Wednesday, 29 March 2017

How Does The Voting System Work for the Scottish Local Elections?

I've had quite a few people ask me in the past couple of weeks about the voting system employed in the upcoming local elections in Scotland.  These elections are held using the Single Transferable Vote system, quite different from the basic First Past The Post system used for Westminster, and the Additional Member System used for Holyrood, so I'm going to briefly explain the system and then answer a few questions I've been asked about it.

In an election using the Single Transferable Vote method, you vote for one or more candidates on the ballot paper by marking numbers one and upwards in the boxes beside each candidate to express your first preference, second preference, third preference and so forth for which candidate(s) you would like to represent you on the council.  There is no requirement to preference all of the candidates - vote for as many or as few as you like - but you must assign a different preference number to each candidate.

As all Scottish council wards have seats for three or four councillors, the party you wish to support most may be fielding more than one candidate.  If you wish to vote for all these candidates, you will need to express preferences for each of them in order (1, 2, 3, etc) - just voting for one of them does not guarantee that your vote will be best used to support that party, and if you try to give a first preference vote to each of them, your ballot will be invalid and will not be counted.

The ballots will be counted by computer, as the transfer process can be quite complicated, and with each council counting a multitude of different wards, counting by hand would take an extremely long time.  At the count, candidates will be elected if the votes counted in favour of them exceed the 'quota'.  The quota in a three-member ward is 25% of the vote, plus one vote (or rounded up to the next largest whole number of votes); and in a four-member ward it is 20% of the vote, plus one vote (or rounded up to the next largest whole number of votes).

If you want to understand how we arrive at these quotas, consider that in a three-member ward a candidate would have to be beaten by three other candidates in order to not win a seat themselves.  If a candidate has over 25% of the vote share, this is no longer mathematically possible since three other candidates would also have to have over 25% - therefore exceeding a total of 100% of the votes.  Likewise, exceeding 20% of the vote in a four-member ward would make it mathematically impossible to lose, and so this is the quota set in these wards.

At the start of the counting process for each ward, the first preferences on every ballot will be totalled up to give the results for the first round.  If any candidates exceed quota on the first round, they will be deemed elected, and in subsequent rounds their 'surplus' will be transferred onto the next preferences on each ballot.

The surplus is calculated as the candidate's total number of votes, minus the quota.  Each ballot then has a fraction of its value removed that has been used up in electing that candidate, then it is transferred onto other candidates, adding to their totals that reduced value.  For example, if a candidate received 2,000 votes in the first round and the quota was 1,500, the surplus would be 500 which divided amongst the 2,000 ballot papers that would give each ballot a new value of 0.25 votes (500/2,000) when transferred onto the next preference candidate.

If no candidates reach the quota in any round of counting, then the candidate that currently has the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and those ballots are transferred onto the next preferenced candidate.  No value is subtracted from these votes since no candidate has been elected, so if your first preference candidate is eliminated then your whole vote will move onto your next preference.  If the next preferenced candidate is a candidate who has already been eliminated, that preference will be ignored and the vote will be counted towards the next preference who is still in the running.

If at any time a ballot paper is transferred, but no longer has any more valid preferences expressed, it will be moved to the 'non-transferable' pile, and is no longer involved in the process of the count.

This process will continue until either enough candidates have reached quota to fill all of the available seats in the ward, or until an elimination leaves only enough candidates left for the remaining number of seats.  By the latter means, candidates may be elected with fewer votes than the quota since the votes that have gone non-transferable are not being counted against them.

This is sufficient to understand the process of how your vote will be counted in these elections.  Next I'm just going to answer a few questions I have recently been asked.  If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments below, and I will do my best to answer them as soon as possible.

Why do we use this complicated voting system? Why not just use First Past The Post (FPTP)?
Scottish local elections were conducted using FPTP up until 2003, with all council wards electing a single candidate who was simply just the candidate who received the most votes.  As part of the Holyrood coalition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats after the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2003, it was agreed to replace this system with the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and multi-member wards, which came into effect at the local elections in 2007.

As a form of proportional representation (indeed, the form most preferred by the Electoral Reform Society, and by myself), the primary purpose of STV is to ensure that the final number of elected seats for each party fairly represents the number of votes each party received in the election.  Prior to its introduction, many Scottish councils were dominated by a single party despite many voters supporting other parties.

Glasgow City Council forms a good example - in 2003, under FPTP, Labour won 90% of the seats with support from only 48% of voters.  In 2007, under STV, they won 57% of the seats for 43% of the votes, instead.  While this isn't perfectly proportional, STV achieves a pretty good level of proportionality while still allowing for people to have local councillors specific to their area.  More proportional systems would require larger wards, or some other system with no localised representation at all.

Single Transferable Vote thus enhances local democracy by ensuring that a greater diversity of political opinions are represented.  It also has most often led to parties having to co-operate to form a majority, and thus a decline in monolithic party control of councils with little democratic scrutiny.

How many candidates should I vote for?
This question is of course a matter of personal decision for the voter, but the important thing to clarify is that subsequent preference votes will do nothing to diminish your earlier preferences, so there is no particular reason not to preference all the candidates.  Your whole vote will remain with your first preference choice until they are either elected or eliminated, and then will be transferred through the process described above.

If there is one party you most want to support, and they are standing multiple candidates, the most important thing is to vote for all of those candidates at the top of your preferences.

If you think that all of the candidates on the ballot paper would be suitable to represent you (some you would prefer before others, of course), then you may as well preference them all.

If there is one candidate you dislike so much that you would rather anyone else was elected but them, then it is logical to preference all candidates apart from that one (I personally did this in 2012 to exclude a 'Christian Party' candidate who was standing in my ward).

If you really only want to support one party or candidate, and have no interest in any of the other candidates, then by all means only express a preference for those candidates - but remember that once your candidate is then either elected or eliminated, the remainder of your vote will just go to the non-transferable pile, and you are possibly not utilising your vote to the maximum effect.

The candidate I support the most is unlikely to win - should I vote tactically for someone else?
One of the primary benefits of the Single Transferable Vote is to eliminate the need to vote tactically.  If your preferred candidate is unlikely to win, there is no risk in voting for them anyway, if you also vote for subsequent preferences.  If your first preference candidate does get eliminated, your whole vote will just move on to the next available preference.  Therefore, there should be no need to consider tactical voting for a lesser preferred candidate as your top choice.

Any more questions? Please ask them in the comments below!

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