Voting for Dummies

Looking at blogs and Twitter, I see a disturbing lack of knowledge about how the Holyrood voting system works. Even the basic fact that you have two votes seems incomprehensible to some voters. Given that the next Holyrood election will be upon us in or before Spring 2021, and is likely to be crucial for independence, readers might welcome this short ‘Voting for Dummies’ guide.

1. You have two votes. One is called your ‘constituency’ vote, and elects the MSP for your constituency. It operates under the first-past-the-post system (FPTP). We’re all thoroughly familiar with that, so it needs no further comment.

2. Your second vote has various names – your ‘regional’ vote, your ‘list’ vote, your ‘second preference vote’ – but they’re all unsatisfactory, so for the moment let’s just call it ‘your second vote’.

3. Your two votes are votes for different things. With your constituency vote, you vote for a person, the person you want to represent you, albeit they have a party identifier attached to them. With your second vote, you vote for a party, and your ballot paper shows no candidates’ names (though it may show the name of the party leader).

4. Your second vote determines the make-up of the Parliament: in the final result, the number of seats each party has will match its share of the second vote. So if the shares of the second vote, across the whole country, were these:

SECOND-VOTE SHARES: SNP 49%, Con 24%, Lab 18%, Green 5%, LibDem 4%

then, in a 129-seat Parliament, each party would end up with the following numbers of seats:

SEATS TO MATCH VOTE-SHARE: SNP 63, Con 31, Lab 24, Green 6, LibDem 5.

This was indeed the result of the 2016 election.

5. Given that some seats are filled by the constituency vote – 73 of them out of the 129 – how does the system ensure that the final number of seats matches each party’s share of the vote? Simple: to each party’s constituency seats, it adds the number of second-vote seats that will bring that party’s total up to the required percentage. Of the 129 seats, 56 are distributed in this way. In 2016, the 73 constituency seats were:

CONSTITUENCY SEATS: SNP 59, Con 7, Lab 3, Green 0, LibDem 4,

So to bring the each party’s seats up to the required percentage, second-vote seats were allocated as follows:

ADDITIONAL SEATS: SNP 4, Con 24, Lab 21, Green 6, LibDem 1,

giving the ‘Seats to Match Vote-share’ shown above.

6. We needs actual bums to put on these seats – bums of Members of the Scottish Parliament – so where do they come from, given that the second vote is not for a person, but a party? The answer is that each party maintains a list of candidates who are called off to fill that party’s second-vote seats. So the Conservatives, for example, needed to have at least 24 candidates standing by, and Labour at least 21, to occupy those seats. The Members to whom these seats are allocated are sometimes called ‘list’ members.

7. A number of points need to be made before closing this short guide:

7a. The system as a whole is called the “additional member system”, or AMS, because it adds second-vote Members of the Scottish Parliament to the constituency Members.

7b. The final proportions of seats are based on the second vote, not the constituency vote or the total vote, because consitutency votes are notoriously prone to tactical voting. Your second vote answers the question, “Which party do you want to form the government?”

7c. Because the second vote allocates seats to lists of members, it’s often called the ‘list vote’. And because the country is in fact divided into regions for the allocation of second-vote seats – more on that in a later post – the second vote is often also called the ‘regional’ vote.

7d. Because second-vote seats are allocated proportionally, it’s not possible to vote tactically with your second vote.

I’ll take these points up in my next post, quite soon.

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