We welcome the Welsh Government’s consultation on the draft rules for local government elections using the single transferable vote (STV) system. The option for councils in Wales to now move to STV is one that we fully support having seen significant issues with the local elections run under First Past the Post (FPTP). These have ranged from a large number of uncontested seats to disproportionate results, as detailed in our Time for Change report of the 2022 Welsh local elections.
However, we remain concerned at the permissive nature of this, and have outlined our concerns in full in response to question 13 of the consultation. Our responses to the full consultation questions are below.
Question 1: Do you agree that the draft STV Rules should only include the option of manual counting, omitting the option of electronic counting?
The proposal within the consultation document that only manual counting should be put in place for STV rules, at this stage, underpins many of the other aspects of the rules; not least reducing options around the ordering of candidates on ballot papers and the transferring of surplus votes. We consider this to be suboptimal.
While manual counting is a valid option and used in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, we are concerned that this could be seen as another barrier to moving to STV by existing councillors or future candidates who don’t want to wait two to three days for election results. The experience of electronic counting in Scotland has been very smooth with results now published on the day of the count, and while we recognise there is a cost associated with this, we believe that this is a worthwhile investment in reassuring councillors of the ease with which STV can be implemented.
There is also an argument that electronic counting could result in increased confidence of the legitimacy of the results. The Implementation of a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for local elections in Wales report featured a number of quotes from interviewees in support of this, including an election official in Scotland who commented on a count in Northern Ireland saying “I marvel at those officials who manage to deliver a result that people accepted as accurate, but that count [in North Antrim] took nearly two days […] if there was a feeling for a new system, you don’t want it to start like this”.
Another interviewee commented “you get a live tally of the bar charts appearing, so early on you get sight of how the preferences are distributing. You also get data afterwards, that’s 100% accurate to the polling place.” We believe this to be an important element in the case for electronic counting and have seen the benefits first hand of having such granular detail in terms of the results of an STV election.
While there is a risk in electronic counting of a technical glitch or systems failure we are confident that learning can be taken from Scotland’s experiences in 2012 to avoid any issues during implementation in Wales.
We also do not agree that electronic counting adds a layer of complexity when counting community and principal council elections. There would be an element of complexity with community councils using FPTP systems and a principal council moving to STV, but electronic counting would make things simpler and more efficient in comparison to the manual counting of an STV election.
In terms of the costs associated with introducing electronic counting in an STV election in Wales, especially with a small number of authorities potentially moving to STV, we would urge the Welsh Government to consider the cost of training staff and having venues open for longer under the alternative manual system. Manual counting does not come without its costs and paying for electronic counting machines may be worthwhile in increasing confidence in the results from candidates and improving the efficiency of counts.
Finally, the reality of permissive PR in Wales, as we detail in our response to question 13 is one of barriers stacked against councils who wish to make this change. A commitment to manual counting could potentially be yet another barrier to councillors considering making the change of voting systems. Councillors will not want to be explaining to voters that results might take days and that detailed data might be missing. The Welsh Government should be investing in decisions relating to STV that reduce the barriers for councils looking to make the change, not add to them.
Question 1b: Should rules that allow for electronic counting be prepared for future elections, in time for local elections held after 2027?
Yes, we would support the introduction of electronic counting in Wales for subsequent elections if 2027 is not feasible.
Question 2: Do you agree that the current requirement to list candidates alphabetically by surname should not be changed?
ERS supports either alphabetical or random ordering on ballot papers. Given the plans to use manual counting, listing candidates alphabetically makes sense. We would also support randomisation in the event of electronic counting.
While we support alphabetical list ordering it is worth parties considering how they can effectively campaign to overcome any issues with alphabetical voting from voters. Alphabetical voting has been more evident in Scotland than other nations. Dr James Gilmour has written on this issue and found that Scotland faced this issue due to political parties taking a “safety first” approach” where they “nominate in each ward only the numbers of candidates they expect to win seats.” Looking at elections in Malta, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland he found only evidence of alphabetical voting where a smaller number of candidates were nominated.
