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

Source: Pixabay

By Richard Wood

The citizens of Malta voted for a new House of Representatives on 26 March 2022. Unlike elections to the UK’s House of Commons, how Maltese vote is actually reflected in parliament due to the country’s system of Proportional Representation (specifically, the Single Transferable Vote).

Scottish and UK politics have much to learn from Malta.

In 2017, Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party won 37 seats (on 55% of the vote) ahead of the National Force’s 30 (on 43.7% of the vote). Unusually for a country using Proportional Representation, Malta has a fairly consistent two-party system.

The country changed prime minister’s in 2020 and at the recent 2022 election, Labour held on to power by winning one more seat than it achieved at the last election. Here’s what happened in 2022 and how Maltese elections work.

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

How does Malta’s voting system work?

Malta uses the Single Transferable Vote to elect its representatives. The country is split into 13 constituencies, each with five members, and voters get to rank candidates in order of preference. This leads to largely proportional outcomes and a significant degree of voter empowerment.

Unlike in other countries using STV, a two-party system has dominated Malta for decades, with only a handful of third parties gaining representation despite the relatively low barriers of entry to the House of Representatives compared to the challenges they face in countries using majoritarian and pluralitarian systems such as First Past the Post.

Malta’s STV also has a final twist that doesn’t exist in places such as Scotland, Ireland and Australia’s Senate. Under standard STV it is still possible for the party with the most first preference votes to win fewer seats than an opposition party. The Maltese system addresses this by giving additional seats to the party with the most first preference votes across the whole of Malta. This is a sensible solution to addressing one of the flaws of an otherwise representing and empowering electoral system, one which could even be built upon for STV elections in Scotland and the UK.

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

How proportional are Maltese elections?

Due to STV and the Maltese twist on it, elections in Malta are highly proportional.

At the 2022 election, the Labour Party won 38 (56.72%) seats on 55.11% of first preference votes. The Nationalist Party secured 29 (43.28%) seats on 42.74% of the vote. There was clearly a strong link between seats and votes.

But looking at the overall figures only offers one level of analysis.

One tried and tested way to measure proportionality, and crucially compare proportionality of different systems, is to calculate the Gallagher index for an elections. More on the mathematics behind the indices can be read here, but the closer to zero the index is, the more proportional it is.

In Malta’s case, elections are highly proportional with indices consistently around the 1 mark for elections in the 21st century. The election result in 2017 was similar to 2022 (Labour won 37 seats on 55.04% of first preference votes while the National Party won 28 seats on 42.12% of the vote). The Gallagher Index for that election vote was 1.01. In fact every Maltese election since 1987 has had a Gallagher index less than 2, showing just how proportional Malta’s electoral system is.

In comparison, Scottish Parliament elections are largely proportional – the Gallagher index for 2016 was 5.6 while the index for 2021 was 7.03. However, UK elections are highly unrepresentative thanks to First Past the Post, for example, the Gallagher Index for the 2019 elections was 11.80.

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

Lessons for Scottish and UK democracy

Elections in Malta are highly proportional while and empower voters to a high degree. The Single Transferable Vote is far superior to First Past the Post, used to elect MPs in the UK, and more representative, and empowering, than the Additional Member System used at Holyrood. What’s more a version of the “Maltese twist” on the traditional STV is one worth considering when it comes to UK elections.

At the last UK election, the Conservatives won a majority on 43% of the vote while parties such as the Greens and Lib Dems were significantly unrepresented. Had the UK been using STV, the election outcome would have been much more representative than under First Past the Post. Furthermore, the UK could build on the Maltese version of STV by implementing its own levelling twist. Say under STV one party won more seats than another but fewer first preference votes, a number of levelling seat could be added to ensure a fairer outcome and tackle questions of illegitimacy.

STV Proportional Representation is clearly fairer than First Past the Post, as shown by the Maltese election. However, STV is already used for Scottish local elections, as well as Northern Ireland’s Stormont and local elections. Westminster has much to learn from Malta but also from elections for devolved administrations.

READ MORE: When it comes to local elections, Scotland and Northern Ireland lead the way

Northern Ireland Assembly election – the benefits of Proportional Representation

Source: Pixabay

By Richard Wood

Northern Ireland goes to the polls on Thursday 5 May to elect a new assembly. The election is going ahead as scheduled but follows the recent collapse of the executive as a result of First Minister Paul Givan’s resignation. The election could make history, with Sinn Fein looking likely to emerge as the largest party after years of unionist dominance.

