Should I rank all the candidates in the Scottish council elections?

Phil Connor, ERS Scotland Campaigns Officer

Posted on the 25th February 2022

On Thursday 5 May, 2022, voters will go to the polls to elect councillors for each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. This will be the fourth time that Scottish councils will be elected using a proportional system, the Single Transferable Vote (STV). As STV is a ‘preferential’ voting system, voters have the option of showing a preference between all the candidates by ranking as many of the candidates as they wish: 1 for their favourite, 2 for their second, 3 for third and so on. But how many should you rank?

Should I just rank the candidates from my favourite party?

There can be inaccurate information spread around elections, and the purpose of this blog is to debunk the myth that there is any advantage at all in not ranking a candidate in an STV election.

As the name suggests, you have a single vote that is transferable. The power of that vote starts at the candidate you put first, and only moves down to the second preference candidate if the candidate you ranked first has either been elected, or is in last place and stands no hope of being elected. This applies to the rest of your preferences too.

So there is no risk that your vote will help a lower-ranked candidate get elected over one of your higher ranked candidates. And who wouldn’t want to have a say in exactly which councillors will be elected? That’s the beauty of STV – unlike the winner-takes-all FPTP voting system that is used for elections to Westminster, you don’t have to consider using your one vote tactically for the candidate that you think might have a chance of winning. There is no need to hold your nose while voting for someone you dislike but who is not quite as bad as the alternative. With the STV system used for Scottish local government elections, you can never hurt your favourite candidates by numbering further candidates.

What does ‘vote till you boak’ mean?

At the last Scottish local elections, in 2017, the slogan ‘vote til you boak’ gained some traction, implying that you should rank the candidates until you end up at one that is so unappealing you can go no further. While this is a useful way to snappily get the main message across, it doesn’t quite tell the full story, because it implies only voting for all those you like or feel relatively neutral about. Whereas, with STV you can influence the election of all the candidates you put a number next to.

Should I rank candidates from parties I don’t like?

If there is a candidate from a party you disagree with, but who is polite to their opponents, you might want to give them a higher preference than someone with who you both disagree and consider incredibly rude. That low number you give them might be the thing that ensures the worse candidate is defeated.

If you see any encouragement to only vote for a certain party, or candidates with a particular viewpoint, that is equivalent to saying you should give up control of who else might get elected. Certainly, if you want one party to get as many councillors as possible, make sure you give their candidates your top preferences, but feel free to carry on numbering the rest of the candidates – it can help to determine who will (and won’t!) sit alongside your most favoured party, in the local council chamber.

So, what about the question ‘should I rank all the candidates?’ It is of course up to each voter to decide how to use the power of their transferable vote. However, if you want to maximise your impact on the election outcome, it makes sense to keep voting until you genuinely have no preferences between the candidates left on the ballot paper.

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