The USA is moving towards Proportional Representation – one step at a time

By Richard Wood (Founder of Upgrade Holyrood, electoral reform campaigner)

The big stories of this year’s US elections were the Republican wave failing to materialise – thanks to the Democrats holding the Senate – and a razor-thin win for Republicans in the House. But November 2022 should also be remembered as a significant time for electoral reform in the USA.

Before getting into the details here, it’s worth framing the nature of electoral reform in the US. American reform movements by and large make the case for Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). In the case of single-member districts, RCV is simply the Alternative Vote (used in the Australian House of Representatives) whereas multi-member RCV districts are simply the Single Transferable Vote (used for Scottish local councils, as well as elections in Ireland, Malta and the Australian Senate).

Fair Vote USA (a 30-year-old organisation) and new campaign Fix Our House both advocate for proportional US elections.

READ MORE: Canada’s 2021 election – the striking failures of First Past the Post exposed

The biggest win for Proportional Representation in November 2022 was the outcome of a referendum where people voted to adopt proportional multi-member Ranked Choice Voting.

Voters in Portland, Oregon backed wide-ranging proposals to reform the city’s charter including a provision to abolish First Past the Post voting and instead introduce multi-member districts with candidates ranked in order of preference. In 2024, the city of around 650,00 people will now have its first elections conducted under proportional Ranked Choice Voting. This is a massive win for better democracy campaigns and credit should be given to the Portland for Change campaign group who backed the reforms.

On top of that, on the other side of the country Portland, Oregon’s namesake Portland, Maine (with a population of 68,000) also voted for STV.

It’s also worth highlighting that other places voted to replace First Past the Post with RCV in single-member districts. The Alternative Vote is far from perfect for electing multi-member bodies but in the American context this is an exciting development. According to Fair Vote USA, the places that did this are: Nevada; Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; Multnomah County, OR; Fort Collins, CO; Evanston, IL; Portland, ME; and Ojai, CA.

The USA is unlikely to adopt Proportional Representation at a national level any time soon, but progress is being made in the right direction. That the US’ 26th largest city voted in favour of PR should not be underestimated.

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

READ MORE: Quebec’s 2022 election – First Past the Post strikes again

Image from Pixabay (source)

Time is running out for fair local government in Wales

Source: Pixabay

By Richard Wood

The previous Welsh government, an effective coalition between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and an independent, introduced legislation that gives Welsh local councils the opportunity to switch from First Past the Post to the Single Transferable Vote. But time is running out for councils to adopt it before the next set of local elections.

The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, which enables councils to make changes, was a great step forward as it allows the opportunity for significant upgrades to Welsh local democracy.

Of course, it’s disappointing that there wasn’t an automatic switch for all 22 councils, like in Scotland due to the Labour-Lib Dem coalition (2003 – 2007). Instead, individual councils have to make the decision themselves. But we are where we are.

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

There are real opportunities for change. However, the decks are stacked against reform campaigners. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 sets a deadline for reform ahead of the next elections. The legislation says the following:

“A resolution to exercise the power has no effect unless it is passed before 15 November of the year that is three years before the year in which the next ordinary election of the council is due to be held.”

With the next local elections due in May 2027, the deadline for reform is 15 November 2024, three years ahead of the elections. That’s now just two years away.

That may seem like a while away, but it’ll be November 2024 before we know it. Electoral reform campaigners in Wales will be very much aware of that.

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

Quebec’s 2022 election – First Past the Post strikes again

Source: Pixabay

By Richard Wood

Voters in Quebec went to the polls on 3 October 2022 to elect all 125 Members of the province’s National Assembly. As with Canadian federal elections, as well as votes in the other nine provinces and the three territories, the election was held under First Past the Post, resulting in another outcome where seats didn’t match votes.

State of play before the election

The previous election took place in October 2018 at which the Liberals lost over half their seats, and with it their governing majority. The party lost a staggering 16.7 percentage points. Meanwhile the nationalist, conservative Coalition Avenir Québec gained support across the province, taking a majority of seats (74 out of 125) on just 37.4% of the vote.

The independence supporting Parti Québécois lost votes and seats while the social democratic Québec solidaire gained votes and seats.

