Petitions Committee responds to Scottish Parliament voting reform petition

By Richard Wood

The Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee have written to the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society about reforming the voting system used to elect Members of the Scottish Parliament.

The action is a direct result of my petition (submitted 12 October 2021) calling on electoral reform at Holyrood, ideally by introducing a more proportional system where voters have a significant amount of power over candidates within parties, such as the Single Transferable Vote.

The petition called on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to replace the broadly proportional Additional Member System (AMS) used for electing MSPs with a more proportional alternative. It highlighted that while AMS is broadly proportional, and significantly better than First Past the Post (FPTP) used at Westminster, it has a number of significant flaws.

Meeting on 17 November 2021, the cross-party Committee discussed the consequences of any change and agreed to write to both the UK’s Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society Scotland.

The action came from the suggestion of committee member David Torrance MSP (SNP, Kirkcaldy) who said:

“I do not know whether there is any appetite from any of the political parties or the Government to change the voting system, but I think that we should write to the key stakeholders—the Electoral Reform Society Scotland and the Electoral Commission—to seek their views on what the petitioner is asking for.”

David Torrance MSP (17 November 2021)

Electoral Commission response

The Electoral Commission responded on 2 December with the following:

The Electoral Commission holds no view on which voting system is preferable for any election. These matters are rightly for elected representatives to decide. However, where a new voting system is introduced then we would provide advice to the relevant parliaments and governments on any implications for voters and electoral administrators to ensure that voters were able to cast their votes and have them counted in the way they intended. This would include details of any voter information campaigns which the Electoral Commission would run to raise awareness of the new voting system.

I note that in the Committee’s meeting on 17 November members raised concerns about the ‘list order effect’ on STV ballot papers. It may be helpful to note that in 2019, at the request of the Scottish Government, the Electoral Commission carried out research to assess the impact on voters of any changes to the ordering of candidates on ballot papers for Scottish council elections.

Electoral Commission response to letter from Petitions Committee (2 December 2021)

The response is unsurprising. As the Commission notes, they have no view on which electoral system should be used. In the Scottish Parliament’s case that is up to MSPs who would need a two-thirds majority to enact any electoral system change.

There is one positive at the end though that is worth pointing out – the research highlighted by the Electoral Commission addresses concerns about list ordering in Single Transferable Vote elections. It suggests that “in the testing we undertook, the order of the candidates had no impact on voters’ ability to find and vote for their preferred candidates on the ballot paper”, which indicates that this argument against STV has very little to no merit.

READ MORE: Scotland’s STV council elections show England a better way of doing local democracy

Scottish Government evidence submission

In response to the petition, the Scottish Government submitted a response on 19 October 2021. The submission contained the following:

The practical effect of the proposal in the petition would be to change the method used to elect the membership of the Scottish Parliament.

As the Committee will be aware, the system used for electing members to the Scottish Parliament was set out in the Scotland Act 1998, the act of the United Kingdom Parliament which makes provision for a Scottish Parliament.

Until the passing of the Scotland Act 2016, elections for the membership of the Scottish Parliament were a reserved matter for the UK Parliament. It was only with the commencement of the relevant provisions of that Act on 18 May 2017 (The Scotland Act 2016 (Commencement No. 6) Regulations 2017) that it became within the competence of the Scottish Parliament to consider changes to the method of electing its membership.

As you are aware, the current system is the Additional Member System which does have an element of proportional representation through the use of two ballot papers, one of which elects additional members from a list. I would advise that the Scottish Government does not currently have any plans to propose changes to the voting system by which MSPs are elected to the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish Government submission (19 October 2021)

Again, the Scottish Government’s submission is unsurprising. It lays out the fact that until the Scotland Act (2016), the electoral system at Holyrood was determined by Westminster but the Scottish Parliament now has the power to make changes.

It then notes that, “the Scottish Government does not currently have any plans to propose changes to the voting system by which MSPs are elected to the Scottish Parliament.”

READ MORE: The route to electoral system change for the Scottish Parliament

Electoral Reform Society Scotland

The Petitions Committee also wrote to the Electoral Reform Society Scotland.

As of 6 February 2022, there has yet to be a response.

Petition timeline and key documents

READ ALSO: How proportional was Portugal’s election? Some lessons for the UK’s broken democracy

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