New Zealand and Scotland – proportional but imperfect voting systems

By Richard Wood

The 1990s were a time of radical political change both here in Scotland and on the other side of the world in New Zealand.

In 1996, New Zealand held its first election using a form of Proportional Representation, after two referenda and decades of campaigning. And three years later Scotland did the same with the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

Both countries use a distinct form of PR – also used in the likes of Wales, Germany and Lesotho – that combines single-seat constituencies with compensatory party list members. Both systems lead to broadly proportional outcomes but how do they compare?

Overview

Members of the Scottish Parliament are elected in one of two ways. 73 are elected via single-seat constituencies and a further 56 are elected via eight regions.

The New Zealand Parliament is generally made up of 120 Members with 72 elected in single-seat constituencies (65 in general electorates and seven Māori ones) and the 48 others elected nation-wide.

In both Scotland and New Zealand, voters get two ballots and list seats are distributed by taking into account the number of constituencies won by each party to deliver overall broadly proportional results. Scotland’s set-up is referred to as the Additional Member System while New Zealand’s is Mixed-Member Proportional.

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

Proportionality

Both systems were designed to achieve overall proportional results and both have been largely successful in this aim. Compared to elections to the UK’s House of Commons, where the Conservatives won a massive majority of seats on just 43% of the vote and previous First Past the Post elections in New Zealand (when in 1993 the National Party won a majority on 35% of the vote), Scottish Parliament elections and modern New Zealand elections result in parliaments where seats roughly match votes.

The latest Scottish election, while slightly less representative than the one held in 2016, is still a fairly good example of the broadly proportional nature of AMS (despite Alba’s plan to unfairly exploit the system). In 2021, the SNP won 63 of 129 seats (48%) on 40.3% of the party vote. The Scottish Conservatives won 31 seats (24%) on 23.5% the party vote ahead of Scottish Labour on 22 seats (17.1%) and 17.9% of the vote. The Greens also won 8 seats (6.2%) on 8.1% and the Scottish Lib Dems secured 4 seats (3.1%) on 5.1% of the party vote. At Holyrood, seats broadly match votes although the SNP are clearly overrepresented to a notable degree, but the flaws of the system are discussed below.

New Zealand’s elections tell a similar story. Take the latest vote for example. Held in October 2020, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party managed to win a majority of seats (65 out of 121) but crucially that was won on a majority of the vote (50.01%). The opposition National Party secured 33 seats (27.27%) on 25.6% of the vote while the Alliance Party won 10 seats (8.3%) on 7.6% of the vote and the Greens also secured 10 seats on 7.8% of the vote. In New Zealand, there is a strong link between seats and votes.

Constituency to list members ratio

Both the Scottish and New Zealand parliaments have almost the same ratio of constituency members to list members. In Mixed-Member Proportional systems, the larger the proportion of list members the more proportional the system is overall.

Contrast the broadly proportional Scottish and New Zealand systems together with the system used in Wales. The Welsh system is near identical to Scotland’s except there are only 60 members with 40 being constituency MSs and 20 being list MSs, resulting in a ratio of 2:1. This means that Welsh elections are only somewhat proportional. At the 2021 Welsh election, the Labour Party won 30 seats on just 36.2% of the vote, due to their dominance of constituency seats.

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

Regional and national lists

The key difference between the Scottish and New Zealand electoral systems is the nature of the party list element. New Zealand’s list MPs are elected nationwide, meaning that parties only have one list each for the entire country and the distribution of list MPs is determined by list votes overall while taking into account the number of constituencies won by each party across the entire country.

Meanwhile, Scotland is split into eight electoral regions. List MSPs are allocated via the total number of list votes in a region while accounting for only the number of seats won by each party in that particular region. The main consequence of this is that there is no mechanism to make sure Scottish results are nationally proportional, just regionally proportional.

READ MORE: How proportional was Portugal’s 2022 election? Lessons for the UK

The electoral threshold

Electoral thresholds are common in countries with Proportional Representation. This means that to win seats in a legislature a party only qualifies if they win a certain percentage of the vote.

The Scottish Parliament has no threshold to enter parliament but in practice, as only eight list MSPs are elected per region, there is effectively a moderate threshold that changes at each election depending on how votes are cast. This is different in each region.