The outcome resulted in the Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault becoming premier of the province. Polls since then showed the Coalition consistently in the lead and on course to emerge the largest party in 2022 yet again, however, they have also shown a significant increase in support for the Conservative Party of Quebec who won just 1.5% in 2018.

READ MORE: Canada’s 2021 election – the striking failures of First Past the Post exposed

A missed opportunity for Proportional Representation

It’s worth highlighting here that the Coalition Avenir Québec went into the 2018 election promising to change the province’s voting system to one of Proportional Representation. The government even brought forward a bill to introduce a mixed-member proportional system with 80 members elected via First Past the Post ridings and 45 elected via regional lists.

This proposed system closely reflects Scotland’s current Additional Member System, which has 73 constituency MSPs and 56 regional MSPs, which would result in broadly proportional outcomes. Similar systems are also used in the likes of Wales, Germany and New Zealand.

However, the legislation to enact this change was never passed despite the Coalition Avenir Québec majority. According to CBC, after the election Quebec’s premier changed position to supporting a referendum on reform rather than just implementing a system switch. And since then that referendum proposal was scrapped, with the minister responsible blaming the pandemic for the shifting timetable.

It remains to be seen whether there will be any reforms after the 2022 election.

READ MORE: How proportional was the 2021 Scottish Parliament election?

How did Quebec vote in 2022 and how representative was it?

As widely expected, the governing Coalition Avenir Québec remained the largest party at the 2022 election. The party took 40.96% of the vote , resulting in them winning 90 out of 125 seats. As usual, First Past the Post has rewarded the largest party by inflating their representation in the legislature. CAQ won 72% of seats available on just 4 in 10 votes. The over-representation of CAQ clearly shows how unrepresentative First Past the Post truly is.

On top of that, the results for the four other main parties show just how messed up FPTP can be. The rest of the vote split four ways. Here’s what happened.

The once governing Liberals came in fourth with 14.37% of the vote, however, because of the wild nature of the voting system used, they ended up the second largest party, taking 21 seats (17% of those in the National Assembly).

Québec Solidaire won more votes than the Liberals (15.2%) but only took 11 seats. Parti Québécois did the same (14.6%) but won a mere 3 seats out of 125.

What’s more, the Conservative Party of Quebec won 12.92% of the vote yet failed to win any seats, a result reminiscent of UKIP taking 13% of the vote at the 2015 election and only returning with one seat.

Overall, the results were extremely unrepresentative:

  1. The most popular party won a massive majority on just 41% of the vote.
  2. The fourth most popular party came second in terms of seats.
  3. Four parties came within 3 percentage points of each other, all with wildly different results.
  4. A party that took almost 13% of the vote came away with no seats.
  5. The election did not fully reflect how people voted.

Quebec’s 2022 general election is yet another example of the striking flaws First Past the Post. Four years ago there was a real possibility that 2022 would be the last Quebec election held under FPTP but that feels almost impossible now. This should be a warning to campaigners in the UK if Labour wins a majority with a promise to reform the electoral system. There is a real possibility that such a government would go back on its pledge, like Labour did in 1997, similar to what happened with Canada’s Justin Trudeau in 2015 and most recently in Quebec.

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

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

By Richard Wood

The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – all gained their independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The famous Baltic Chain of Freedom of 1989 was vital in ending Soviet control of the region, paving the way for three independent republics.

There are striking similarities between the three Baltic democracies and some crucial differences too. All are republics, all use list systems to elect some or all of their MPs who have four-year terms, and all have written, codified constitutions.

Having recently visited Latvia and Lithuania (previously visiting Estonia in 2019), I’ve taken the time to highlight the electoral systems of each of the Baltic state and comparing them to Holyrood and Westminster.

Latvian flag (via Pixabay)

Estonia

Estonia has a population of 1.3 million and is most northern of the three Baltic states, bordering Latvia to the south, as well as Russia to the east.

Since gaining independence in 1990, the Estonian Parliament – the Riigikogu – has had eight elections. Members are elected via a Closed List Proportional Representation system with multiple constituencies and no levelling seats, a model similar to what was used to elect UK Members of the European system. It also resembles the expected new system for the Welsh Parliament, as proposed by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru.

