Analysis: Police and Crime Commissioners and the Supplementary Vote

Author:
Michela Palese, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 19th August 2021

The re-run of May’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) election in Wiltshire and Swindon takes place on the 19th August, after the winning candidate was disbarred due to a historical driving conviction. The original election had taken place as part of the third round of PCC elections in 38 police authority areas across England and Wales.

What are PCCs?

The role of Police and Crime Commissioners was created in 2011 with the aim of strengthening local accountability and giving the public a direct say on how their streets are policed. PCCs replaced police authorities and have taken the role of police governance, police oversight, and the commissioning of police services, putting them into the hands of elected officials.

In some areas, PCCs have also taken on the governance of the local fire and rescue service – in Essex, Staffordshire, Northamptonshire and West Mercia there are now ‘Police, Fire and Crime Commissioners’.

Since their introduction, there have been some concerns with the PCC model – first and foremost the poor public understanding of and engagement with PCCs.

How are PCCs elected?

The first-ever PCC elections were held in 2012 across England (except London) and Wales. Turnout was just 15.1 percent – the lowest recorded level of participation at a peacetime, non-local government election in the UK. Turnout slightly increased in the following rounds of elections, averaging at 25.2 percent in 2016 and 33.2 percent in 2021, although it is still much lower than the turnout of 67.3 percent recorded at the 2019 general election.

Police and Crime Commissioners are elected using the Supplementary Vote (SV) – a preferential voting system also used for mayoral elections in England. Elections take place every four years and PCCs can serve a maximum of two terms.

Under the Supplementary Vote, voters can express a first and second preference for their two preferred candidates, though they do not have to mark a second preference if they do not have one.

If a candidate obtains more than 50 percent of the vote, they are elected on the basis of first preferences alone. If no candidate obtains more than 50 percent of the vote, the two candidates with the most votes in the first round proceed to a second, ‘run-off’ round, while all other candidates are eliminated. In the run-off, the second preferences of voters whose first-choice candidate was eliminated, are reallocated. The candidate with the most votes at the end of the second round is declared the winner.

The Supplementary Vote means politicians need a wider base of support than under First Past the Post, with the winning candidate having 50 percent or more of votes in the second round.

Comparing electoral systems

In March this year, the Home Secretary announced that the voting system used in elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (along with that of combined authority mayors and the mayor of London) would be changed, through primary legislation, from the Supplementary Vote to First Past the Post (FPTP), on the grounds that this would supposedly provide ‘for strong and clear local accountability’.

Despite its limitations – e.g. not allowing voters to rank candidates all in order of preference, unlike the Alternative Vote – the Supplementary Vote is an improvement on First Past the Post. Under SV, first preference votes cast for the runner-up and second preferences for both remaining candidates are not ‘wasted’, as they affect who goes to the run-off and thus the final outcome of the election. Second preference votes cast for the eventual winner count towards electing that candidate. Fewer votes do not count at all towards the election under the Supplementary Vote.

To understand how SV can ensure more votes count in an election than FPTP, one can look at the total number of preferences that went to winning candidates and runners-up in the PCC elections, as well as how SV ensures that the winner has at least 50 percent of the vote in the second round. Of the 120 total PCC contests held to date, three were de facto FPTP contests (only two candidates stood) while 21 contests were won on the basis of first preferences alone. These and the Wiltshire contest that is being re-run are excluded from the analysis below, which includes the remaining 95 contests.

The table below aggregates first and second preference votes across the 95 PCC elections held under SV which were not won in the first round and which did not have only two candidates. As is shown, by allowing the transfer of second preferences, the eventual winner under SV has the support of a larger swathe of the electorate than they would have had under FPTP. The column on the far right shows the number of second preference votes cast for the remaining two candidates in the run-off which affect the second round of the election, with more voters’ preferences being taken into account than would be the case under FPTP (where voters can only vote for their preferred choice).

Type of election First preferences for winner under SV/FPTP* First and second preferences for winner under SV Second preferences for remaining two candidates under SV
PCCs 2012 1,562,533/1,577,243 1,983,579 721,774
PCCs 2016 3,034,092 3,727,662 1,245,555
PCCs 2021 3,512,832/3,519,749 4,066,272 1,189,643

These figures relate solely to elections held under SV (thus excluding de facto FPTP contests) and exclude elections which were won on the basis of first preferences alone.

* Ten contests would have resulted in a different winner if they had been held under FPTP. First preferences for winners for elections which would have resulted in a different outcome under FPTP have two different totals, as the FPTP totals reflect the first preferences which would have gone to the different winner.

In addition to allowing voters to express two preferences, if they wish to, and to ensuring the winning candidate has broader support than under FPTP, the Supplementary Vote guarantees that the winning candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote in the second round. Unlike other transferable and preferential voting systems, this is far from perfect, as the winning candidate’s vote share at the end of the second round does not necessarily represent a majority of the overall vote share. But it is still an improvement on FPTP, where the winner only needs to receive one vote more than the runner-up and can win on a very small plurality of the vote.

The table below aggregates the average, lowest and highest vote shares under FPTP, on the basis of first preferences alone, and SV in the second round. While these figures are not directly comparable – given that, for FPTP, they refer to the winner’s share of the vote as a proportion of first preferences alone, whereas the SV figures relate to the winner’s share of the vote in the second round of the election only – under SV, the winning candidate can at least claim to have received a majority of first and second preference votes cast for the two remaining candidates in the run-off.

Type of election Average vote share of winner under FPTP (first preferences) Lowest/highest vote share of winner under FPTP (first preferences) Average vote share of winner under SV (second round) Lowest/highest vote share of winner under SV (second round)
PCCs 2012 36.4% 24.8%/48.4% 57.2% 51.3%/67.8%
PCCs 2016 38% 24.4%/49.9% 58.1% 50.5%/68.1%
PCCs 2021 43.6% 31.6%/49.97% 57.4% 51.0%/68.2%

As in the previous table, figures relate solely to elections held under SV (not de facto FPTP, when there are only two candidates) and exclude elections won on the basis of first preferences alone. For the 10 elections which would have had a different outcome under FPTP, the vote share of the FPTP (not SV) winner is used for the FPTP results (third column from the left).

While being far from perfect, the Supplementary Vote is an improvement on FPTP, where the winner only needs to receive one vote more than the runner-up and can win on a very small plurality of the vote. The Supplementary Vote means politicians need a wider base of support than First Past the Post and, given they must obtain at least 50 percent of votes in the second round, can claim a larger democratic mandate than under FPTP, where candidates often win on a small plurality of the vote. Indeed, SV is viewed as encouraging a more positive style of campaigning as candidates desire the second preferences of third parties.

Changing the Supplementary Vote to First Past the Post would be a backwards step – rather than providing ‘strong accountability’, as the Home Secretary stated, it would reduce voter choice and democratic representation.

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