Political Figures: Ballot Roulette

Once a month we are going to hand over to our friends at Medway Elects, who are going to dig into the Medway data and, using wizardry, work out where are right now.

Voting is a complicated matter. You walk into the polling station, pick up your ballot paper (after providing absolutely zero evidence you are who you say you are), enter the polling booth, mark a cross next to the candidate or party you want to win, drop your ballot paper into the ballot box and then leave. Job done.

But sometimes, the instructions on a ballot paper can be too complicated to follow. The part where it says “vote for only one candidate” is generally assumed. But it’s not always there, and not everyone seems to notice.

With one exception (in Cuxton and Halling), voters in Medway this coming May will be voting for more than one councillor, so will have more than one vote. In the nine wards which elect two councillors, voters will be able to vote for two candidates, and in the twelve wards which elect three councillors, voters will be able to vote for three candidates.

As a veteran of three full council election counts, I can say with confidence that a significant proportion of voters either deliberately ignore this instruction, or simply do not read it, assuming they only have one vote. Others will vote for three candidates, but not necessarily all from the same party (sometimes parties will not field a full slate of candidates in a ward, or there may be independent candidates standing on their own). Voters are, of course, free to vote as they wish, but this can have a strange effect on the final result.

Many people assume that if there are three candidates from the same party in the same ward, they should get virtually the same result – and that all three should be elected if their party comes out on top. But whilst the latter happens most of the time, it doesn’t happen all the time, and the former rarely happens. Since the first elections to Medway Council in 1997, 22 ward elections have seen candidates from different parties elected (known as “split wards”), with 14 of those split wards appearing under the current boundaries. You can check these out for yourself over at Medway Elects.

Voters who use all their votes but for different parties will sometimes, though not always, do so to vote for specific candidates. On other occasions, it may be that their favourite party is not fielding a full slate of candidates. In 2015, for example, the TUSC fielded only one candidate in each of Medway’s 22 wards, meaning, with one exception (well, two if you count the candidate who polled zero votes), their supporters had spare votes to use. Or it may be that they genuinely cannot decide whether to vote for the Green Party, Labour or the Liberal Democrats, so vote for one candidate in each party.

Those who are not looking for specific candidates but for parties will generally not look at the ballot paper for long, but will instead put their cross next to the first candidate or candidates they see standing for their preferred party. With most normal people reading the ballot papers from top to bottom, one can reasonably assume that those candidates who appear first stand a better chance of winning the votes from people who don’t realise they can vote more than once. Candidates are always sorted in alphabetical order of surname, so people who have the good fortune to have a surname starting with “A-M” should, in theory, receive a higher number of votes than those with a surname starting “N-Z”. But do the facts prove this theoretical ballot roulette? Does a pure accident of birth (or well-chosen marriage) provide you with a greater chance of being elected?

Rather than going through every ward election result since 1997 in minute detail (there are 154 individual ward elections where more than one councillor was elected), I will give a general overview of the figures since 1997, providing summary data and a few specific examples to illustrate why I believe this theory is, at least to a certain extent, true.

Since 1997, there have been 453 instances of two or more candidates standing for the same party in the same ward. For that figure, I am counting each individual party (rather than each individual candidate) in each individual ward as a separate instance. For example, in Chatham Central in 2015, Labour and the Conservatives both fielded three candidates, so count as two instances. Of those 453 multi-candidate instances, 285 followed the pattern exactly, where those candidates appearing first for the party polled the highest number of votes for their party, those appearing second polled the second highest number of votes, and those appearing third (if applicable), polled the least number of votes for their party.

The election where this was most prevalent was in 1997, where this pattern was seen in 77 of 103 instances – a confirmation rate of 75%. In contrast, in 2003 this pattern was seen in only 31 of 63 instances – a confirmation rate of just 49%. In every other election, though, this figure was 55% or higher.

Former Leader of the Council Rodney Chambers has joked that his wife Diane polls more votes than him at every election – and that one year he might beat her. In all six elections to Medway Council, Diane has received more votes than Rodney, with him coming closest in 2007, when he was just one vote behind her. In 2003, Hempstead & Wigmore saw three parties fielding two candidates apiece. For each party, the candidate appearing first on the ballot paper won more votes.

In contrast, when the Liberal Democrats won the three Gillingham North seats from Labour in 2007, all three main parties stood a full slate of three candidates, but none of them followed pattern seen in 17 other wards that year. For the Liberal Democrats, Ruparel finished behind Stamp and Sutton, for Labour, Miller finished behind incumbents Last and Price, while for the Conservatives, Chishti (no, not that Chishti) finished behind Butcher and Plaistowe.

One example which seems to both confirm and refute the theory is Rochester South & Horsted, where the three winning Tory candidates in 2015 polled in alphabetical order. However, the next three names on the ballot paper, the UKIP candidates, and the following three, the Labour candidates, did not. This could be explained by the fact that of the UKIP candidates only Fletcher lived in the ward (home addresses, or in some cases just the home ward, are printed on the ballot paper), or the fact that Munton had previously been a councillor.

Ballot Roulette

Of course, when all of the candidates from the same party are elected, the order in which they are elected (or not) matters very little, except perhaps for the self-esteem of those elected (or not). But what about when it really matters, when you’re on the ballot paper with another member of the same party and only one of you is elected?