Assembly members are elected via the Single Transferable Vote, a form of Proportional Representation with multi-member constituencies where voters rank candidates in order of preference.

Voters in Scotland also go to the polls on 5 May – this time to elect councillors across all 32 local authorities. Like the election in Northern Ireland, Scottish councillors are elected via STV. However, the Northern Irish system has lessons for Scotland’s democracy – both at the local level and at Holyrood.

Northern Ireland Assembly election

For Northern Ireland elections, the province is split into 18 constituencies. Each constituency has five members, meaning a total of 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly.

By allowing voters to rank candidates, voters have a significant degree of control over who is elected, rather than just which party. This is an important element of representative democracy, which is lacking at elections to Westminster and the Scottish Parliament.

Elections are also extremely proportional. In 2017, the DUP won 28.1% of first-preference votes and ended up with 31.1% of seats. Sinn Fein won 27.9% of the first preference votes and 30% of all seats while the UUP won 12.9% of first preference votes and 13.3% of all seats.

The Gallagher index, used to measure proportionality and compare across systems, for the last election was 3.34. The closer to one an election is, the more proportional it is. Compare this to the UK’s last election, which had a Gallagher index of 11.80.

In short, Northern Ireland elections are extremely proportional.

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

Scottish local elections

Scotland is split into 32 council areas, each electing a different number of councillors. The vast majority of these are elected in three or four member wards via STV. Like in Northern Ireland, council results are largely proportional and voters have more power than parties.

However, the fact that councillors are only elected in three or four member wards, as opposed to five member wards in Northern Ireland, decreases proportionality. Of course, the more local councillors are, the better – as they deal with local issues – but it is worth considering that wards with higher district magnitude lead to more representative results. If there is ever an opportunity to increase the number of councillors in Scotland, then increasing the number of representatives in each ward is worth considering.

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

Scottish Parliament and UK general elections

Northern Ireland shows that a more representative parliament is possible. UK elections are incredibly unrepresentative. STV would be a far more representative system than First Past the Post. When the UK does eventually adopt Proportional Representation, there are positive lessons from Northern Ireland’s use of STV.

Furthermore, there are lessons for Holyrood. The Scottish Parliament’s Additional Member System is broadly proportional but has a number of problems, such as the lack of voter empowerment, opportunities for exploitation and no mechanism to ensure national proportionality.

The Scottish Parliament needs a fairer voting system. STV is tried and tested in Scotland and has been successful in Northern Ireland. After 23 years of devolution, it’s time for Scotland to take a leaf out of Northern Ireland’s book and adopt a fairer system, such as STV.

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

3 alternatives to Scotland’s proportional but flawed voting system

By Richard Wood

There is no denying that the Scottish Parliament is considerably more democratic than the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. It has all the hallmarks of a modern democracy with its broadly proportional voting system, no unelected upper body and a purpose built horseshoe chamber where members can vote at the push of a button.

However, that’s not to say improvements cannot be made, and that is the raison d’être of Upgrade Holyrood.

Scotland’s Additional Member System has shown that Proportional Representation works but there a number of serious flaws in its design. It is time to change the way we elect MSPs.

AMS has delivered broadly proportional outcomes

There are a number of ways to measure the effectiveness of a voting system. These all have a complicated interconnected relationship with one another and there is often a trade off between them. Designing an effective electoral system is often a balancing act between proportionality (the representative link between seats and votes), voter influence, local links and utility of votes.

The Additional Member System is a mixed voting system with 73 MSPs elected via First Past the Post and an Additional 56 MSPs elected across eight different regionals. Voters get two ballots and these regional MSPs are allocated via the regional ballots while taking into account of the number of constituency seats won by each party, a mechanism that aims to ensure a proportional link between seats and votes in each region.

There have been six Scottish Parliament elections since the advent of devolution and all of them have been broadly proportional. The Gallagher Index for each of these elections is low, indicating string levels of proportionality, in contrary to indices for elections to the House of Commons which have had high Gallagher indices.

In Scotland, the number of votes cast per party is strongly linked with the number of seats won.

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

AMS flaws and the 2021 Scottish Parliament election

On the face of it everything looks in order, however, there are a number of flaws with AMS.

