Both votes X and wasted votes: is it time to change Scotland’s voting system?
“Both Votes Labour,” voters were urged. “Lend Solidarity your vote on the PEACH paper”, Sheridan roared. Even newcomers were in on the act, asking to make your “2nd Vote Women’s Equality”. The social media Indy-Sphere was all a-twitter with the relative merits of casting your regional vote for the Greens, or whether that was some crafty unionist plot to undermine the SNP. More so than any election since 2003, when the Greens ran their hugely successful “2nd Vote Green” campaign, the mechanics of our electoral system defined the campaign strategies for all parties in this year’s Scottish Parliament election.
The SNP felt their majority was fragile, even in the face of polling suggesting an almost clean sweep of constituencies – and besides, no party willingly concedes votes to another – hence they were pushing a strong “Both Votes SNP” message. Labour, used to seeing significantly less on the list than the constituency vote, knew that this time they couldn’t afford that luxury. And the Greens, although not majoring on the topic, were keen argue that a list vote for the SNP would be unlikely to elect any more MSPs. For many voters this was all a shade bewildering – and for many activists, rather uncomfortable.
So, with all results declared, just who was right? Comically enough, everyone could make quite a convincing argument.
For Labour, they did indeed see their traditional dip on the list. They placed 2nd in the constituency vote, with 22.6%, but only 3rd in the regional, with 19.1%. Had all of their constituency voters followed the party’s advice, they may still have come third but would have suffered a less crushing defeat. So, it’s clear that a failure to go Both Votes Labour cost them dearly.
Likewise, the SNP were stung by a series of surprise constituency losses, and further failed to convert a few seats seemingly ripe for the picking – East Lothian, where former Labour leader Iain Grey was elected on a slender 151 majority in 2011, being the most remarkable. Having failed in spite of all that polling to manage a majority on constituencies alone, their 41.7% of the list vote nationally proved insufficient to recoup their losses. With only two of the eight regions returning any regional SNP MSPs, their argument that the only way to achieve an SNP majority was to give the party both of your votes was somewhat vindicated.
And for the Greens, bitter disappointments in Glasgow, Central and North East regions seemed all the worse with the knowledge that there were over a hundred thousand SNP votes in each region doing absolutely nothing, a mere few thousand of which would have seen Tory and Labour MSPs lose out to some fabulous Green women – Zara Kitson, Kirsten Robb and co-convenor Maggie Chapman.
The fact each party can make a strong case for their own particular interpretation of the Additional Member System (AMS) results should be a sign that the system is inadequate. Interestingly, for all that it’s often said that AMS is “complex” – it’s actually a comparatively simple form of proportional representation – the main problem is instead that it’s unpredictable.
If you are havering about “splitting” your vote between two parties, all you have to go on for the effect that is going to have is gut feel and hearsay, as the exact impact will depend on just how many other voters do the same as you, and you just can’t account for that. So trying to game an AMS result really can be a fool’s errand. It doesn’t help that with a different system for every election we have here, voters can find themselves confused as to which is which!
The most recent Scotland Act grants the Scottish Parliament powers over its own electoral system. Both the SNP and the Greens have a policy that favours the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system, which we currently use for local elections – which seems ideal, as voters are already familiar with it. Although Nicola Sturgeon apparently declared at a hustings the matter wasn’t a priority, with the two parties having a majority, it’s definitely something that could be done. Many of my fellow Greens will know I have been typically – ahem – frosty towards STV for national elections, but the bizarre regional vote shenanigans this election have tipped me towards it.
STV’s main advantage over AMS is that it allows voters to fully and accurately express their feelings on a whole range of parties, with minimal risk of either wasting your vote or “splitting” any particular bloc of voters, be that on a left-right or independence-unionist axis. An SNP voter who quite likes the Greens could give them a later preference, safe in the knowledge that if their preferred pick is overly successful, a portion of their vote would go the Greens. Likewise, a Green minded voter that was worried their vote wouldn’t count could give another party their later preferences, and if the Green candidate was unsuccessful, know they’ll get at least someone they were reasonably keen on once the vote transfers. Voting in STV is dead simple – cliché, but it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.
However, preference systems aren’t entirely the same thing as proportional systems. The complex workings of STV give partial proportionality simply by making it hard to win all the seats, but especially if you’re only using 3-4 member seats, as in our councils, that can still lock out parties with reasonable but evenly spread support. Although with great showings in Glasgow and Lothian we know the Greens 6.6% of the vote would be concentrated enough to return some MSPs under STV, it’s mathematically possible that a more even spread could see that share of the vote return no MSPs whatsoever, whereas even on a bad day AMS would see that translate to a fair few.
With that in mind, my personal preference is for some variant of the open list PR systems used in Scandinavian countries. Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland all have similar electoral systems that produce extremely proportional results. These systems see most MPs (135 in Denmark, for example) elected from multi-member constituencies with the remaining number (40 for the Danes) allocated on the basis of the national vote share for all parties crossing a minimum % of the vote. The clever bit is that those MPs still all represent one of the constituencies – the maths for this can be complicated, but the national result is both easy to understand and representative of the national mood. Again, voting in such a system is as easy as pie – you put a single cross next to either a party meaning you’re happy for them to elect whoever, or a candidate meaning you support both that specific candidate and their party.
When 2021 rolls around, we should be able to look forward to an election campaign fought exclusively on the substantive policies and issues, rather than founded on bickering over how best to try and game the system. Either of the alternatives I’ve talked about could help deliver that, and with established consensus between at least two parties already on some kind of reform, perhaps this can be an early win for round two of minority government in Scotland.