A total of 101 members are elected to the Riigikogu across 12 electoral districts ranging from five to fifteen members. This gives the country highly proportional elections while also retaining a reasonable degree of local representation. The three largest districts by representation cover Tallinn (the country’s capital and home of the national parliament) and the surrounding area.

It’s worth highlighting here that unlike at Holyrood and Westminster, when an MP joins the Estonian government they leave they stop being an MP. This gives a more formal separation of the legislature and executive than what we’re used to in the UK. The idea is an intriguing one although it only works due to the country’s list system: when an MP joins the government, the next person on their party’s list replaces them as an MP. This of course has the consequence that when a minister returns to the legislature, their substitute MP vacates their seat.

The country last voted in 2019, following which a coalition was formed led by the centre-right Centre Party. However, the government collapsed less than two years later; liberal Reform Party, led by Kaja Kallas, subsequently formed a cabinet with the Centre Party as the junior coalition partner. That arrangement didn’t last long either, but Kallas remained prime minister, after forming a coalition with the conservative Isamaa and the Social Democratic Party. The next election is expected to take place in March 2023.

As an independent, democratic republic, the country also has a non-executive president as Head of state. Unlike some other European countries with a similar set-up, Estonia’s president is elected by members of its national parliament rather than by a nation-wide vote. Its Baltic neighbours have also have non-executive presidents, but more on that below.

READ MORE: New Zealand and Scotland – proportional but imperfect voting systems

Estonian Riigikogu

Latvia

Latvia has a population just shy of 2 million, and like its less populous northern neighbour, the country uses a closed list proportional system to elect its members. The Saeima, the country’s parliament, has 100 members, one short of Estonia’s Rijikogu, and is based in the capital city of Riga.

Proportionality is a key principle in Latvian democracy. So much so that Articles 6 and 7 of the country’s constitution enshrine it in law:

6. The Saeima shall be elected in general, equal and direct elections, and by secret ballot based on proportional representation.

7. In the division of Latvia into separate electoral districts, provision for the number of members of the Saeima to be elected from each district shall be proportional to the number of electors in each district.

Latvian Constitution (Article 6)

While Latvia uses a Closed List PR system like Estonia, the system is rather different in design. The Saeima’s 100 members are spread across just five electoral districts. The capital Riga elects 36 members – that’s over a third of representatives. The other four districts elect 26, 13, 13, 12 members respectively.

This voting system leads to highly proportional elections, however, local representation is less than in Estonia, especially in the super-constituency of Riga.

The next Latvian election is scheduled to take place on 1 October 2022. The previous election saw three previously unrepresented parties gain representation in the Saeima. The pre-election governing coalition led by the centre-right, agrarian Union of Greens and Farmers since 2016 lost significant support, leading to a new government. After months of negotiations, a five-party coalition was formed with the centre-right New Unity’s Krišjānis Kariņš becoming prime minister in early 2019. New Unity is the smallest party in parliament, making Kariņš very much a compromise prime minister for the diverse coalition he heads.

Two final things. Like in Estonia, Latvian MPs formally exit the legislature when they join the government, making way for substitute MPs. And finally, Latvia’s non-executive president is elected by members of its national parliament just like in Estonia.

READ MORE: How proportional was Portugal’s election? Lessons for the UK’s broken democracy

Latvian Saeima

Lithuania

In line with it having the largest population of the three Baltic states (2.8 million people), Lithuania’s parliament (called the Seimas – not to be confused with Latvia’s Saeima) has the largest number of members of the three Baltic states. The country votes for 141 deputies every four years. However, unlike its northern neighbours, Lithuania doesn’t use what can be characterised as a proportional system.

The Seimas’ has 141 members (although the chamber has 142 for the sake of symmetrical design!) are elected in two ways. Just over half of MPs, 71, are elected from single-member districts. Candidates are only elected if they win a majority of votes in their constituency; if no candidate does then a run-off is held two weeks later to determine the elected representative.

The remaining 70 members are elected via proportional lists with a 5% threshold. There is also a degree of openness to the list element where voters can express a preference for a candidate of their choosing.

Unlike similar systems used in the likes of Scotland, Germany and New Zealand there is no link between single-member seats and the proportional element. This results in a Mixed-Member Majoritarian system where overall results are only somewhat proportional. This is also known as parallel voting.