New Zealand takes a different approach by applying a 5% threshold for its parliament. In 2020, this meant the New Zealand First Party failed to win any seats as they only won 4.6% of the vote. The exception to this rule is if a party wins a constituency, in which case they are entitled to win list seats.

Overhangs

The term overhang refers to when a party wins more constituency seats than it would be entitled to under a purely proportional system based on the party list vote alone. This happens in the Scottish Parliament on occasion but there is no mechanism to address it. In contrast, when a New Zealand party wins more constituency seats than it is entitled to (based on its list vote share) then the party keeps its extra seat and the parliament’s size is increased to accommodate this. The current size of the New Zealand parliament is 121.

If Holyrood had a similar mechanism in place, both the 2011-2016 and 2016-2021 Scottish Parliament’s would have had 130 MSPs to account for overhangs. According to Ballot Box Scotland, the current Parliament would have 133 seats.

READ MORE: Comparing Germany and Scotland’s voting systems

Māori electorates

One final difference between the two systems is New Zealand’s Māori constituencies (known as electorates). In addition to the country’s 65 general electorates that cover the entire country, as well as the list seats, there are a further seven Māori electorates which have traditionally been held by representatives of Māori. This was started as a temporary measure but has since become a permanent feature of New Zealand politics, enabling Māori representatives (from any party) guaranteed seats in parliament.

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

Time for electoral reform in New Zealand and Scotland?

Both systems have provided broadly proportional results in their respective parliaments but there is room for reform.

Mixed-Member Proportional systems have the advantage of proportionality but do have a number of significant flaws. Chiefly, the lack of guaranteed proportionality (especially due to the two vote nature of MMP and the ratio of electorates to list seats, as well as, at least in Scotland the lack of a mechanism to ensure national proportionality), the lack of voter choice and the risk of manipulation.

There is also the issue of safe seats which remain due to the First Past the Post element of AMS/MMP.

A sticking plaster approach to address these problems would be to open up the list element, meaning that voters could rank candidates within their preferred power, a move that would further empower voters at the ballot box. This happens in Bavaria but risks complicating things with the introduction of a third completely different ballot. This could be combined with the addition of levelling seats to ensure nationality proportionality by making seats match list votes although this could lead to massive parliaments like in Germany where the number of seats won is approaching 1,000.

Rather than opting for tinkering that could cause its own problems, Scotland and New Zealand could adopt more representative voting systems. One tried and tested alternative would be the Single Transferable Vote, which has been used for Scottish local elections since 2007. This could improve proportionality and empower voters. Another alternative would be an Open List PR system with levelling seats to ensure overall proportionality.

Appetite for electoral system change is currently limited, certainly in Scotland, but after 23 years of devolution and an election where one party led by a former First Minister tried to exploit the flaws of AMS in such an overt way, conversations about Scottish electoral reform should start now.

READ MORE: Scotland’s parties and electoral system change – the route to voting reform at Holyrood

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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.

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

By Richard Wood

Voters in Portugal went to the polls on Sunday 30 January to elect a new Assembly of the Republic, the country’s unicameral parliament. Unlike the UK, MPs are elected via a form of Proportional Representation, meaning that how people vote at the ballot box is fairly reflected in the legislature – in short, seats won broadly match votes cast.

Portugal’s 2022 election – how proportional was it?

The election took place as a consequence of opposition parties voting down the minority Socialist Party government’s budget. In the end, the Socialst Party benefitted from the election, increasing its vote share and winning an unprecedented majority of seats.

Like most European democracies, Portugal uses a form of Proportional Representation to elect MPs. This means that the proportion votes cast per party are reflected by the proportion of seats won by each party in the legislature.

The contrast with UK national elections is stark. Under First Past the Post, MPs elected to Westminster are not reflective of how people vote. In 2019, the Conservatives won 43% of the vote which resulted in them getting over 50% of all seats. Parties like the Liberal Democrats and Greens went significantly underrepresented. The worst modern example of the unrepresentative nature of FPTP was the 2005 election where Tony Blair’s Labour achieved a majority of seats on just 35% of the vote.

Overall, Portugal’s elections are fairly proportional, as seen time and time again at each Portugese election. There is a link between seats and votes unlike in the UK where that link is distorted by single-member constituencies.

