Scotland politics

Scottish government to consider reform of council ballot system

Ballot paper Image copyright Electoral Commission
Image caption At present, candidates in local elections are listed on ballot papers in alphabetical order

The Scottish government is to consider changes to how ballot papers are laid out for future council elections amid fears the present system is "heavily biased" by alphabetical ordering.

At present, candidates appear on ballot papers in alphabetical order.

BBC Scotland found that where parties ran more than one candidate in a ward on 4 May, they were returned alphabetically in 78% of cases.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would "consider" reforms in future.

But she also said it was important to "build consensus" around any potential changes.

Under the single transferrable vote (STV) electoral system used for local elections, voters rank candidates in order of preference with numbers, rather than simply choosing a single candidate.

Because all wards elect either three or four councillors, larger parties often put forward two or even three candidates, aiming to win more than one seat. However, in practice this often results in those candidates being supported in alphabetical order, handing those with surnames earlier in the alphabet an advantage.

A report by Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University said "there is a risk that voters who are primarily motivated by their support for a particular party may be indifferent as to which of their candidates is elected, and simply opt to place its candidates in the order in which they appear on the ballot".

His analysis of the 2012 results for the Electoral Reform Society said alphabetic voting occurred in "no less than 80%" of cases where one of the four main parties nominated two candidates in a single ward.

A BBC Scotland examination of the 2017 results suggested that the same trend was repeated in the most recent elections, and was usually only broken when a well-known incumbent councillor was the candidate further down the paper.

Image caption SNP member Kenneth Gibson has raised the issue of ballot ordering repeatedly over the last 10 years

SNP member Kenneth Gibson, who first raised questions about the ordering of ballot papers in 2007, asked Ms Sturgeon about the topic at the weekly session of questions to the first minister.

He said: "The single transferrable voting system produces results heavily biased in relation to surnames, regardless of vote management strategies which parties use to try and steer voters from one candidate to a party colleague.

"Does the first minister agree that after three elections fought under the STV system, there is clearly something wrong when one's surname can prove such a decisive factor in whether one is elected, and does she not agree that if this is not addressed, the very credibility of the single transferrable vote system is at stake?"

'Unfair disadvantage'

Ms Sturgeon joked that as someone with a surname starting with S, she could "see the attraction" in changing the system.

She said: "Following the successful electronic count last week, randomised ordering of surnames is one of the innovations that the Scottish government will consider for future elections.

"I should say no decisions have been taken, but it's one of the changes that has been subject to consideration."

The first minister subsequently added: "It's important that no candidate in any election is at an unfair disadvantage, I think we would all agree with that, and that's why we've already said that we'll examine the particular issue that Kenny Gibson has raised.

"But it's also important with any changes to how we do elections that we build consensus around that - it's not for any one party to decide on those changes.

"So as we look at that, we will be looking carefully at opinion not just across the parties but across civic Scotland as we have this consideration over the next few years, and I'd encourage everyone to contribute to it so we can build maximum consensus as we go forward."

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