This limited proportionality is best shown via the Gallagher Index, which provides a standardised measure of proportionality to compare different systems at different elections. The closer to 1 an election is, the more proportional it is. The 2019 Estonian and 2018 Latvian elections yielded Gallagher scores of 5.28 and 5.51 respectively. Lithuania’s score was 9.49 overall. Lithuanian elections therefore have proportional elements but are far from fully proportional.

The 2020 election led to the formation of a government headed by popular independent MP Ingrida Šimonytė. This is an interesting situation, which follows the 2019 non-executive presidential election (which unlike Estonia and Latvia was a nationwide election) which Šimonytė lost. However, she remained a popular figure, winning the most preference votes in the 2020 parliamentary election, and has a strong relationship with the centre-right Homeland Union. She now leads a centre-right cabinet consisting of independents, the Homeland Union, Liberal Movement and the Freedom Party.

READ MORE: Malta’s proportional election – a strong alternative to First Past the Post

Lithuanian Seimas

Lessons for Holyrood and Westminster

When it comes to comparing the electoral systems of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Westminster, the Baltic states come out on top. Even the semi-proportional Lithuanian system is significantly more representative than First Past the Post.

Of the three Baltic states, Estonia has the best balance of proportionality and local representation whereas Latvia’s mega-constituencies reduce local links and Lithuania’s mixed-member majoritarian system limits proportionality. Of course, all three are significantly more representative than First Past the Post, which distorts the link between seats and votes, leads to countless wasted votes and encourages tactical voting.

Were Westminster to adopt any of the three systems from the Baltics, representation would improve significantly.

The situation is somewhat different when making comparisons with the Scottish Parliament, which has used the proportional Additional Member System (AMS) since the advent of devolution in 1999. Unlike the mixed-member majoritarian system of Lithuania, Holyrood’s AMS is mixed-member proportional (MMP) as the constituency election results directly impact the distribution of list seats to compensate for lack of proportionality. The system has some significant flaws – which I’ve written about extensively here – but overall it delivers broadly proportional outcomes. Take a look at the most recent Scottish and Lithuanian elections. The Gallagher score for Scotland was 7.03, making it more proportional than Lithuania’s 9.49.

However, when comparing Scotland’s Gallagher scores to Estonia and Latvia, it is clear that the northern Baltic states have more proportional elections. This highlights the flaw that Holyrood elections are only broadly proportional (due to the balance of MSP types and the fact that votes are only regionally representative).

That said Scotland’s AMS means better local representation that Estonian and Latvia (with all constituents eight MSPs – one constituency MSP and seven regional MSPs). I should say here that I am of course in no position to call for reform in other countries, but the purpose of this to to show comparisons between Holyrood and Westminster with electoral systems around the world.

First Past the Post is significantly flawed. The UK needs to adopt a proportional alternative. Scotland’s AMS is a significant improvement but is in need of reform. When looking to make democratic improvements it is vital to look outward and see what other countries offer. That is a key part of the Upgrade Holyrood mission.

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

Elections Bill returns to House of Lords for Second Reading

Source: Pixabay

By Richard Wood

The UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill returns to the House of Lords for its Second Reading (Wednesday 23 February 2022).

The Bill passed in the House of Commons on Monday 17 January (Report Stage and Third Reading) with very limited time dedicated to its debate. Unfortunately none of the amendments designed too remove its most oppressive aspects were successful due to the government having a majority of seats in the House of Commons.

With the Bill now in the House of Lords, there is an opportunity for government defeats to push back against the watering down of our democratic standards.

Reasons to oppose the Elections Bill

The Bill will weaken the UK’s already shaky democratic foundations. Instead of upgrading our political system by introducing Proportional Representation and modernising parliament, the Elections Bill is a direct attack on representative democracy.

It contains provisions to expand First Past the Post through abolishing the Supplementary Vote used for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and mayoral elections. The current system is far from perfect but it provides a broader mandate to PCCs and mayors than the unrepresentative FPTP set-up currently used to elect Member of Parliament to the House of Commons.