However, the 2022 election has exposed a flaw with the particular PR system used by Portugal. The Socialist Party won a majority of seats (117 out of 230) on a minority of votes (41.7%).

Meanwhile the centre-right Social Democrats won 76 seats (33%) on 29.3% of the vote, while the far-right Chega secured 12 seats (5.2%) on 7.2% of the vote. The Liberal Initiative won 8 seats (3.5%) on 5% of the vote, the Communist Party won 6 seats (2.6%) on 4.4% of the vote and the Left Bloc won 5 seats (2.2%) on 4.5% of the vote. People Animals Nature and Livre each won the two remaining seats.

The results are only broadly proportional as the largest party won far more than it should have under a totally fair system. In theory this shouldn’t happen under a PR system but the mechanics of Portugal’s system helped lead to this surprise outcome. It is also worth noting than the country’s smaller parties received less representation than their share of the vote suggests they would be entitled to.

The reasons for Portugal’s disproportionality are explained below.

READ MORE: Mixed-member Proportionality – how do Scotland’s and Germany’s voting systems compare?

What type of Proportional Representation does Portugal use? Could it be better?

The country elects 230 MP for provisionally four-year terms (although in practice this is often less than that due to snap elections). The country is split into 20 multi-member constituencies each electing between two and 48 members (the largest being the capital Lisbon), as well as two overseas constituencies (Europe and the rest of the world). This in principle, means there is a strong link between votes cast and seats won, however, in practice that is not always the case.

Crucially, there is no mechanism to ensure national proportionality which in part explains the surprise majority of seats won by the Socialists. In contrast, Scandinavian party list systems have mechanisms to ensure national proportionality rather than just proportionality per multi-member constituency. Furthermore, Portugese seat distributions are determined by the D’hondt system (common across Europe), which on the whole gives a slight advantage to larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. This too can explain how the 2022 Portugese election came to be.

For those interested in how D’Hondt works and how it compares to different methods, the Electoral Reform Society has an excellent summary which can be read here.

READ MORE: Campaigners rally against UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill

But it’s not all about proportionality – how powerful are the voters?

Members are elected on closed party lists meaning that voters vote for parties and have no say in the ordering of lists presented. This means that while voters have a high chance of getting their party into parliament (due to multi-member constituencies), they have no say over who gets elected from their chosen party. Again, this is in contrast with the likes of Denmark and Iceland where voters have a say over the order of candidates elected to the Assembly.

Interestingly, these closed lists and the D’Hondt element make Portugal’s system one that most closely resembles how the UK used to determine members of the European Parliament (although the number of MPs elected per constituency is wildly different).

So how good is Portugal’s voting system overall? When it comes to proportionality, there is a strong link between how people vote and how they are represented in parliament. There are arguably better ways to calculate seat distributions than D’Hondt and the lack of a mechanism to ensure overall proportionality weakens the link between seats and votes on a Portgual-wide scale. This weakening in the link was dramatically exposed in the 2022 election. The system clearly needs reform but overall the system means results are broadly proportional.

In addition, another flaw is the fact that party lists are closed. Unlike in countries such as Norway, voters in Portugal have no say in the ranking of candidates on party lists. Proportionality is extremely important but so to is voter choice. If a country opts for list PR rather than say ranked choice voting in multi-member seats (PR-STV) the lists should be open to empower voters and to avoid giving too much power to party bosses.

READ MORE: Scotland’s STV proportional system shows England a better way for local democracy

What lessons can the UK learn from Portugal?

The first lesson that UK democracy can learn from Portugal is that the principal of Proportional Representation ensures broadly representation outcomes.

However, the second lesson is that not all PR systems are as effective as each other when it comes to ensuring proportional outcomes. Yes, in Portugal there is a correlation of seats and votes but it is far from as accurate as it could be. The UK should take that into account when designing a proportional electoral system.

Lastly, the lack of candidate choice in Portugal’s closed list party system is a significant impediment to voter power. Any future PR system adopted at Westminster should empower voters when it comes to selecting candidates not just parties.

Portugal’s voting system is not the one for the UK, but we should learn from its benefits and its flaws when it comes to designing a representative system at Westminster.

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

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

By Richard Wood

Thursday 5 May 2022 will be a bumper day of local government elections across the UK.