We therefore believe this to be a challenge to the parties to have good vote-management processes. Indeed when parties field more candidates it actually gives increased choice to voters, which is a good thing.
As such, we don’t believe the current requirement to list candidates alphabetically should be amended, particularly if plans continue for manual counting.
Question 3: Do you agree that the guidance to voters explains clearly how they should mark the ballot paper in an election under STV? If no, please suggest improvements.
The guidance to voters in the draft is relatively clear in explaining to voters how to mark the ballot paper in an STV election but we do have minor suggestions for improvements. In terms of the guidance to voters we have considered the following:
- amendment of part 3 of schedule 1 to the 2021 rules
- the ballot papers and guidance to voters detailed in the amended schedules from page 50.
In terms of the guidance to voters presented in the schedules 2-8 we have concerns about the interchangeable use of the words ‘numbers’ and ‘figures’ when providing guidance to voters on how to cast their vote under STV. We feel that ‘numbers’ is clearer to voters and the guidance on page 63 should be amended.
We are also aware that the Scottish local election ballot papers include the number of seats up for election. The Welsh Government should consider the benefits of including this, particularly in areas where voters are used to single member wards.
The guidance to voters will be crucially important to ensure voters feel confident in casting their vote under a new system. However, it is worth noting that a wider communications campaign will be required in the event a local authority moves to the STV system, especially if a patchwork of systems then exists. Voters should not find out about the change in voting system for the first time at the polling station.
We would urge the Welsh Government to support the relevant local authorities and others such as the Electoral Commission to deliver an effective awareness raising campaign ahead of election day. Parties will also have a role to play in this and should seek to learn from how parties campaign under STV in other parts of the UK.
Question 4a: Do you agree with our choice of the Droop quota?
We agree with the choice to use the Droop quota as part of the process of counting votes under STV.
Question 4b: Do you agree that the steps for calculating the quota as set out in Rule 60H and 64L are sufficiently clear?
We agree that the steps for calculating the quota as set out in Rule 60H and 64L are sufficiently clear. It might also be useful for returning officers to see the quota set out as it is in the consultation document, as copied below. We would imagine that additional information would be circulated to returning officers based on these rules ahead of any STV election. It may be worth engaging with electoral stakeholders to discuss the most accessible formats for this information to be presented.
Question 5: Do you agree that the rules about the transfer of surplus votes are sufficiently clear?
We are concerned that step three of the rules about the transfer of surplus votes is unclear. Our main concern is that it is unclear how step three should be implemented. We feel that examples would be useful in terms of guidance for Returning Officers and a simplification of the language in step three would be helpful.
The rules in Northern Ireland state that:
(7) The vote on each ballot paper transferred under paragraph (6) shall be at—
(a) a transfer value calculated as set out in sub-paragraph (b) of paragraph (4), or
(b) at the value at which that vote was received by the candidate from whom it is now being transferred, whichever is the less.
It is worth considering the wording of the Northern Ireland rules, however in both instances we believe clear guidance is required to support Returning Officers in transferring surplus votes.
ERS supports the use of the simple gregory method used in Northern Irish elections. In the event that electronic counting is introduced, which we would advocate for, we would also support the weighted inclusive gregory method.
Question 6: Do you agree the transfer of surplus votes should not take place where it cannot make any material difference to the prospects of the continuing candidate with the lowest number of votes?
While we understand why returning officers would want to avoid continuing counting when all positions have been filled, this does raise concerns around casual vacancies.
The Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform concluded in their discussion of casual vacancies under STV that countback should be used.
They proposed a by-election only in the event of no remaining candidates for the party who are eligible or willing to serve, saying:
“To this end, we propose that casual vacancies should be filled as follows:
- Countback of the original election, taking account only of candidates standing for the party represented by the outgoing Member at the time of the original election;
- If there are no remaining candidates for the party who are eligible or willing to serve, or if the outgoing Member originally stood as an independent, a by-election should be held.”
There is a limitation with the rules as drafted for last vacancies in the event a seat does become vacant following an election. The draft rules should be amended to consider casual vacancies and reflect on the Expert Panel’s conclusions.