Since 1997, 57 candidates have been elected in split wards. Of those, 45 were elected at the expense of a fellow candidate further down the ballot paper; only 12 beat fellow candidates whose names appeared before theirs.

For example, in Twydall in 2015, Gilry and Griffiths beat Prenter for Labour, and Howard beat Lawrence and Rocco for the Conservatives. Indeed, in both of those cases the number of votes followed alphabetical order for each party. Of course, it is worth noting that Gilry and Griffiths also had the benefit of being councillors standing for re-election, whereas Prenter was a new candidate (who not only polled behind Howard, but behind Lawrence, too). 

Similarly, in River in 2007, Esterson beat Jones for Labour, and Mackinlay (yes, that Mackinlay) beat Tamang-Bhutia for the Conservatives. Esterson and Jones were both incumbent councillors at the time, while Mackinlay and Tamang-Bhutia were both standing in the ward for the first time. As an interesting aside, that was the only time Bhutia stood under the surname “Tamang-Bhutia”, with his surname appearing as simply “Bhutia” for every other election – and in every election since then, he has polled the highest for the Conservatives in his ward of choice.

On the flip side, Watling is the only ward which has split with all successful candidates appearing further down the ballot paper than their party colleagues. In 2011, Purdy beat Manning for the Conservatives, and Smith beat Jeacock for the Liberal Democrats. In that election, Smith was an incumbent councillor, while Purdy had previously represented the ward between 2003 and 2007; Jeacock and Manning had never previously been elected to Medway Council, and it was the first time either of them had stood in the ward.

Similarly, in Peninsula in 2015, while Freshwater and Pendergast beat Yates for UKIP, all brand new candidates who had never stood for election to Medway Council, let alone in that ward, Filmer came ahead of Nugent and, more importantly for the purposes of this study, Dale for the Conservatives. Filmer was the only Conservative incumbent seeking re-election, whereas neither Dale nor Nugent had ever been elected to the Council.

Again, incumbency or prior service may have influenced the result in Gillingham North in 2011. Whilst Cooper, McDonald and Stamp stood together under a joint Independent ticket, only Stamp and Cooper were elected. Stamp, while appearing further down the ballot paper than McDonald, was not only the incumbent councillor, but he had also been the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Gillingham in 2005 and 2010, while Cooper had previously been a Liberal Democrat councillor for part of the ward under the original boundaries. For Labour, Price beat Khan and Darbyshire, perhaps thanks to having been councillor for the ward between 2003 and 2007, and prior to that representing part of the ward under the original boundaries between 1997 and 2003.

In the 2009 by-election in Luton & Wayfield, Labour candidate Whittington appeared last on the ballot paper, losing to Bhutia by four votes. I’m not suggesting for one moment that her position on the ballot paper affected the result in this case (with only one seat up for grabs, Labour voters only had one candidate to vote for), but when she tried again in 2011, she did so under the name “Craven” and came top of the poll, beating fellow Labour candidates Godwin and Osborne. And whilst she was beaten into second place by Osborne in 2015 (most likely because he was also the Labour parliamentary candidate for Chatham & Aylesford on the same day, when Labour voters may have been more inclined to look directly for his name on the ballot paper), being the first Labour candidate on the ballot paper may have helped her keep her seat against Godwin, who lost out to this blog’s favourite Conservative councillor Franklin when the ward split. Franklin, incidentally, had stood in the ward in 2007 and 2011 and appeared first on the ballot paper for the Conservatives in 2015, beating new candidates Peachell and Wray to the Council.

In 2003 and 2007, all 12 council seats won in split wards were won by candidates appearing higher up the ballot paper for their party. As a final example, in Strood South in 2003, Hicks and Hollands beat Wilson for the Conservatives. Despite being the highest-polling Conservative candidate, it was Hicks’ first candidature in Medway, beating Hollands, who had been a councillor under the old boundaries since 2000, suggesting his position on the ballot paper may have been more influential than his history. All three Conservative candidates in that election stood between Bacon and the losing Labour candidates Earle and Munton, despite all three being incumbent councillors under the previous boundaries.

Overall, since 1997, candidates standing in the same ward for the same party saw their respective number of votes descend in order of their position on the ballot paper 63% of the time.

And where it mattered the most, in 79% of split elections since 1997, those elections were won by candidates appearing higher up the ballot paper than fellow candidates from the same party. That’s 45 candidates elected in split wards who, to some extent at least, owe their electoral success to their position on the ballot paper.

So if you’re thinking of standing for election in May and want to maximise your chances of success, there’s still time to follow the lead of Bhutia and Craven and change your surname to “Aardvark” to appear first on the ballot paper!

2019 Medway Council Election Projection

So now for the update “headline” figures. If you’ve read all the way to here, well done! Once again, I would urge you to note the various caveats in my previous article. The projected vote share and estimated seat distribution as at today’s date is:

Of course, there are any number of reasons why people vote the way they do. Check back next month when I’ll be trying to examine (sigh) whether Brexit will affect the way people will vote in May – and provide you with the latest projection..

Alan Collins is the creator of Medway Elects, which is committed to building a complete electoral history for Medway.

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