Councillors are set to be elected across all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities, all 22 councils in Wales and a significant number of local authorities across in England (including all London boroughs, numerous county councils and metropolitan boroughs). There are no local authority elections in Northern Ireland this year, however, the Northern Ireland Assembly election is taking place on the same day (and with the DUP on the verge of losing their first-place position, it is certainly one to keep an eye on).

The contrast between the way local elections are conducted in Scotland and England will be most striking as English councillors are elected via First Past the Post (often with multiple councillors elected per ward) whereas Scottish Council elections are conducted using the Single Transferable Vote.

England can and must learn from Scotland when it comes to local government.

England’s broken local government

Local elections in England are conducted using the First Past the Post system. Unlike in Westminster elections, these elections often have multiple winners (with each voter getting the same number of votes as positions available). However, the result is the same: votes cast do not match seats won, making local government in England incredibly unrepresentative.

Take a look at Westminster Borough Council. In 2018, the Conservatives won 42.8% of the vote while Labour won 41.1%. Under a PR system, both parties would be fairly evenly matched in terms of seats but the reality is far from this. The Conservatives won 41 seats while Labour got just 19. Furthermore, the Liberal Democrats achieves 9.4% of the vote but took no seats.

This pattern of skewed election results is repeated right across England and is a direct consequence of plurality voting for local government elections.

READ MORE: 12 reasons why Westminster should adopt Proportional Representation now

Single Transferable Vote (STV) in Scotland

In contrast, all 32 local authorities in Scotland are elected via Proportional Representation (Single Transferable Vote) with three and four member wards. Yes, there is a debate to be had about improving STV in Scottish local government, but on the whole, PR-STV delivers largely proportional outcomes and that is something that should be widely applauded.

The first PR-STV local government elections took place in 2007 and were a direct consequence of the renewed Labour-Lib Dem coalition at Holyrood following the 2003 election.

On the whole, STV delivered largely proportional election results, while also empowering voters who are able to differentiate between different candidates within a party as well as express their opinion on more than just one individual or faction.

Take a look at Glasgow City Council. Out of 85 seats, the SNP secured 39 seats on 41.0% of first preference votes while Scottish Labour secured 31 seats in 30.2% of First preference votes. The Scottish Conservatives got eight seats on 14.6% of First preference votes while the Greens got seven seats (8.7% of first preferences). Had this election been conducted First Past the Post, the SNP would no doubt have dominated and the Conservatives and Greens would have got none or only a couple of seats.

While the system isn’t perfectly proportional, largely due to most wards only being made up of three or four members, the Glasgow example shows how broadly proportional STV elections are and that smaller parties can break through and win representation they otherwise wouldn’t under FPTP.

READ MORE: It’s time to upgrade Holyrood’s voting system

Improving local government in Scotland – learning from Northern Ireland

Just like in Scotland, Northern Ireland councils are elected via the Single Transferable Vote. However, while Scottish wards elect three or four members, Northern Irish wards are generally made up of five or six members, sometimes even seven. This higher district magnitude leads to overall more proportional results than in Scotland and should be commended.

READ MORE: What do Scotland’s political parties think of the monarchy?

How close is local government reform in England and Wales?

Due to the Lib-Lab coalition (2003 – 2007), Scottish local elections are conducted using STV. The 2022 local elections will be the fourth in Scotland to use STV. Since the change came into effect in 2007 there has been some progress on improving local governance south of the border.

The most significant development in making local government elections fairer in the UK occurred in Wales in 2020. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act (given Royal ascent in early 2021) allows local councils to change their voting system from First Past the Post to STV. Unfortunately this isn’t mandatory meaning that councils actively have to make the change. While a compulsory scrapping of FPTP would have been far better, this is still a positive development in making local government fair.

As for England, reform looks unlikely until there is a change of government in Westminster. In fact, English local government is getting more unrepresentative. The government’s regressive Elections Bill is set to abolish the Supplementary Vote used in metro mayor elections and replace it with First Past the Post. The SV is far from perfect, but it provides for a broader mandate than under FPTP.

English local government needs reform. There is a long way to go, but Scotland and Northern Ireland show a path to fair representation.

READ MORE: UK Government’s Elections Bill will expand FPTP’s dominance

READ MORE: Should defecting MSPs and MPs face by-elections?

