Small Data: How alphabetical ballots skew democracy

Voter puts slip in ballot box Image copyright Getty Images

Putting names on ballot papers in alphabetical order creates a strange statistical anomaly in local elections, writes Anthony Reuben.

A paper published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs analysed local elections since 1973 and found that in the 2011 elections across the English shire districts and metropolitan boroughs, 161 candidates were elected purely because their names were high in the alphabet and so appeared near the top of the ballot paper.

This effect is apparently greatest in what the authors call "low information elections" - where voters are not able or willing to find out much about those standing - and in elections in which each party has several candidates, so the local elections are a perfect example.

It does appear that if a party is putting up three candidates for an election and only two of them get elected, the ones who win tend to be the ones whose names appear first in the alphabet.

In elections to the European Parliament, candidates are put in alphabetical order according to the name of their party. In many countries, the names of candidates are put in a random order on the ballot paper.

And there are those who argue that alphabetical advantage goes well beyond local elections.

A paper from 2005 found that academic economists were more likely to get jobs at prestigious universities and even win Nobel Prizes if their names were higher up the alphabet, because academic papers tend to list authors in alphabetical order. That article was co-written by a Professor Yariv, who no doubt feels strongly about the issue.

Some say that this alphabetical prejudice starts at school, so I would like to mention Mr Ashenhurst, who taught me when I was nine and might have been expected to be biased towards those at the top of the alphabet. In fact, he used to vary the order in which the class did things by going in order of the day of the month on which we were born, for example, or in alphabetical order of first names instead of surnames.

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