Mythbusting the Holyrood Voting System

ballot

Chris Napier

In the past few days, I’ve seen the leader of UKIP Scotland talk about preferences on the regional list vote as if it was calculated using Single Transferable Vote (it isn’t) and I’ve seen SNP supporters talk about splitting the vote and how polling shows a risk of the SNP’s majority being taken away.

Both statements are either terrifyingly ignorant or willfully manipulative and it pisses me off – not as a Green, but as someone who’s kinda interested in democracy and a bit of a geek about electoral systems.

Throw in long-standing debates about tactical voting and the strange division between pro-indy and pro-union parties in Scottish politics at this time and you have a lot of misinformation and wrong ideas floating about and that annoys me, with the notion that this election might be distorted by such untruths.

To attempt in some small way to remedy this, here is a plain language explanation of how the voting system works, with a bit of mythbusting at the end – but if you don’t tryst me, here’s the Electoral Commission’s guide instead  and I’ll provide links to more authoritative sources such as the Electoral Reform society throughout.

Or you can watch this explanatory video from our pals at Left Scotland.

So…How Do Scottish Parliament Elections Actually Work?

The Scottish Parliament is elected using a voting system called the Additional Member System or AMS. This system gives you two votes, one to elect a local constituency MSP and one to put towards selecting a pool of regional MSPs.

The two votes are separate but the results are linked to try and create a more balanced parliament than we usually see returned to Westminster under First Past the Post and the system makes a majority government without a majority of the popular vote unlikely – although as the SNP showed in 2011, not impossible.

Let’s deal with each part in turn.

The Constituency Vote (Purple Ballot)

The purple ballot is to select your local constituency MSP. In most constituencies across Scotland, you’ll have a choice between SNP, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates with some constituencies also contested by other parties or independents.

You can find your constituency and a list of local candidates here.

This portion of the vote is contested under First Past the Post rules meaning that in each constituency, you can vote once for one candidate and whichever candidate receives the most votes across the constituency becomes the MSP.

This system is easy to count, easy to understand and tends to produce a definite winner, but does tend to lead to a lot of wasted votes – as it’s usually clear that only one or two candidates have a chance of winning outside of a few marginal seats.

The Regional List Vote (Orange Ballot)

The orange ballot paper is to select your local regional MSPs. Scotland is divided into eight regions (Central Scotland, Glasgow, Highlands & Islands, Lothian, Mid Scotland & Fife, North East Scotland, South of Scotland and West of Scotland) each of which return seven MSPs.

The total number of regional votes for each party or independent candidate are counted and then divided by the number of constituency seats they have won in that region + 1.

The party/candidate with the highest total is then allocated the first list slot and the calculation is reset with the total votes divided by the total number of constituency AND regional seats already won +1 (because you can’t divide by zero.) This process continues until all seven list seats have been allocated.

This is a somewhat lengthy and confusing process (I’ll explain with examples at the end of the article) but it does balance in the inherent unfairness of First Past the Post and make it so that the level of representation in parliament more closely reflects the actual voting proportion of the electorate.

Mythbusting

There are no first or second votes, the two votes are equal but separate with one used to select a local representative and the other used to try and ensure a representative parliament. You are totally allowed to vote for different parties on each ballot.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you list preferences on either ballot paper – this may result in a spoiled ballot. If you intend your vote to count, merely place a cross in the box of your chosen party/candidate.

If the party you would like to vote for is not represented in the constituency portion of the vote, it can be worthwhile to write ‘ I want to vote for…. Party X’ on your paper. This will count as a spoiled ballot but can be heartening to your parties activists at the count and be useful for future electoral strategy.

The concept of tactical voting is a dubious one in this system as any estimation of the weight of your list vote is dependent on all the constituencies in your region going in a certain way and most regions have at least one seat which is a marginal. The concept of tactical voting in the constituency portion IS more plausible but I would counsel against it, as the balancing effect of the regional list makes any advantage implausible and almost impossible to predict (as illustrated below.)

Objectively, the SNP’s majority is not under threat in this election. Virtually every poll since the referendum has shown the SNP winning a majority from the constituency vote alone (there are 73 constituency seats and only 65 needed for a majority) and it would take a quite remarkable swing on May 5th to see the SNP make a net loss of five seats.

That said, if you support a party unreservedly, then please vote for them on both ballots – if you can. If you think one party is the best of a bad bunch on the constituency vote and like another better on the regional ballot, then split your votes. If you can’t stand any of the parties on the constituency ballot but want to support someone on the list, then spoil the purple ballot and fill the orange one in correctly.

Vote with your head and your heart, stay true to your own beliefs – and then we’ll end up with the parliament which best reflects our nations feelings at this time.

MOST IMPORTANTLY – make sure you are registered to Vote by 18 April at this link.

Case Study: How The Regional MSPs are Allocated (Warning, Contains Math!)

To illustrate this, I’m going to use a fictional region with figures based on the most recent polling.

The region of New Caledonia has nine constituencies and returns seven list MSPs. Seven of those constituencies have been won by the SNP with one each being won by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (this is to reflect the polls which indicate that the SNP will win most constituencies while the Tories and Liberals will win a handful.)

The list vote has been counted with the SNP winning 44%, Labour 19%, the Conservatives 16%, the Greens 10%, the Liberal Democrats 7%, UKIP 4% and RISE on 1%. As we select each list MSP, the total number of votes will be divided by the number of MSPs already won in the region +1 (because you can’t divide by zero) starting with the constituency vote and adding regional MSPs as we go until all seven list seats are allocated.