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

Upgrade Holyrood joins Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance

Upgrade Holyrood has joined Make Votes Matter’s alliance for Proportional Representation.

The alliance includes all the UK’s main opposition parties, leading democracy organisations (apart from Labour) and key PR supports from right across the UK. Make Votes Matter’s goal is to replace First Past the Post with Proportional Representation for elections to the House of Commons.

Upgrade Holyrood primarily supports better democracy in Scotland – by arguing for an end to dual mandates, the introduction of a recall process for MSPs and better Proportional Representation at Holyrood. But Upgrade Holyrood also passionately supports the introduction of PR at Westminster.

Founder of Upgrade Holyrood, Richard Wood, said:

“Adopting a system of Proportional Representation is the single-most important improvement we can make to democracy in the UK. We need to correct the distorted link between seats and votes so that voters are accurately represented and wasted votes are minimised.”

“The voting system used to elect Members of the Scottish Parliament has its flaws but it does deliver largely proportional results and is far more representative First Past the Post. Westminster has a lot to learn from the way Scottish Parliament elections are conducted.

“Without Proportional Representation at Holyrood, the SNP would unfairly dominate parliament due to their near monopoly of constituency seats. Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives would have next to no representation, not to mention that both Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross owe their admittance to the Scottish Parliament to PR.”

“Westminster needs a major shake-up and I am proud that Upgrade Holyrood has joined the Alliance for Proportional Representation to help make that happen.”

_______________________________

More about Make Votes Matter’s Proportional Representation Alliance can be read here.

READ MORE: 12 reasons the UK needs PR right now

READ MORE: Why I’m standing for election to the Electoral Reform Society’s Council – Richard Wood

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

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

By Richard Wood

Members of the Scottish Parliament are currently elected using the Additional Member System, which leads to broadly proportional results. This means that the proportion of seats won by each party roughly reflects the share of votes cast for that party.

This relationship is far superior to the distorted relationship between seats and votes in Westminster’s First Past the Post voting system.

However, AMS does has its flaws. The system is only proportional at the regional level and does not address the problems that follow when parties win more constituency seats than they should be entitled to as per the regional vote in a particular region. This skews overall proportionality. Further, party lists are closed, limiting voter choice, and there are always two types of MSP in practice – list and constituency. Lastly there are opportunities for parties to game the system such as Alba and All for Unity in 2021, which I wrote about ahead of the 2021 election for Politics.co.uk.

There are three main alternatives to AMS that would improve Scotland’s representation:

  1. A moderated AMS where additional seats are added to address overhangs and to ensure seats match list votes overall (such as in Germany) alongside open lists (as seen in Bavaria.
  2. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) which would strengthen voter power and improve proportionality if designed effectively.
  3. Open List PR which would empower voters and improve proportionality.

More about these different systems can be read here.

Sign the petition to improve Scotland’s voting system here.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats have long argued for Proportional Representation. The party explicitly favours the Single Transferable Voting system, which splits the country into multi-member constituencies (probably between five and seven members with some exceptions). Voters then rank candidates by order of preference. Candidates that reach the quota if first preferences are elected and surplus votes are transfered until all places are filled. This empowers voters and leads to proportional results – in can be modified like in Malta to ensure even more accurate proportionality.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long supported STV. While in government with Scottish Labour, they changed the local authority electoral system from First Past the Post. The party continues to argue for STV to replace AMS at Holyrood. The pledge was included in their 2021 manifesto – making them the only party to include a voting reform pledge in their most recent platform to the electorate.

READ MORE: These 5 reforms would improve Scotland’s democracy

Scottish National Party (SNP)

The SNP support the general principle of Proportional Representation.

The party also tends to favour the Single Transferable Vote. They have called for a switch to STV PR in various manifestos over the years in line with this position, most recently in their 2019 General Election manifesto.

READ MORE: Douglas Ross MSP MP – 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

Scottish Greens

The Scottish Greens, pledged to replace AMS with STV, most recently in their 2016 Scottish Parliament election manifesto.

However, the party now favours an Open List PR system, as reported by the New Statesman.

Both STV and Open List PR would be improvements on AMS as they improve proportionality and empower voters (if designed effectively).

