What belongs on a ballot paper?

ballotpaper

The image above. showing sample ballots from Ireland and Malta, is from Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction by David M. Farrell. A charming but puzzling feature of both is that they list the occupation and address (or at least the approximate area of residence) of each candidate, along with their names and party affiliations. The information can be seen more clearly on these scans:

ballot5.jpg

ballot4.jpgI don’t know how common it is for ballots to list candidates’ occupations and addresses, or why Ireland and Malta include this information. My best guess is that it’s got something to do with STV; with a preferential ballot and large multi-member electoral districts, voters may want to try to ensure that the makeup of their district’s delegation is representative of the district’s diverse geographically and socioeconomically based interests.

Although STV may account for the continuation of the practice in Ireland and Malta, it turns out that Canada used to print this information on ballots too. John C. Courtney writes that the practice only ended in 1970, at the same time that party affiliation was added to the ballot design. Of course this information is still collected, and there’s a site you can use to search the occupations of Senators and Members of Parliament going all the way back to Confederation (fun fact: only two confectioners have ever served in the House of Commons). But Courtney, writing in 1974, makes a strong case that something important was lost when this information was removed from the ballot, and makes me wonder if it would be worth bringing it back:

The justification for occupations listed on the ballot … is a good deal more subtle than one might at first suspect. Do we not, with increasing frequency, it seems, criticize modern governments for being far too much a creature of parties not enough the result of the efforts of individuals? Have we not now taken one more step, this time in law, in giving support to such a criticism by having sanctioned the removal of a person’s occupational description from the ballot and its replacement with the label of a political group? Once again the particular is submerged by the general and one piece of evidence which serves to remind us that politicians something more than “party” candidates alone is lost. Politicians are, after all, men and women from varied backgrounds with a great range of interests, talents, and occupations. We should do our best to recognize them as such.

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