The voting system only aims for regional proportionality. The additional list members only ensure that the total number of MSPs in won by each party in each region is roughly proportional, leading to broadly proportional results overall. There is no direct mechanism to ensure national proportionality – and the ratio of constituency and list candidates in favour of the former compounds this.

Another significant flaw is that voters have very little control over the individuals elected. Safe seats exist in the First Past the Post element of AMS and parties determine their party list ordering meaning that voters have no say in individual candidates – just parties.

Furthermore, AMS doesn’t address the issue of overhangs which is when a party wins more constituency seats than it should have won on a purely proportional system. In contrast, New Zealand and Germany address this by adding further members to their respective parliaments when overhangs occur.

Lastly, is perhaps the most prolific flaw of the system. The 2021 election exposed one of the Additional Member System’s the possibility for exploitation of the two vote system. Alex Salmond’s newly formed Alba part went into the election with an explicit pitch to SNP voters – “back us on the list vote to maximise the pro-independence majority”. The SNP are so dominant in Scottish politics that the majority of their seats are won in First Past the Post constituencies but the number of seats overall is meant to be reflect of regional votes cast. Had all SNP voters backed Alba on the list then their would have been an extremely unrepresentative parliament with the likes of Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives squeezed out.

There was nothing illegal about Alba’s plan but it is surely wrong, going against the spirit of a system designed to be proportional, and led to talk of reforming the system in the mainstream media.

It is worth highlighting here that George Galloway’s All for Unity party employed a similar strategy, highlighting that this is a wider problem although Alba’s was certainly the most prolific attempt.

Ultimately, Alba failed in their attempt to exploit the system but the flaw has been so obviously exposed, leading to discussions in mainstream media about the need for reform. Just because Salmond’s venture wasn’t successful doesn’t mean something similar in future could be, not to mention this risk of exploiting the system is just one of the many flaws of AMS.

READ MORE: Salmond’s Alba venture exposes Scotland’s voting system flaws

After 23 years of devolution it’s time for an upgrade

Six elections and 23 years later it is time for reform. The Welsh Parliament is currently looking at improving its voting system and Scotland should do the same. True, Wales’ voting system, although similar to Scotland’s, is notably less proportional but there’s still a strong case to review what’s happened in Scotland why we need reform.

Here are three alternatives to the Additional Member System.

1. The German model – tinkering with the mixed-member system

One option, perhaps in theory the easiest reform, is to tinker with the system we already have. Compared to Mixed-Member Proportional systems in the likes of Germany and New Zealand, Holyrood is rather basic, with no additional measures to ensure proportionality other than the 56 regional MSPs.

Scotland could take a leaf out of Germany’s book and adopt a levelling system. The German model is similar to Scotland’s, the main difference being that the list vote overall, and in each state, is tied to the overall number of seats won. This is done by the creation of additional list seats (on top of the standard list seats allocated per state) to ensure that list votes cast match overall seats one. This would address the problem exposed by Alba in Scotland and also strengthens proportionality on both the regional and national scales.

In addition to modifying AMS based on the German system, Scotland could also learn from Bavaria and open up the list component of the Additional Member System. Party lists are currently decided by the parties that submit them, giving an astonishing amount of power to party bosses. Allowing voters to rank or order or note their preferred lead candidates in the party list they back would empower citizens across the country.

Modifying AMS with these two changes would on paper improve representationin the Scottish Parliament, however, such reforms are not without risk. A German-style levelling system could create an unprecedented number of MSPs as shown by the surge in Bundestag members at the 2021 German Federal election. Furthermore, opening up the list risks complicating matters as voters would in effect have three ballots at the polling station. These option also retains the element of First Past the Post, meaning that safe seats remain and there are two types of MSP.

While a modified AMS would be somewhat an improvement, if we are going to reform the system we should be more ambitious than this!

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

2. The Single Transferable Vote – representative, empowering and proven effective in Scotland

An alternative to the Additional Member System would be to scrap it altogether and introduce the tried and tested method, the Single Transferable Vote, widely lauded as the most effective and empowering voting system.

STV has been used to elect Scottish councillors since 2007 so voters are already familiar with it. Claims that it would be overly complicated have been unfounded and it has resulted in largely proportional councils and given voters significant power at the ballot box.

Under STV, Scotland would be divided into multi-member constituencies of district magnitude (the electoral sweet spot for balancing the constituency link and proportionality has been identified as between four and eight members (Carey and Hix 2011)) and voters get to rank candidates in order of preference. STV leads to proportional results while empowering voters at the ballot box. It also allows them to vote across party lines which can lead to a more accommodating politics.

