How May’s elections for the Scottish Parliament will work

Federico Scolari, Former Student Placement

Posted on the 19th April 2021

Among the wave of elections that will be held on 6 May, voters across Scotland will be called to elect 129 members of the devolved Scottish Parliament for the sixth time in its history.

The Scottish Parliament passes laws on crucial areas of local government, including health, education and transport- as well as some influence on tax and welfare benefits.

Anyone with a Scottish address, registered to vote and aged 16 and over is eligible to vote.

In 2015, Scotland championed the votes at 16 campaign by extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, allowing more than 100,000 young people to have their say in both parliamentary and local council elections.

Scotland’s voting system

Elections for the Scottish Parliament employ the Additional Member System (AMS), which uses a mix of First Past the Post (FPTP) and Party List proportional representation.

73 constituency MSPs are elected from the Westminster-style FPTP ballot paper. The candidate with most votes is elected for each constituency, irrespective of vote share.

56 ‘list’ MSPs (the so-called additional members) are then added from a second ballot paper that includes a list of parties. Additional members are added based on the number of seats a party has won in the first ballot versus their overall vote share, in order to make parliament more proportional and match how voters preferences.

A proportional compromise?

The second ballot paper ensures greater representation, which compensates for the ailments of FPTP. The proportional element is intended to override any disproportionality created by the majoritarian nature of the constituency seats, providing a more proportional parliament while also keeping a single local MSP.

General Elections 2019 (FPTP) vs. Scottish Parliament Elections 2016 (AMS)

Our 2019 report on General Elections shone a light on those voters left voiceless due to disproportionate voting systems- with Scotland delivering some of the most disproportionate results across the UK for Westminster elections.

Under pure FPTP, the Scottish National Party performance was highly disproportionate, with a 22 percentage point increase in seats for an eight-point increase in votes. Some precarious victories occurred, with slim majorities in seats where more than two parties had substantial support.

Contrarily, the 2016 parliamentary elections saw the most proportional results to date under the AMS, which is a substantial improvement over pure FPTP. If the Scottish Parliament elections were conducted under FPTP we’d see one-party domination across Scotland with supporters of the other parties losing out.

Voting Intentions

The most recent polls show the SNP -currently in power- boasting a considerable lead over both Conservatives and Labour. The only notable change from the 2016 elections results sees the Greens gaining some ground over Lib Dems.

Differing areas of political debate include the potential for a new referendum for Scottish independence, post-pandemic economic recovery, climate change policies and more.

The Alba Party

There has been much talk of the launch of Alex Salmond’s pro-independence party, seen by many as an attempt to ‘game’ the AMS system to secure a disproportionate result in favour of pro-independence parties.

Alba, which is only contesting list seats, is pitching itself to pro-independence SNP voters who, due to the SNP’s dominance in the constituency seats, might see their list vote wasted.

But if Alba succeeded in this it’s not because they gamed the system but because enough voters supported them.  if a party is popular enough to pick up a decent level of support on the List vote and gain seats, like the Greens did in 2016 and look like doing again, then it isn’t really ‘gaming the system’. The system is designed to provide fair representation for supporters of parties who would not be properly represented under FPTP.

Polls show that it is far from certain that Alba will receive enough support to pick up List seats but ultimately that is a matter for the voters of Scotland to determine, one way or the other.

A more representative system

As Scottish voters prepare to go to the polls in May they can do so knowing that their vote will count and the parliament elected will be representative – a luxury most voters in England don’t have at this election. And now, after 20 years of PR in Scotland surely it’s time Westminster caught up and ensured that voters in England could vote with the same peace of mind.

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