The Elections Bill is also set to weaken the vital independence of the Electoral Commission. This is an affront to democracy which the Electoral Commission have firmly taken a stand against. In their letter to the government they say:

We therefore urge the Government to think again about these measures, to remove the provisions, and to work with the Commission and Speaker’s Committee to ensure that suitable accountability arrangements are in place to ensure confidence across the political spectrum. Strong accountability is essential for this, but so too is demonstrable independence. The Commission’s independent role in the electoral system must be clear for voters and campaigners to see, and preserved in electoral law. 

Electoral Commission (21 February 2022)

Furthermore, the government’s bill will introduce voter identification (ID) requirements to address alleged voter fraud. Of course, electoral fraud is wrong and should be stamped out where present, however, the issue is barely a footnote on the pages of modern British politics, not to mention that trials in England have found voter ID to be highly ineffective. What’s more leading campaigns and organisations, such as the Electoral Reform Society and Hands off Our Vote have highlighted that voter ID is inherently exclusionary – it will have a disproportionate negative impact on minority communities, young people, older people and other demographics. Instead of tackling fraud, voter ID will suppress voters.

The Electoral Reform Society’s briefing on the Bill provides more details and further reasons to oppose the Bill here.

READ MORE: Campaigners Rally against regressive Elections Bill

What can you do? Taking action to defend democracy

The House of Lords has an opportunity to defeat the government but that is not without its challenges. Here’s what you can do.

Campaign groups from across the democracy sector are coming together to put pressure on the House of Lords to do the right thing.

Unlock Democracy’s action centre is a good starting point, full of calls to actions to campaign against the bill.

Make Votes Matter, who strongly opposed the expansion of First Past the Post, also provide some key actions to take.

The Elections Bill is a regressive piece of legislation that must be stopped. The government’s unrepresentative majority in the House of Commons seems unassailable but there is a real opportunity to make a difference in the Lords.

READ MORE: Canada’s 2021 election – the striking failures of First Past the Post exposed

Campaigners rally against UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill

By Richard Wood

A coalition of pro-democracy protestors gathered at London’s Parliament Square on Saturday 5 February to rally against the UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill.

Organised by leading organisations in the democracy sector, including Make Votes Matter, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society, the rally included speeches from across the political spectrum.

Unlock Democracy’s Tom Brake, Labour’s John McDonnell, the Lib Dem’s Hina Bokhari, Reform UK leader Richard Tice and Green co-leader Carla Denyer were just some of the leading figures who spoke at the rally. Campaigners from pro-reform groups such as the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform were also in attendance to make their case against the controversial piece of legislation.

The rally was one of a number of pro-democracy events held across the country including a similar rally in Manchester later in the afternoon.

READ MORE: Upgrade Holyrood joins Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance

The Elections Bill is a deeply damaging piece of legislation which passed in the House of Commons on the evening of Monday 17 January (and due to have its Second Reading in the House of Lords later in February).

The bill is set to introduce voter identification requirements, a “solution” to the near non-existent problem of voter fraud which will end up suppressing voters in the most marginalised groups across the country.

The bill also replaces the Supplementary Vote with the clapped-out and unfair First Past the Post electoral system. This unnecessary change will make elected mayors in England less representative and shows just how opposed this government is to any positive voting reform.

In addition to this, the Bill threatens the independence of the Electoral Commission and sets out measures to change spending rules for the worse.

UK politics needs better representation not less, and First Past the Post certainly needs to be ended not extended.

The Elections Bill will level down our democracy but there is hope. The Parliament Square rally shows the vibrancy of the campaign against this regressive bill. Together, we can push back and upgrade our democracy.

READ MORE: Elections Bill set to wrongly expand First Past the Post

READ MORE: Upcoming PR Scottish council elections show England a better way of doing local democracy

Upgrade Holyrood is a Scottish political site dedicated to improving Scottish democracy, as well as politics across the UK.

Read more about Upgrade Holyrood here.

Elections Bill set to wrongly expand First Past the Post’s dominance in UK politics

By Richard Wood

The UK Government’s “Elections Bill” was voted through by MPs on the evening of Monday 17 January 2022.

Very little time was given to the Bill which will have some significant impacts on the nature of British democracy when it is likely given Royal Ascent.

The Bill, which will next go to the House of Lords, is symptomatic of the current government’s commitment to consolidating power and introducing regressive electoral reforms. Both the Elections Bill and the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will have major negative repercussions.