Levelling seats could even be added, like in Malta’s STV system, to ensure that seats won overall reflect first preference votes and avoid situations like in Ireland in 2018 where Sinn Fein would have won more seats had they stood enough candidates.

No system will ever fully meet all ideal voting system criteria but the Single Transferable Vote covers all of them very well. STV would deliver proportional outcomes and give voters a significant amount of power, not to mention it is already familiar with the voting Scottish public due to its use in council elections. This is probably the best and most likely alternative to AMS.

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

3. Open List Proportional Representation – an unknown alternative

Rather than tinkering with the current system or opting for the tried and tested STV model, a third option would be to learn from the likes of Norway, Denmark and Iceland and embrace Open List Proportional Representation (with a levelling seat mechanism to ensure national proportionality). This is the less discussed alternative although it is now backed by the Scottish Greens and is the preferred system of Ballot Box Scotland.

Under Open List Proportional Representation, Scotland would be divided into a number of medium-large constituencies each electing a number of MSPs. Voters would get one ballot and one vote for a party. Seats are allocated via votes on that ballot and additional seats are added to level the system out and ensure national proportionality.

Crucially, voters are empowered as they have the option of indicating their preferred candidates on a party’s list, weakening party power and ensuring voters have a strong say in the personal make up of their parliament.

Such a system ticks the key boxes of voter choice and proportionality. Sure, it has some flaws such as the likelihood if some extremely large constituencies, as well as the lack of cross party voting similar to what happens under STV, but it is worth examining.

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

Scottish voting reform – where next?

The Scottish Parliament needs an upgrade but is there a route to electoral reform at Holyrood?

Change often happens by accident but there are three elements to keep an eye on in the coming years.

The Scottish Elections (Reform) Act 2020 explicitly gave the Scottish Parliament the power to change its voting system. A change can come about if two-thirds of MSPs support it.

There is some way to go to get to the magic number of 86 MSPs, but SNP, Lib Dem and Green MSPs all support an alternative voting system, not to mention at least one Conservative, Murdo Fraser MSP. Scottish Labour do not have a position but there is likely some appetite within the party for reviewing the status-quo. Labour’s Paul Sweeney MSP has even said he is sympathetic to looking at improving the way we elect MSPs. This all gives a framework for what could happen if there is a real drive to electoral reform although work would still be needed to bring parties together on the type of system Scotland should adopt.

It’s also worth keeping an eye on what happens in Wales. There is a very real possibility of the Senedd ditching its own Additional Member System in favour of the Single Transferable Vote as part of an enlargement to 80-90 members. The Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform is due to make its recommendations by 31 May 2022. If Wales goes down that route, Scotland could very well follow.

It is perfectly plausible to see a route to electoral reform ahead of the 2026 election. The Scottish Parliament has the mechanism to change the voting system is there, not to mention support for change within the parliament. The only major obstacle is the lack of political will, but in time, with persuasion, reform will happen.

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

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?

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

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

Sign the petition to replace the Scottish Parliament’s voting system with a more proportional alternative

By Richard Wood

Upgrade Holyrood strongly supports improving Scotland’s broadly proportional but flawed Additional Member System (AMS), currently used to elect Members of the Scottish Parliament.

This is why I have started an official Scottish Parliament petition to replace AMS with a more representative alternative.

The petition is officially entitled PE1901: Replace the voting system for the Scottish Parliament with a more proportional alternativeand can be signed here.

Sign the petition to upgrade Scotland’s voting system now.

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to replace the broadly proportional, but flawed, Additional Member System (AMS) used for electing MSPs with a more proportional alternative.

AMS results in more representative parliaments than FPTP used in Westminster but it is not fully proportional. It also results in two classes of MSPs, limits voter choice and can be exploited by decoy parties.

Alternatives such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) or Open List PR, would empower voters and lead to more representative parliaments.

PE1901

Reasoning behind the petition

The Additional Member System has done well to ensure broadly proportional parliaments but it does have some serious flaws, the full details of which can be read below.

READ MORE: The flaws of AMS and the need for better PR at Holyrood

This petition makes the case for an alternative system to replace AMS. I recognise that different individuals and parties back different alternatives, which is why I have kept the proposed alternative open and reasonably vague to help build a broad coalition for voting reform in Scotland.