Question 7: Do you agree that the rules about the exclusion of candidates and the subsequent transfer of votes are sufficiently clear?
We are content that the rules are in line with other STV rules across the UK.
Question 8: Do you agree that the draft STV Rules are sufficiently clear about the circumstances under which a ballot paper becomes non-transferable?
The circumstances under which a ballot paper becomes non-transferable should also explicitly include where a ballot paper has no further preference given.
Question 9: Do you agree that the draft STV Rules are sufficiently clear about the provision for filling last vacancies?
The draft rules are clear about the provision for filling last vacancies, however the rules are unclear about what happens in the event of a casual vacancy. Our answer to question 6 details our concerns around this further.
Question 10: Do you agree that in elections conducted using STV, a re-count may be requested in respect of the last completed stage of the count only?
This is another consequence of the decision to use only manual counting for STV elections in Wales. While this system works successfully in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland we are concerned about the perception from candidates and voters that they can have less oversight of the election results.
One of the benefits of electronic counting in Scotland is the provision of detailed stage by stage data alongside the final results. As we have already referenced in our response to question 1 this is evidenced by the Implementation of an STV election research report, where an interviewee specifically referenced the live tally of bar charts and the data provided after the count is complete.
This data would go a long way to improving confidence in a new voting system. Electronic counting also provides for much faster recounts, which are not limited to a single stage.
While we recognise that the time constraints associated with manual counting do limit the extent of the recount that can take place, we believe that there are much better options in terms of recounts and the transparency of data where electronic counting is used.
Question 11: We would like to know your views on the effects that the draft STV rules would have on the Welsh language, specifically on opportunities for people to use Welsh and on treating the Welsh language no less favourably than English.
What effects do you think there would be? How could positive effects be increased, or negative effects be mitigated?
Question 12: Please also explain how you believe the rules could be changed so as to have positive effects or increased positive effects on opportunities for people to use the Welsh language and on treating the Welsh language no less favourably than the English language, and no adverse effects on opportunities for people to use the Welsh language and on treating the Welsh language no less favourably than the English language.
Question 13: We have asked a number of specific questions. If you have any related issues which we have not specifically addressed, please use this space to report them.
While we very much welcome the moves towards STV in Wales and this now being an option for councils in Wales, we remain of the view that the permissive nature of this presents significant barriers.
We have been undertaking a significant piece of work with councillors for the past two years, surveying them, meeting with them and hearing their concerns. Many councillors in Wales are supportive of the change but have told us that they would not like their council to make the change alone.
The move is also disadvantaged by the lack of information from the Welsh Government on STV and the process to change voting systems.
It is clear that the onus on individual councils to vote to move to STV puts significant barriers in place, in terms of both capacity and finance. Councils moving to STV will have to invest in stakeholder engagement, communications prior to an election and additional costs will be incurred with manual counting as discussed in our answer to question 1. Meanwhile, councils that stick with the disproportionate first past the post system will not incur any new costs.
As such, we believe under the current arrangements the Welsh Government should consider how they support councils to move to a fairer electoral system. One option could be a pilot pot of funding to support the first councils to change systems ahead of the 2027 elections and cover the costs associated. We believe that if permissive PR is going to work, councils sticking with FPTP will need to see the positive effects of changing to STV from other councils who can lead the way and there needs to be no material disadvantage to councils making this positive change to STV.
We also remain of the view that the best way to reform local democracy in Wales is for all local authorities to move to using STV for their local elections at the same time, as happened in Scotland for their 2007 local authority elections.
 https://www.gov.wales/sites/default/files/statistics-and-research/2021-03/implementation-of-a-single-transferable-vote-system-for-local-elections-in-wales.pdf, p27
 Ibid, p28.
 https://senedd.wales/how-we-work/our-role/future-senedd-reform/expert-panel-on-electoral-reform/, p138.
 https://www.gov.wales/sites/default/files/statistics-and-research/2021-03/implementation-of-a-single-transferable-vote-system-for-local-elections-in-wales.pdf, p28