Does it matter where you are on the ballot paper?

As voters go to the polls on Thursday, they will be presented with ballot papers listing the candidates in alphabetical order of surname. Some candidates feel that appearing higher up the ballot paper is beneficial, as some voters may simply vote for the first acceptable name they see as they scan down the list of candidates. In the 2010 General Election, Labour’s alphabetically-challenged candidiate Daniel Zeichner perhaps did slightly worse than might have been expected. However, the alphabet factor hasn’t prevented councillors named Zmura and Znajek from being elected in Cambridge in recent years.

But what does the data actually show? Are alphabetically-earlier candidates more likely to get elected? To find out, I compared the alphabetical distribution of surnames of Cambridge City Councillors against the population of the Cambridge area as a whole. Here’s the graph:

This graph shows whether surnames beginning with each letter are over- or under-represented in the council chamber, compared with the overall Cambridge area population (based on the number of pages in the residential section of the local phone book). So for example 19% of the councillors have surnames beginning with B, against about 10% of the local population. But while 9% of the local population are listed under C, Rod Cantrill is their lone representative in the chamber.

So what does the graph show us? It certainly doesn’t offer a lot of support to the theory that alphabetically earlier candidates are more likely to get elected. Apart from the bunch of Bs, the first half of the alphabet seems to have a tough time of it on Cambridge City Council – every letter from C to J is underrepresented, whereas the second half of the alphabet definitely has a better showing. Indeed, surnames beginning A to J supply 49% of the local population, but just 36% of the City Councillors.

What is the picture on the County Council? Here’s the graph:

There’s less variation here, as would be expected with the larger number of councillors (69), but it’s still not good news for the earlier part of the alphabet. So it looks like candidates near the bottom of the ballot paper shouldn’t be worrying too much about their electoral disadvantage.

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