READ MORE: The Scottish Parliament should introduce a recall rule for MSPs

Scottish Conservatives

The Conservative party favours First Past the Post and is resistant to any moves away from this at the UK level. Seemingly just one Conservative MP goes against against party line by supporting PR – Derek Thomas, Member of Parliament for St. Ives.

In Scotland, the party does not have an official position on the voting system used at Holyrood although it is always worth highlighting that without it, they would have very limited representation at Holyrood without PR.

That said, there is some support for PR within Scottish Conservative ranks and even some support for reform to an even fairer system.

In June 2021, Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser called for reform of Holyrood’s voting system. He has yet to address any hypocrisy if he still supports FPTP at Westminster, and while his support for reform of the Scottish Parliament is rooted in unionist/nationalist arguments, this is a positive sign.

He suggested the opening of AMS’ regional list component, like in Bavaria, but has also said that replacing the whole thing with STV would be another option.

The Scottish Conservatives as a whole are unlikely to support reform – due to awkward questions about their lack of support for PR at Westminster – but Murdo Fraser may have some sway when it comes to bringing a handful of Conservatives on board.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser supports electoral reform at Holyrood

Scottish Labour

Labour set up the Scottish Parliament and came to an agreement for adopting the Additional Member System with other parties and stakeholders as part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. This was in the late 90s when it is worth remembering that Labour went into the general election promising a referendum on Proportional Representation (which never materialised despite the Jenkins report that followed New Labour’s ascent to power).

The party seems to have no formal position on Holyrood’s voting system, but again there is a hypocrisy if they are happy with AMS at Holyrood while favouring FPTP at Westminster. Not to mention, like with the Conservatives, if the Scottish Parliament didn’t have a form of PR they would have next to no representation.

While the party is unlikely to formally support a change in voting system, at least while UK Labour remains favourable to First Past the Post, it is worth remembering that the party did implement AMS for the Scottish Parliament (and other devolved administrations) and were willing to compromise on the issue of council elections by agreeing to implement STV as part of their coalition with the Lib Dems.

While Scottish Labour has no position, there is definitely a softness towards reform within the party.

READ MORE: Why I’m standing to join the Electoral Reform Society Council – Richard Wood

The route to electoral reform at Holyrood

The magic number to change the voting system at Holyrood is 86. The Scotland Act sets out that any electoral system change requires a two-thirds majority, making this more challenging than a simple majority. The case for this high threshold makes sense: to change the rules of the game, there should be a broad consensus in favour of that change rather than just a basic majority.

Looking at where current support for different systems lies, the most likely new alternative system would be STV due to SNP and Lib Dem support, as well as former Green support. That said, there may also be support for minor reforms such as opening the list element, but any changes to AMS rather than switching to STV or Open List PR would likely be a sticking-plaster, leaving many questions unanswered.

However, in the current 2016 – 2021 parliament, the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens still fall short of that crucial two-thirds majority. Even with Conservative Murdo Fraser added in, the numbers don’t add up.

That said, all is not lost. If there was a real drive for reform, Scottish Labour would probably want to be part of that conversation. They pioneered the Scottish Parliament and have shown willingness to work towards fair voting such as with local authorities while in government with the Lib Dems. Scottish Labour are definitely part of the road to reform.

Overall, the issue of electoral reform at Holyrood is less vital than switching to Proportional Representation at Westminser. That members of the UK Parliament and still elected by FPTP is unacceptable. Nonetheless, after 22 years of devolution we should be reviewing how it’s worked so far and crucially assess the voting system. AMS works reasonably well but improvements still can be made. There is not an immediate burning drive to replace AMS but those conversations are necessary. Just because Holyrood delivers better representation than Westminster, doesn’t mean we should not strive for better.

There is a route to reform and that is something we must build towards, especially as Holyrood approaches its 25th birthday.

Scottish democracy can be better. Let’s seize the opportunity ahead of 2026.

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

German election 2021: a comparison with Scotland’s voting system

By Richard Wood

Germany votes for a new Bundestag on Sunday 26 September 2021, bringing an end to the Merkel era after sixteen years. The country uses a proportional voting system (Mixed-Member Proportional) which is very similar to Scotland’s Additional Member System, however, there are some clear differences.

The German system has its flaws, like Scotland’s, but it is significantly more representative than First Past the Post used at Westminster and earlier in the week in Canada.

