Ballot paper ordering at Scottish council elections


The Scottish Government asked us to assess the impact on voters of any changes to the ordering of candidates on ballot papers for Scottish council elections.

We carried out research with the public, and talked to organisations which represent disabled people to understand the potential implications of any proposed changes for voters. We also talked to the people who run elections, and to political parties, to understand how any changes may impact them.

We tested two approaches:

  • ordering candidates A to Z and then Z to A on alternating ballot papers
  • drawing the order of candidates by lot


The Scottish Government is considering whether to change the order in which candidates’ names appear on ballot papers at Scottish council elections.

Scottish council elections use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system where, instead of using a single X, voters number candidates in order of preference. Currently three to four councillors are elected for each council ward and parties may stand multiple candidates.

Candidates are listed on the ballot paper in alphabetical order by surname. The Scottish Government is concerned that this has led to an ‘alphabetic order effect’, whereby voters tend to number their preferences down the ballot paper so that a candidate who appears lower down the ballot paper may be less likely to receive a first preference vote, and therefore to be elected than a candidate from the same party who appears higher up the ballot paper.

In order to mitigate the potential for an ‘alphabetic order effect’, the Scottish Government is considering two different ballot ordering approaches and has asked us to test these with voters, alongside the existing system. These are:

  • ordering candidates A to Z and then Z to A on alternating ballot papers
  • drawing the order of candidates by lot

The Scottish Government asked us to assess whether the alternative approaches had any positive or negative effects on a voter’s ability to cast their vote for their intended candidates(s).

They also wanted to understand whether there may be any particular categories of elector more or less impacted by any changes, including disabled voters.

Our aim with this research was to better understand the potential issues and problems which may be encountered in the use of differently ordered ballot papers.

Alongside our research with voters, we also talked to electoral administrators and political parties to understand any potential impacts on them.

Our research did not assess whether the alternative approaches mitigated the perceived ballot order effect.

We used a qualitative research approach to allow us to explore in detail how easily voters could find their preferred candidate(s) on the ballot papers and whether they had any preferences for a particular ordering of candidates.


The findings from voters set out in this report are based on in-depth interviews with 102 voters across seven locations in Scotland, both rural and urban.

We commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out the fieldwork with voters.

During these interviews participants were invited to complete ballot papers with different ordering of candidates and then were asked to discuss how easy they found it to navigate the ballot paper and find the candidate(s) they wished to vote for.

In addition to the current approach to ordering ballot papers (A to Z), two alternate approaches were tested – ballot papers in reverse alphabetical order (Z to A), and papers with the order of candidates drawn by lot.

Examples of these papers and the detailed research methodology are set out in the full report on the Ipsos MORI research.

Participants were recruited to represent a range of ages and levels of education.

As we wanted to understand whether the impact of any alternative ballot ordering may be different for specific groups of voters, we actively recruited participants who speak English as a second language, those with learning difficulties and/or low literacy levels, and also voters with sight loss.

Alongside the in-depth interviews, we also carried out eye-tracking interviews with 16 participants, where a camera tracked how the participants navigated the ballot paper in order to find their preferred candidate(s). This provided more detail about how people read the ballot papers (for example, top to bottom) and measured the length of time participants looked at different elements of the ballot paper.

Accessibility groups

In 2017 the Scottish Government consulted on proposals for electoral reform. This consultation invited respondents to give their views on alternative orders for ballot papers at Scottish council elections.

A number of organisations representing disabled people submitted their views.

We reviewed the responses to that consultation and invited a number of those organisations to discuss their views with us in more detail.

Inclusion Scotland and RNIB Scotland provided further information to us to inform this report.

Returning Officers and suppliers

We held three focus groups with Returning Officer staff across Scotland.

Participants included electoral administrators representing 18 out of the 32 Returning Officers in Scotland.

We also talked to companies who supply services to Returning Officers, including those that print ballot papers.

The sessions involved structured discussions to ascertain any potential administrative impacts from changing the order of candidates on the ballot paper.

Political parties

We invited political parties who are represented in the Scottish Parliament to provide us with their views on the options proposed by the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Conservative Party, Scottish Liberal Democrat Party and the Scottish National Party provided comment.