggest that party candidates could be grouped together and that this would assist both electors and counting clerks. This would be achieved by substituting party for candidate in the first draw and then by further randomisation of the candidates’ names within the party block.


I am not trying to add another major form of discrimination - that of “alphabetism.” Randomisation of names through a system similar to that used in Australia would not be cumbersome or difficult to understand. It would provide the reassurance that accidents of birth or indeed marriage are not influencing our democratic process and affecting the outcome of elections.

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