For example, the Scottish Lib Dems and SNP favour the Single Transferable Vote (used for local authority elections in Scotland, as well as national elections in Ireland and Malta) while the Scottish Greens now support an Open List PR system (like those used in Denmark and Iceland) but have supported STV in the past.

Earlier this year, Scottish Conservative Murdo Fraser MSP broke party ranks and called for reform, highlighting STV as a possible alternative.

In terms of non-party support, the Electoral Reform Society has long supported the Single Transferable Vote while Ballot Box Scotland, who does an incredible job of covering and analysing Scottish electoral politics, favours and Open List PR system with levelling seats.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP calls for electoral reform at Holyrood

The route to electoral reform in Scotland

Changing the voting system at Holyrood requires a two-thirds majority rather than a simple 50%+1 majority as with most votes.

The Scottish Lib Dems were the only party in the parliament to propose changing the voting system in their 2021 manifesto but with the SNP and Scottish Greens in favour of a change in principle, as well as at least one Scottish Conservative MSP behind the idea, there is a possible route to reform.

The two-thirds rule would therefore mean that 86 MSPs would be required for supporting any reform. Together, the SNP (64 seats), the Scottish Greens (7 seats) and the Scottish Lib Dems (4 seats) fall short of that number with a combined total of 75 seats. Even with Murdo Fraser there would be just 76 MSPs in favour of reform.

The Scottish Conservatives are unlikely to back any reform overall due to their long-standing opposition to reform at Westminster. Any moves to supporting reform would lead to calls of hypocrisy if they continued to favour the archaic First Past the Post voting system at Westminster.

The best hope is getting additional support from Scottish Labour who have no position on changing the voting system. That said, there is certainly a route to reform through Scottish Labour who could definitely be persuaded to back reform if the idea gained momentum.

Other hurdles include the the fact that electoral reform is not high on the political agenda and there are different schools of thought on what to replace AMS with as previously mentioned.

Nonetheless, it is important to shift the conversation on this issue, which is why I have lodged the petition.

Please consider adding your name to begin an active conversation about the flaws of AMS and a real discussion on alternatives that provide for better representation.

The petition can be signed here.

READ MORE: 12 reasons the UK needs Proportional Representation now

Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser supports electoral reform at Holyrood

By Richard Wood

Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser has voiced his support for electoral reform of the Scottish Parliament in an article for the Scotsman (published 2 June 2021).

Conservative support for a switch from First Past the Post to PR at Westminster is generally limited – as is Conservative support for a more proportional system at Holyrood. Murdo Fraser’s support for change is welcome although it is worth noting he has not clarified if he supports PR at Westminster. But based on his opposition to distorted electoral outcomes, he should really be consistent in his thinking and support PR at all levels.

Fraser’s arguments for reform at Holyrood are broadly in-keeping with the arguments for reform made by Upgrade Holyrood – albeit in much more party politically-charged language (not to mention the constitutional question).

That said, this is a welcome move from Fraser who is only in his position thanks to the proportional element of Scotland’s voting system.

The Additional Member System used for Holyrood elections is far more representative than FPTP used at Westminster. Under AMS, seats broadly reflect votes but it isn’t perfect.

READ MORE: 12 reasons to support Proportional Representation

AMS has a number of flaws, many of which Murdo Fraser rightly highlights. These include the opportunity for parties to “game the list” (ultimately distorting overall representation), the ratio between constituency MSPs and regional MSPs, two classes of MSPs, limited voter choice and the lack of national proportionality.

There is an opportunity to build a coalition for change at Holyrood. But the question is what system would be best?

One alternative would be a moderate change: making AMS more closely resemble the system used in Germany by having levelling seats so that overall seats reflect regional vote shares. This could also incorporate an open-list element like in Bavaria.

Murdo Fraser posits this option:

“The issue of patronage could be resolved by the introduction of “open lists”, whereby it would be the voters in a particular region who would determine which party list candidates were elected, rather than the individual party machines. This reform would be beneficial in allowing more independently-minded MSPs to be elected, rather that those who simply slavishly follow the party line.”

Murdo Fraser MSP (2021)

However, this would merely be a sticking-plaster approach and could bring problems of its own like an overpopulated legislature as seen in Germany’s Bundestag.

Adopting the Single Transferable Vote or a full PR system (with multiple constituencies, levelling seats and open lists) would be better alternatives. Murdo Fraser even goes as far as saying there should be a fundamental review of the current arrangement, clearly highlighting the Single Transferable Vote as an alternative to AMS.