FIRST LIST MSP List Vote % MSPs Already Won Score
Scottish National Party 43 7 = 43 / (7+1) = 5.38
Scottish Labour 19 0 19
Scottish Conservatives 16 1 = 16 / (1+1) = 8
Scottish Green Party 10 0 10
Scottish Liberal Democrats 7 1 = 7 / (1+1) = 3.5
UKIP 4 0 4
RISE 1 0 1

Scottish Labour win the first regional MSP.

SECOND LIST MSP List Vote % MSPs Already Won Score
Scottish National Party 43 7 = 43 / (7+1) = 5.38
Scottish Labour 19 1 = 19 / (1+1) = 9.5
Scottish Conservatives 16 1 = 16 / (1+1) = 8
Scottish Green Party 10 0 10
Scottish Liberal Democrats 7 1 = 7 / (1+1) = 3.5
UKIP 4 0 4
RISE 1 0 1

The Scottish Green Party win the second regional MSP

THIRD LIST MSP List Vote % MSPs Already Won Score
Scottish National Party 43 7 = 43 / (7+1) = 5.38
Scottish Labour 19 1 = 19 / (1+1) = 9.5
Scottish Conservatives 16 1 = 16 / (1+1) = 8
Scottish Green Party 10 1 = 10 / (1+1) = 5
Scottish Liberal Democrats 7 1 = 7 / (1+1) = 3.5
UKIP 4 0 4
RISE 1 0 1

Scottish Labour win the third regional MSP.

Fourth LIST MSP List Vote % MSPs Already Won Score
Scottish National Party 43 7 = 43 / (7+1) = 5.38
Scottish Labour 19 2 = 19 / (2+1) = 6.33
Scottish Conservatives 16 1 = 16 / (1+1) = 8
Scottish Green Party 10 1 = 10 / (1+1) = 5
Scottish Liberal Democrats 7 1 = 7 / (1+1) = 3.5
UKIP 4 0 4
RISE 1 0 1

The Scottish Conservatives win the fourth regional MSP.

SIXTH LIST MSP List Vote % MSPs Already Won Score
Scottish National Party 43 7 = 43 / (7+1) = 5.38
Scottish Labour 19 2 = 19 / (2+1) = 6.33
Scottish Conservatives 16 2 = 16 / (2+1) = 5.33
Scottish Green Party 10 1 = 10 / (1+1) = 5
Scottish Liberal Democrats 7 1 = 7 / (1+1) = 3.5
UKIP 4 0 4
RISE 1 0 1

Scottish Labour win the fifth regional MSP.

SIXTH LIST MSP List Vote % MSPs Already Won Score
Scottish National Party 43 7 = 43 / (7+1) = 5.38
Scottish Labour 19 3 = 19 / (3+1) = 4.75
Scottish Conservatives 16 2 = 16 / (2+1) = 5.33
Scottish Green Party 10 1 = 10 / (1+1) = 5
Scottish Liberal Democrats 7 1 = 7 / (1+1) = 3.5
UKIP 4 0 4
RISE 1 0 1

The Scottish National Party win the sixth regional MSP.

SEVENTH LIST MSP List Vote % MSPs Already Won Score
Scottish National Party 43 8 = 43 / (8+1) = 4.78
Scottish Labour 19 3 = 19 / (3+1) = 4.75
Scottish Conservatives 16 2 = 16 / (2+1) = 5.33
Scottish Green Party 10 1 = 10 / (1+1) = 5
Scottish Liberal Democrats 7 1 = 7 / (1+1) = 3.5
UKIP 4 0 4
RISE 1 0 1

The Scottish Conservatives win the seventh and final regional list MSP.

Total Regional Results List Vote % MSPs Won % of MSPs won
Scottish National Party 43 8 (7+1) 50
Scottish Labour 19 3 (0+3) 18.75
Scottish Conservatives 16 3 (1+2) 18.75
Scottish Green Party 10 1 (0+1) 6.25
Scottish Liberal Democrats 7 1 (1+0) 6.25
UKIP 4 0 0
RISE 1 0 0

This should illustrate that an MSP is returned for around 6.25% of the vote (in a region with 9 constituencies), whether you have won a constituency seat or not.  Note that if the SNP had won an eighth constituency instead of the Conservatives or Liberals, that party would most likely have picked the seat back up on the list.

This is not perfect as parties who have won constituency seats (in this prediction, the SNP, Conservatives and Liberals) will benefit from the overlap where other parties have not won multiples of 6.25% – see how the Greens and Labour have won a lower proportion of MSPs compared to their vote share.

Nonetheless, it’s a much fairer and representative system than that used for Westminster elections – so please, use your vote as your principles dictate and not based on the spin and dubious rhetoric of a biased politician or corporate media.

 

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3 thoughts on “Mythbusting the Holyrood Voting System

  1. Alan Ritchie says:

    Two points: the regional votes are divided by the number of seats you would have if you won the next seat (neatly bypassing the divide by zero issue)

    And your regional vote is more important than the constituency one, because if you change a constituency winner in an example, you generally end up with exactly the same numbers from each party. Change the regional result, and you get different parties winning MSPs.

    Like

  2. Jim Fraser says:

    “More authoritative sources such as the Electoral Reform Society”. Before last Sunday I might have described the ERS like that too.

    Like

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