Ten things you should know about how we elect MSPs to the Scottish Parliament

Scotland will vote on Thursday, May 6 2021 to decide the next government of Scotland. Believe in Scotland is non-party political and will never tell people how to vote, however, a lot of myths surround the voting system for Holyrood so this article will explain in simple terms how Scotland elects representatives to the Scottish Parliament.

This will be no run of the mill election as both independence supporting political parties have made a clear commitment to hold a new independence referendum if there is a majority for independence in the new parliament.

An SNP single-party majority (more than 65 MSPs) would replicate the result in 2011 that brought about the 2014 referendum but no one expected that majority result (including the SNP). This time, however, everyone expects the SNP to win and to win big, the only question is by how much, or will they achieve a majority again?  The polls indicate the Scottish Greens also likely to increase representation via the list vote from six in 2016 to around ten, so an independent supporting majority is pretty much a mathematical certainty.

The likelihood of the SNP almost sweeping the board in the first past the post/constituency vote has led to some claiming that a list vote for the SNP is a wasted vote and several parties were formed to stand on the list with a goal of maximising the number of Yes supporting MSPs. Those parties, known as pop-up parties, never looked to have gained enough traction for that plan to work. However, the two major ones have now stood down in favour of the new Alba party, led by former First Minister Alex Salmond.

The only poll so far to have asked people how they will vote thats includes Alba, shows Alba at 3% which, if that were the case on May 6, would mean it would not win any list seats. However, that poll was conducted so soon after the launch of Alba it cannot be seen as definitive. It's also worth stressing that, with a new player and all the coverage that comes with its leader, looking at past results CANNOT give you a reliable indication of what is likely to happen in May. Believe in Scotland has commissioned a poll from a major polling company and we will (at the right time) publish the results in a way that will offer more reliable guidance on the state of the parties. You can be assured that we will use the accepted polling and data weighting methodologies and so our poll will be as credible and definitive as a poll can be.

This article explains how the Holyrood Additional Member System (AMS) actually works.

Ten things you should know about how we elect MSPs to Holyrood

  1. The Additional Member System (AMS) is the electoral system used by the Scottish Parliament to elect MSPs. It’s is a form of proportional representation intended to give political parties a proportionate share of MSPs across Scotland, compared to the percentage of the vote they gain.
  2. This system involves two votes. Voters choose a candidate from a specific party from the names listed on the ballot paper to represent their constituency and the candidate with the most votes will be elected. This element of the Scottish electoral system directly elects 73 MSPs and is based on First Past the Post (FPTP), employed in the UK parliament elections. It is, under FPTP, possible for a party to come second in every single seat in the country and get zero candidates elected, thus FPTP is considered to be a poor system for delivering a just democratic result.
  3. The second vote (the regional or list vote) differs from the first and adopts the AMS. Voters don’t choose a candidate but their preferred political party, to ensure overall representation of each political party is fair and allows for the allocation of 56 ‘additional member’ MSPs. 
  4. After all constituency FPTP votes are elected, seven additional MSPs are allocated to each of the eight parliamentary regions - Central Scotland, Glasgow, Highlands and Islands, Lothians, Mid Scotland and Fife, North East Scotland, South Scotland and West Scotland - to make the overall representation proportionately fair.
  5. Each party has its own selection process for the list and agrees in advance which candidates will accept the first list seat allocated to their party
  1. List seats are allocated by counting the second/list votes for each party in each region and dividing those votes by one plus the number of seats the party gained in the FPTP elections.
    • So if Party A won two constituency seats under FPTP and gained 100,000 list votes they have 33,333 list votes to compare to the other parties.
    • If Party A wins the first of the allocated list seats when it comes to allocating the second list seat from that region their 100,000 list votes are now divided by four (the three MSPs they now have elected in that region plus one) so they only have 25,000 votes counting in the second round. 
    • If Party B had 110,000 list votes but three FPTP MSPs they would have 27,500 list votes that count (the three FPTP MSPs elected in that region plus one) and so although they were beaten by Party A in round one in round two Party B would win the next available list seat and so on until all the seven list seats are allocated from that region.
  1. For larger parties such as the SNP, the regional vote can still be crucial. In 2011 the SNP won 53 constituency seats via the FPTP vote. However, it was the list vote that gave the SNP a parliamentary majority, resulting in the SNP gaining a further 16 seats taking the party to a total of 69 MSPs and a majority in parliament. Therefore, the SNP has always and will always encourage voters to make both their first and second vote in favour of the SNP. The significance of the regional vote is clear and should be considered as a form of democratic insurance in the election process.
  2. Political parties that fail to use AMS properly can pay a heavy price. Indeed, in the 2011 Scottish Elections, the Labour party faced drastic consequences by not standing key candidates as additional members, assuming they would all win their seats. Ultimately many leading Labour MSPs that had served since 1999 lost their seats to the SNP and, after being replaced by SNP MSPs, did not succeed in getting re-elected.
  3. The regional vote is also critical for smaller parties of Scotland. The Scottish Greens for example gain a lot of votes but never enough (so far) to unseat the leading parties in any of the FTPT elections. But they can gain seats via the list vote. The D’Hondt method that is used to calculate representation in the AMS, counts 100% of their list votes as they have no FPTP MSPs meaning their list vote is only divided by one until they get an MSP elected. In the 2016 election, the Scottish Green party had six MSPs elected through the list vote, accounting for the party’s entire parliamentary representation.
  4. Any party that has a chance of or wants to be seen as having a chance of forming a future Scottish Government will demand members and supporters give both votes to their party. There are no alliances and if a party stands against another party in the list vote then they are opponents. The large parties see the list as insurance against not winning a FPTP seat because of some unexpected result and they will not give up that insurance willingly. The Scottish Greens stand some high profile candidates on the FPTP ballot as they believe that will mean more people will remember to vote for them on the list. Regardless of the situation in the other electoral regions, all polling indicates that the SNP will need list seats in South Scotland and Highlands and Islands to form a single-party majority, which is their aim.

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The AMS is a fairer electoral system than the FPTP system used for UK general elections. It is incorrect to say list votes are wasted if they don’t elect a candidate from your party because your party has won FPTP seats. The party itself will want those list votes as insurance and doesn’t want opposition MSPs. SNP supporters who think the AMS system doesn't work for them should also remember that in the first Scottish Parliament elections the SNP won on seven FPTP seats and 28 list seats for a total of 35 SNP MSPs and that those list MSPs, their wages and staffing budgets transformed the SNP into the party that is currently dominant in Scotland. No AMS - no 2014 referendum and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon herself relied on the list vote between 1999 and 2007 to be elected.

There is, however, a mathematical argument that representation of independence supporting MSPs can be boosted in some regions by SNP voters giving their second vote to another party on the list. Indeed the Greens may well benefit significantly from SNP voters feeling the SNP doesn’t need insurance in its electoral region. Adding more list parties means the Yes vote on the list will be diluted but with a major political figure leading a third list party, it is just possible they will be able to get enough votes to get some candidates elected. Polling may suggest this is not the case but it is too early to tell yet; the BiS poll will be more definitive and that will help people to make up their minds.

By Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp