Vote splitting trick won’t work with Scotland’s Single Transferable Vote

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 4th March 2024

On March 7th voters in Hillhead in Glasgow will be heading to the polls for a council by-election. Among those standing are candidates from the Scottish Greens and Independent Green Voice (IGV) – plenty of choice for environmentally-minded Glaswegians, you might think. But Independent Green Voice is far from what you might expect from the name. 

Independent Green Voice has been called a ‘Fascist front’ by the Scottish Greens. While labels are sometimes thrown around excessively, in this case, IGV’s candidate in this by-election was thrown out of UKIP for questioning the use of gas chambers in the Holocaust. 

 It’s not the first time they have run candidates, in fact in the last set of Scottish Parliamentary elections they ran candidates in the regional list vote, in five Scottish regions. They didn’t release a manifesto, but their candidates won 9,756 votes across Scotland – not enough to get near to having anyone elected, but assuming these voters were confused by the party’s name, enough votes to deprive the Scottish Greens of two extra MSPs. 

We can’t say for sure what the 9,756 voters thought they were doing, or the true nature of Independent Green Voice. But it does remind us of the reason you can’t just call your political party anything you like in the UK.  

The Literal Democrat 

In 1994, the country was getting ready for the European Parliamentary Elections. Back then, elections for the European Parliament were conducted with First Past the Post. In the Devon and East Plymouth constituency, the Liberal Democrats were excited about picking up the seat, but it would be a close-run thing against the Conservatives.   

On a turnout of 236,335, the Conservative candidate won by 700 votes. Glancing down the results though, 10,203 people had voted for Richard Huggett, described as the Literal Democrat 

The result was the eventual passing of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, banning party names designed to cause confusion with voters. The Electoral Commission evidently decided that Independent Green Voice was a sufficiently different name. 

It’s a trick that’s still used around the world though. In 2021, Russian opposition candidate Boris Vishnevsky found that he was standing against two other Boris Vishnevskys, both that looked suspiciously similar to him. 

To split the vote, you need some votes to not matter 

In Devon and East Plymouth, and in the Scottish regions, these small parties with similar names drew sufficient votes away from established parties to cost them seats. 

With First Past the Post, this is because you don’t need to win a majority to get elected, just be the party with the most votes. To get the most votes you can try and win more votes yourself, or try and reduce the amount of votes of your main competitor. But you don’t need to win these votes yourself – as long as your main competitor loses them, it doesn’t matter where they go. 

In Scotland’s regional list election, significantly more votes matter for the end result, as they use proportional representation. But it’s still possible to split the vote, as long as the votes go to very small parties. In any election, even with proportional representation, there are going to be parties that get so few votes that they can’t win representation. 

Are voters set for a repeat in Hillhead? 

So, will voters in Hillhead have to study their ballot papers with more care than usual? Thankfully elections to Scottish councils are conducted via the Single Transferable Vote. The Single Transferable Vote is a system of proportional representation, but with an added benefit. Voters directly elect candidates (rather than voting for a party) by numbering the candidates in order with their favourite at number one, and second favourite and so on. 

If a candidate has so few votes, they will never win election, the candidate is excluded and votes that are sitting with them are transferred to the voter’s second favourite candidate. So rather than the voter wasting their vote, it can come back into play and still make a difference to the result.  

Voters shouldn’t have to spend their time trying to avoid electoral tricks and traps. We need electoral systems that work for voters, not systems voters have to work around.

Do you think we should have a fair and proportional electoral system in Westminster?

Add your name to our call to scrap First Past the Post

Update: The results are in! Had this election been under First Past the Post, IGV would have drawn enough votes away from the Scottish Greens to result in a Labour victory. Labour narrowly beat the Greens on first preferences, by just 14 votes. The Independent Green Voice (IGV) candidate received 133 first-preference votes. But, once all the rounds of transfers were complete, the Greens beat Labour by 187 votes in the final round of counting.

The IGV candidate was eliminated at Stage 3, by which point they had 146 votes. Of these, 55 transferred to the Green candidate; 37 transferred to the SNP candidate; 27 transferred to the Labour candidate; 7 transferred to the Tory candidate and 20 were non-transferrable.

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