Sweden’s proportional voting system – an alternative for Scotland?

Source: Pixabay

By Richard Wood

Sweden went to the polls on Sunday 11 September 2022, four years after the previous vote in 2018. The country uses a system of Proportional Representation to elect members of the Riksdag, ensuring that how Swedes vote at the ballot box is reflected in parliament.

The country’s electoral system is worth exploring as an alternative to Holyrood’s broadly proportional but flawed Additional Member System.

What electoral system does Sweden use?

Sweden uses a system of Open List Proportional Representation with levelling seats to ensure national proportionality.

The country is divided into 29 constituencies – ranging from 2 to 43 members (Gotland and Stockholm county respectively) – to which parties present lists of candidates in each constituency. Voters get to vote for one party but also have the option to vote for individual candidates, which can alter the list ordering within their constituency. This is the open element of the system, thus further empowering voters at the ballot box.

Elections in Sweden are extremely proportional due to larger multi-member constituencies, however, what sets the country’s system apart from country’s such as Estonia and Latvia which use list PR systems, is that Sweden’s electoral system also employs levelling seats. Once all the votes are counted and seats distributed as per the voters’ wishes, parties win additional seats across the country to ensure that the overall results are as proportional as possible. Of the 349 seats in the Riksdag, 310 are distributed in the first instance while a further 39 are distributed to further improve proportionality. There is also a 4% national threshold for parties to enter the Riksdag. Sweden is not unique in this regard; Norway, Denmark and Iceland also have levelling seats to ensure proportionality overall.

READ MORE: How do elections work in the Baltics? Lessons for Holyrood and Westminster

How did Sweden vote at the 2022 election and how proportional was it?

The previous Swedish general election took place in 2018, which was followed by tough negotiations and even a no confidence vote in Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. However, Löfven emerged to lead a minority left coalition made up of his own party the Social Democrats, as well as the Greens. Löfven resigned in 2021, making way for party colleague Magdalena Andersson, who led her party into the 2022 election.

The most recent election was an incredibly close-run contest between the left and right blocs. On the left, the Social Democrats maintained their dominant position as the largest party in parliament. however, right of centre parties managed to win a very slim majority of seats, leading to Magdalena Andersson’s resignation on Thursday. The far-right Sweden Democrats replaced the centre-right Moderates as the second largest party in parliament but the Moderate leader is likely to become prime minister due to the toxicity of the Sweden Democrats even amongst the rest of the right. What influence they will have this parliament – and in the years to come – remains to be seen.

But how proportional was the 2022 election? Thanks to Sweden’s Open List PR system, the answer is very.

The Social Democrats for example won 107 seats (30.7%) on 30.4% of the vote. The Sweden Democrats took 73 seats (20.9%) on 20.5% of the vote while the Moderates won 68 seats (19.5%) on 19.5% of the vote. Overall, results were extremely proportional with seats reflecting votes. Furthermore, voters were empowered by the open element of the allowing them to express support for individuals within their chosen party.

READ MORE: How proportional was Norway’s election? Lessons for Westminster

How do the Swedish and Scottish electoral systems compare?

The Scottish Parliament’s broadly proportional Additional Member System (AMS) is significantly fairer than the unrepresentative First Past the Post voting system used for the House of Commons. However, it has a number of flaws that need to be addressed. Problems associated with Holyrood’s mixed-member system are listed below:

1. Regional not national PR – As list members are distributed on a regional basis only, there is no mechanism to ensure overall nationality proportionality. While regional proportionality tends to result in broadly proportional outcomes overall, there is still room for improvement.

2. Limited voter power – Under AMS voters have no power over the ordering of party lists. Furthermore, the constituency vote element limits voter power by creating safe seats and targeted marginal seats while also being “lists of one”.

3. Two types of MSPs – Due to the nature of mixed-member systems, the Scottish Parliament has two types of MSP. While in theory they perform the same functions, this can vary in practice, particularly on the casework side of things.

4. The two-vote problem – Voters have two votes, and while they should ideally work in tandem to result in proportional outcomes, it creates the opportunities for parties to exploit this by only standing in the list and asking established parties’ supporters to back them on the list. This was highlighted when Alba was established with the express intention to do this in 2021. This clearly goes against the spirit of AMS and could create highly disproportionate elections.

5. Constituency seats remain (and dominate!) – Single-member constituencies still come with many of the flaws they have in FPTP. They result in wasted votes and can lead to safe seats, as well as marginal seats which can result in parties focusing on them rather than giving attention to the wider region or country. Furthermore, the fact that constituency seats make up a significant majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, this can result in overhangs (which aren’t addressed by AMS) and skew overall proportionality – particularly if one party dominates single-member seats.

READ MORE: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws via Politics.co.uk

Upgrade Holyrood is committed to making the case for improving Scotland’s democracy, and that includes arguing for a review of the current system and outlining alternatives. The type of system used for Swedish elections – an Open List PR system with levelling seats – is one option that would address many of the faults of AMS.

Levelling seats would rectify the problem of limited national proportionality. And while there would technically be two types of MSP, under a Swedish model, these are given back to constituencies, minimising that problem to a minimum. Furthermore, voters would only have one party vote, ending the two vote problem, and single-seat constituencies would come to an end. Voters would also be empowered by being able to influence party lists unlike under AMS where parties present unalterable lists.

But what would such a system look like in practice?

Ballot Box Scotland is a strong advocate of Holyrood adopting an Open List PR system (with levelling seats), which they categorise as Scandinavian-style PR. For those wondering what Holyrood would look like if it adopted a system like Sweden, BBS has designed such a model for Scotland and used the most recent Scottish Parliament election results to give an indication of what seat distribution would look like.

This is shown below. Of course, it’s worth noting that the size of any constituencies in such a system if it were to be adopted would be up to the designers so it wouldn’t necessarily reflect the below. Furthermore, in terms of seat projections, the below uses the regional vote to determine how people would cast their singular Open List PR vote. In reality, many who voted ‘SNP constituency and Green regional’ might instead have use their one vote for the SNP although this is all speculation of course. In addition, the type of voting system used very much determines how people vote and so how people may have voted under this system could be completely different (e.g. smaller parties may be more considered).

So, what support is there for a Swedish-style system among Scottish parties? The Scottish Greens support a Scandinavian-style system while the Lib Dems favour the Single Transferable Vote (which again would be better than AMS if designed effectively), as do the SNP while Labour and the Conservatives are largely missing from this debate (although figures such as Labour’s Paul Sweeney MSP recognise the faults of the current system).

READ MORE: Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

That all said, a Sweden-like system is not the only alternative to the current set-up at Holyrood. Two other alternatives would be the Single Transferable Vote (which would address many of AMS’ problems, ensure proportionality and vastly improve voter choice and power) and a modified mixed-member system with open lists and guaranteed overall proportionality (similar to Bavaria’s electoral system).

Sweden’s election provides just one model that Holyrood – and perhaps Westminster (although that seems far less likely and possibly undesirable for such a large populous) – could adopt to improve electoral outcomes. Reform is needed, and to achieve change it is vital that we look to other parliaments for guidance.

READ MORE: 3 alternatives to Scotland’s proportional but flawed voting system

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