Donkeys led by aardvarks – having a surname start near the beginning of the alphabet is a big electoral advantage

In preferential voting systems, such as the electoral system for European, Assembly and Local elections in Northern Ireland, voters have to rank candidates in order of preference (1 for first preference, 2 for second, and so on). A flaw in the system is that voters frequently list their preferences from top to bottom in the order that they appear on the ballot paper, i.e. in alphabetical order of the candidate’s surname. This phenomenon is known as donkey voting.

In Australia, where voting is compulsory, unengaged or uninformed voters frequently list their preferences in the order that they appear on the ballot paper. A “donkey vote” under such circumstances might look like the sample ballot paper at the top of the post.

However, in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland the effect is more evident when there is more than one candidate running for the same party in a constituency. Consider the ballot paper below, where there are two candidates running for the Usuns Party, two running for the Themmuns Party, and one candidate each for the Getalongerist Party and one candidate for whale advocate party Plaid Morfilod – The Party of Whales. A donkey vote in such circumstances might look the ballot below.

Alan Aardvark has a greater chance of being elected than his running mate Deirdre Donkey.

There was clear evidence of donkey voting at the recent local elections in Northern Ireland. The following tables show areas in which parties ran two candidates. Successful candidates are coloured in black.

In District Electoral Areas where there were two candidates running from the same party, the candidate whose surname was first alphabetically was elected 85% of the time, whilst the second candidate on the ballot paper was elected only 54% of the time.

In DEAs where only one of the two candidates was successfully elected, the candidate listed first on the ballot was successful 78% of the time, whilst the candidate listed second was successful only 22% of the time. In such a scenario, the candidate with the surname listed first alphabetically is over 3.6 times more likely to be elected than his or her running mate.

The 46 instances where a party ran three candidates in the same DEA are listed in the table below.

In these three-candidate DEAs, the candidate listed first on the ballot paper was elected 91% of the time. The second candidate on the ballot paper was elected 74% of the time, and the last candidate alphabetically was elected 67% of the time.

There were only 16 instances where a party ran four candidates in the same DEA; all of which DUP or Sinn Féin were the party. These are shown in the following table.

The candidate listed first on the ballot paper was elected on all but one occasion when a party ran four candidates in the same DEA.

The widespread prevalence of “donkey voting” means that the current electoral system for STV elections is clearly unfair. The practice of listing candidates alphabetically by their surnames in Dáil elections was brought before the Irish High Court in 1986 in the case of O’Reilly v Minister for the Environment ([1986] IR 143).

Whilst it was decided that the practice was neither unreasonable nor constitutional, it was agreed that “there has been a significant over-representation of candidates [in the Dáil Éireann] whose surnames begin with letters at the commencement of the alphabet.”

The practice could be seen as being systemically biased against certain groups. For example, the most common letters that Polish surnames begin with are K, L, N, S, W and Z. The bias against candidates whose surnames begin with letters in the second half of the alphabet could be mean that candidates from a Polish background are effectively being discriminated against.

There are ways in which the situation could be improved. The city of Vancouver in Canada lists the candidates in a random order (the order is selected by lottery). Alternatively, each ballot paper printed could have the candidates listed in a different (random) order.

The fact that candidates with an alphabetical advantage at local elections means that candidates seeking higher office are more likely to be drawn from this population, too. It is similar to the effect where aspiring professional sportsmen and women are more likely to be successful if there are born in January, as they will be the oldest in their year group and are therefore likely to have more time to develop their skills.

Studies have shown that the surnames of members of Congress in the United States skew noticeably towards the start of the alphabet than would be expected if it was randomly distributed.

Ballots need to be redesigned to ensure a level playing field. Zoe Zebra should have just as much as an opportunity to seek political office as Alan Aardvark.