READ MORE: German and Canadian elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight

Here’s how the German and Scottish systems compare.

The Scottish electoral system (AMS)

The Scottish Parliament has 129 seats in total. 73 of these are single-member districts where the candidate with the most vote wins, essentially First Past the Post. The other 56 are list seats designed to reduce the inherent disproportionality of the FPTP element. Voters get two ballots – one for each of these types of seats.

Scotland is divided into eight electoral regions with each region providing seven regional list MSPs, meaning that everyone in scotland has eight representatives.

The list seats in each region are distributed once all the constituency seats in that region are counted and are calculated via the D’Hondt method. However, crucial they also take into account the number of constituency seats won by each party in that region. This ensures broadly proportional outcomes overall. This mechanism ensures that regional votes match regional seats.

In practice this means that parties overrepresented in constituency seats (as in their seat share exceeds vote share) pick up fewer regional seats. The SNP do extremely well in constituency seats but other parties get their fair share in regional seats as seen in the 2021 Scottish election where the Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservatives won most of their seats via the regional allocations.

The broad proportionality of AMS makes the system more representative that the appalling First Past the Post system used at Westminster and in Canada on Monday.

READ MORE: Canada votes – the problems of First Past the Post exposed

However, AMS does have a number of faults. These include the proportionality mechanism only ensuring regional not national broad proportionality, no addressing of overhang seats and limited voter power (party lists are completely closed). Other problems include the fact that parties could “game the system” due to two-vote divergence as well as the two classes of MSP that the system produces.

The German electoral system (MMP)

The German system is very similar but also has significant differences with Scotland’s.

Both Scottish AMS and German MMP combine FPTP with a compensatory element to ensure a level of proportionality. Although not perfect, they can be classed as forms of Proportional Representation.

But unlike Scotland, Germany does not have a fixed number of seats.

As in Scotland, German voters get two ballots, one for each element. 299 German seats are elected via FPTP (the CDU/CSU and SPD dominate these constituencies).There are also a further provisional 299 list seats but this number is usually larger.

Germans vote for their lists in each of the 16 states (like in the 8 Scottish regions). These seats are allocated accounting for constituency seats to ensure proportionality. However, the system has a further mechanism to ensure overall seats match overall votes in each state.

Parties often win more constituency seats that they are entitled to under a hypothetical distribution of list votes. Other parties are allocated additional seats to level this out and further seats are added to ensure that the party list vote matches seat distributions. This is done to ensure proportionality at both the state and national levels.

This means that the size of the Bundestag (German parliament) changes in size after each election. This has faced some criticism but it does ensure a high degree of proportionality. In contrast, Holyrood is fixed at 129 members.

There is also a 5% threshold for *most* parties to win list seats. This is not the case in Scotland but there is an unofficial threshold at around that mark due to there only being seven list seats to allocate in each region.

The main advantage German MMP has over Scottish AMS is that extra commitment to proportionality. However, this has a major drawback as it can create incredibly large chambers. More politicians is not exactly popular with voters as a general rule. The outgoing Bundestag has 709 members in total (2017 to 2021).

The Bundestag also has other problems associated with AMS, notably the two types of member and closed party lists. The prospect of gaming the system is at least limited by additional seats allocated to ensure that party list votes match seats won by each party.

That all said, Germany’s commitment to proportionality is truly commendable.

Room for improvement in Scotland and Germany

Scotland’s AMS has done a reasonable job for 22 years but it definitely needs reform. Holyrood could learn from Germany and add levelling and overhang seats. This would be a significant improvement as it would improve proportionality and limit the possibility of gaming the system. We could also learn from the German state of Bavaria and introduce open lists for the regional vote component, strengthening voter power at the ballot box.

These could be positive steps forwards, however, they are arguably sticking plaster solutions.

Instead, Holyrood should learn from elsewhere and adopt a superior voting system to AMS. The Single Transferable Vote or Open List Proportional Representation with levelling seats would improve representation and empower voters across the whole country.

You can read about my petition to improve Scotland’s broadly proportional but imperfect voting system (and the response) here.

Scotland and Germany have similar voting systems which both ensure a strong element of proportionality. The extra commitment to proportionality in Germany is extremely commendable. Both systems have done well to improve representation but both have flaws and improvements can be made.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP supports better Proportional Representation at Holyrood