One of the main controversies of the Bill is the introduction of voter identification requirements which campaign groups have said will further marginalise those groups already less likely to vote. While there is a logic to requiring voters to verify their identity, the problem the bill claims to tackle is almost non-existent. The number of voter fraud cases in the UK stands at only a handful. What’s more, trials in England in 2019 led to the turning away of hundreds of voters, almost half of whom did not return to vote. Instead of addressing a non-existent problem, voter ID will create a whole set of new issues, namely voter suppression.

READ MORE: 12 reasons to support Proportional Representation

The Bill will also replace the Supplementary Vote with First Past the Post for mayoral elections in England. The Supplementary Vote is far from the best way to elect single-member positions like mayor or president (the best system would be the Alternative Vote) but it is superior to First Past the Post as it provides a broader, more representatie mandate to the winning candidate. Instead of replacing First Past the Post with Proportional Representation and preferential systems where necessary, the government is expanding a clapped-out system that fails to represent the people time and time again.

Democracy activists and campaign groups took a strong stance against the bill while opposition parties tabled a series of amendments to rip out the bill’s worst elements and improve it overall, but ultimately none were successful.

The Elections Bill puts Britain on the wrong track. The use of First Past the Post needs to be ended not extended.

Westminster is in desperate need of an upgrade. We need real democracy now.

READ MORE: Upgrade Holyrood joins Make Votes Matter’s Alliance for Proportional Representation

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

Scottish Labour MSP “sympathetic” to Scottish electoral reform

By Richard Wood

Scottish Labour MSP Paul Sweeney has said he is “sympathetic” to the idea of electoral system change for the Scottish Parliament.

The Glasgow MSP made the remark while sitting as a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee discussing the petition for electoral reform submitted to the Scottish Parliament (17 November 2021).

I am sympathetic, because it is an on-going and worthwhile discussion. In the 1990s, the Scottish Constitutional Convention established the additional member system as the preferred electoral system, but perhaps there is an on-going need to consider alternatives. Obviously, the single transferable vote for local government elections was introduced in the mid-2000s. There have been observations of concerning practices in the most recent Scottish Parliament elections; most notably, the Greens were perhaps stymied in some instances by a decoy green party, which was higher up the list and seduced votes away from the Greens. I certainly noticed that at the Glasgow count, so there are flaws with the current list structure of two ballots, which are worth further investigation.

Paul Sweeney MSP (Glasgow)

The Petitions Committee agreed to write to both the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society on the matter. You can read more about my petition, the actions taken by the committee – and the responses – here.

Scottish Labour currently have no official position on which voting system to use at Holyrood. The UK-wide party currently supports First Past the Post for Westminster elections (although progress is being made to change this view).

The Scottish Liberal Democrats support changing AMS to STV and campaigned on this at the 2021 election. The SNP also generally favour STV while the Scottish Greens have moved towards supporting Open List Proportional Representation.

The Scottish Conservatives are resistant to any positive electoral reforms. Indeed, the Conservative UK Government recently passed one of the most regressive bills relating to elections.

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

READ MORE: Petitions Committee respond to Scottish Parliament voting reform petition

READ MORE: What do Scotland’s parties say about Holyrood’s voting system? The route to electoral reform

Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight

Upgrade Holyrood’s Richard Wood has written a new article for Politics.co.uk (published 9 September 2021), highlighting the upcoming German and Canadian elections and the need for Proportional Representation in the UK.

The full article can be read here: Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight.

Two leading democracies go to the polls later this month, both facing far from certain outcomes. The end of the Merkel era places Germany at a crossroads with a diverse range of multi-party coalitions on the table. Meanwhile, Canada’s election is Justin Trudeau’s gamble to turn his minority government into a majority one, despite polls suggesting this could backfire and hand power to the country’s Conservatives.

Held within a week of each other, these elections are two very different interpretations of democracy due to their contrasting electoral systems. They show how the UK has two possible futures ahead. The Canadian route, based around First Past the Post (FPTP), typifies just a semi-representative democracy. And the German route, based around Proportional Representation (PR),which ensures an accurate link between votes cast and seats won.

Richard Wood (2021)