An alternative approach would be to replace the AMS system entirely by introducing single-transferable vote (STV) for Holyrood with multi-member constituencies returning five to seven MSPs.

This would deliver a high degree of proportionality, reduce party patronage, end the two-tier system of parliamentary representation, and still retain the local link for those elected.

Murdo Fraser (2021)

Murdo Fraser’s intervention shows that there is an opportunity to upgrade the electoral system at Holyrood. Only the Scottish Lib Dems supported electoral reform (STV) in their 2021 manifesto although the SNP do favour the system in general. The Greens have backed the system in the past but are now more in favour of Open List PR.

There would be a major political challenge for the Scottish Conservatives if they backed STV at Holyrood (if they continue to defend FPTP at Westminster) but the movement for reform at Holyrood is growing.

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

Murdo Fraser will in time have to respond on his views about Westminster if he continues to push the line for change at Holyrood. If he comes out in favour of PR that’s great news for campaigners and if he doesn’t then it exposes a major hypocrisy that can be easily challenged.

Upgrading Scotland’s electoral system ahead of the 2026 election is a strong possibility. But the campaign for reform must begin now.

You can read more about the flaws of AMS and the alternatives here.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to support the Removal from Office and Recall Bill

Scottish election manifestos: democratic reform pledges compared

Scotland’s five main political parties have unveiled their manifestos for the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving Scottish representative democracy but what have each of the main political parties pledged to do on this issue?

Scottish Greens

The Greens were the first of the five main parties to release their manifesto, launching their plan for Scotland on Wednesday 14 April. The manifesto focuses on green issues, restructuring the economy and Scottish independence. It also has a section on “Local democracy and communities” with the party pledging to:

  • Deliver empowered, genuinely local councils (more powers and an overall restructuring)
  • Oppose Ministerial vetoes over local decisions
  • Promote more diverse local representation
  • More local, democratic ownership
  • Additional participatory democracy with citizens assembly to be formalised at both local and national levels

The Scottish National Party (SNP)

The SNP are expected to remain the largest party at Holyrood and were second to launch their manifesto (Thursday 15 April 2021). The party is pledging to:

  • Create a Citizens’ Assembly for under 16s
  • Extend the entitlement to stand for election to all those entitled to vote
  • Introduce a Local Democracy Bill to further empower local communities and to ensure that decisions are most closest to those who they will impact the most

Scottish Liberal Democrats

Willie Rennie’s Scottish Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto on Friday 16 April, hoping to build on the five MSPs they won in 2016. The party’s manifesto is brimming with policies designed to improve Scottish democracy. The party has pledged to:

  • Introduce a new fiscal framework to improve council funding, as well as more powers for local councils including the ability to set domestic and business taxation areas
  • Create a New Contempt of Parliament rule so minority governments cannot ignore the Scottish Parliament as a whole
  • Replace the Additional Member System with the Single Transferable Vote for Scottish Parliament elections
  • Return to four-year parliamentary terms
  • Work with other parties to further a culture of respect and use the pandemic experience go make Holyrood more flexible and Family friendly
  • Introduce a recall system for MSPs
  • Strengthen and expand the public’s right to information and introduce a new duty to record so the public can access information on important ministerial meetings
  • Increase usage of Citizens’ Assemblies

Scottish Conservatives and Unionists

Scottish Conservatives’ launched their own manifesto on Monday 19 April. The proposal to introduce a recall rule is the most eye-catching of all. The party proposes to:

  • Introduce a recall rule for MSPs (Mackay’s law) – this would allow the public to re MSPs who have broken the law, grossly undermined trust or failed to contribute to parliament for over six months
  • Retain votes at 16 for all Scottish elections
  • Implement a cross-party commission on improving how the Scottish Parliament operates and to improve Scottish Government scrutiny
  • Explore how to modernise the working practices of the Scottish Parliament to make them more suitable for MSPs with young families
  • Cut the cabinet from 12 to six members and freeze MSP and ministerial pay across the next parliament
Douglas Ross MP (by David Woolfall • CC BY 3.0)

Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour were the last of the main five parties in Scotland to launch their manifesto. Anas Sarwar’s party unveiled their policy priorities on Thursday 23 April and are hoping to take second place from the Scottish Conservatives. The party’s main proposals on Scottish democracy are to:

  • Devolve further powers to Holyrood (borrowing and employment rights)
  • Introduce a Clean Up Holyrood Commission
  • Elect Holyrood committee conveners via the whole Scottish Parliament
  • Give Holyrood committees more powers
  • Further devolve powers to local government
  • Introduce a “Right to Space” to ensure communities have places to meet and funding to build the capacity to participate as active citizens

Analysis

Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving representative democracy in Scotland. This blog supports a better voting system for the Scottish Parliament, an end to dual mandates and restrictions on second jobs for MSPs, a return to four-year parliamentary terms, more local democracy and a permanent hybrid parliament even after the pandemic ends, as well as more deliberative democracy where appropriate.

Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats commit to upgrading Scotland’s Additional Member System by replacing it with the Single Transferable Vote. However, it is worth noting that the Greens and the SNP do favour STV as a fairer alternative to AMS.

The Scottish Lib Dems are also the only party committing to a return to four-year parliamentary terms in order to improve frequent democratic accountability.

No parties have pledged to abolish dual mandates although as shown by dual mandate restrictions for Wales and Northern Ireland, this was done by the House of Commons highlighting that this would be a responsibility of Westminster. Therefore such a pledge would likely be out of the scope for manifestos for the Scottish Parliament. That said, the Scottish Lib Dems oppose dual mandates and the SNP’s Alyn Smith MP has proposed a bill on banning dual mandates from Westminster.

The parties all generally pledge to give more powers to local government or reform the way local government operates, which is most welcome, however, this varies from party to party.

Other welcome commitments include recall rules for MSPs in extreme cases (as proposed by the Lib Dems and the Conservatives), as well as more deliberative democracy in the form of citizens assemblies (the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP).

Overall, there are a range of welcome policy proposals from across the parties but whether they will be delivered remains to be seen.

Scottish election 2021: What did each of the parties commit to on electoral reform in 2016?

By Richard Wood

The 2021 Scottish election campaign is underway and the launch of the Alba Party has put the issue of Holyrood’s electoral system in the spotlight. Ahead of manifesto launches this month, we take a look at what the parties said about the Scottish Parliament’s electoral system in 2016?

Scottish National Party (SNP)

The SNP’s 2016 manifesto made no mention of electoral reform at the Scottish Parliament. The party more generally does support the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which would be a welcome alternative to AMS, and has made commitments to STV at Westminster in recent UK General Election manifestos.

However, the party has not made an explicit commitment to STV at Holyrood in any of its Scottish election manifestos since 2003. Let’s hope the party addresses the issue in its 2021 manifesto. And even if they don’t, let’s hope the rise of Alba gets them to address the issue in some capacity.

Scottish Conservatives

Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives leapfrogged Labour to become the second largest party at Holyrood in 2016. For a party that generally supports First Past the Post and resists a switch to Proportional Representation at Westminster, the party has certainly benefited from a form of PR at Holyrood.

Unsurprisingly however, the party made no commitment to electoral system reform in their 2016 election manifesto.

READ MORE: 5 reasons to ban dual mandates

Scottish Labour

Labour has long opposed ditching First Past the Post at Westminster but the party was involved in implementing AMS at Holyrood, which is broadly proportional. The party now has over 200 CLPs in favour of PR and the party’s momentum group recently voted to support a switch to PR at Westminster. The party is clearly moving in the right direction ahead of 2024.

In 2016, Scottish Labour made no mention of electoral system reform at Holyrood but made other welcome pledges to improve Scottish democracy including a ban on MSPs having second jobs and devolution of powers to local communities. Let’s see what they say in 2021.

Scottish Liberal Democrats

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long advocated the Single Transferable Vote as the best form of Proportional Representation. The party’s 2016 manifesto didn’t explicitly address the issue of electoral reform but the party strongly supports it. Their 2021 manifesto is yet to be launched but the party has already made clear that switching from AMS to STV will be part of the party’s policy programme.

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

Scottish Green Party

The Scottish Greens also support the Single Transferable Vote and their 2016 election manifesto included an explicit commitment to reform Holyrood with STV.

A fairer way to elect MSPs. Greens support the use of Single Transferable Vote for future Holyrood elections. This system is already used in local council elections and is more likely to create a diverse parliament that better reflects the views of voters.

Scottish Green Party (2016: 37)

The Greens are therefore likely to include another commitment to STV their upcoming manifesto.

Read more about the need to upgrade Scotland’s voting system here.