FFS explains: The Scottish election system

Ferret Fact Service | Scotland's impartial fact check project

The Scottish Parliamentary election is taking place on 6 May and recent focus has been placed on the unique electoral system that voters use to choose MSPs.

The potential impact of small parties on this election has also been in the news, with high-profile electoral vehicles led by Alex Salmond and George Galloway competing for votes in 2021.

Ferret Fact Service took a look at how the system works, and how different parties are elected in Scotland.

How does our electoral system work?

The system used for elections is called the Additional Members System.

Each elector has two votes they can cast on the ballot paper. The first vote is based on the first past the post, system used in UK Parliament elections. The electorate is given a choice of different people who may or may not be representing a political party, in its local constituency area.

The person who gets the most votes wins and becomes the MSP for that constituency. There are 73 MSPs who are elected this way.

The second vote is known as the regional or list vote and is a form of proportional representation. For this, Scotland is divided up into eight regions, each with seven spots for list MSPs. Electors are given choices of party to vote for. Each party standing in the region will list its candidates. A mathematical formula is used to allocate the votes for each party in each region, and decides how many of those on the list get elected.

Regional candidates are listed in order, so the person at the top of the list will be the first elected, followed by the second, third etc – should the party receive the requisite number of votes.

So how does the formula work?

The system aims to make the number of parliamentarians more representative of the number of votes each party receives.

In a first past the post system, a party can receive a substantial amount of support from the electorate in each constituency and yet have very little representation in parliament. An example of this would be UKIP’s performance in the 2015 general election, when the party received more than 3.8 million votes but only returned a single MP, despite being the third most supported party.

The additional members system aims to avoid such situations by allocating regional list seats through the D’Hondt formula, named after a Belgian mathematician.

This system allocates seats by taking the number of regional votes a party gets, and dividing it by the number of MSPs that party wins within that region, plus one.

For example, if Party A had one MSP elected in the region through the constituency vote, their number of list votes would be divided by two (number of MSPs + 1). So if they received 20,000 list votes, their number would be 10,000.

Let’s say this was higher than the next highest, Party B, who received 8,000 votes and had no MSPs elected in constituencies. Party B’s vote would be divided by 1 (Number of MSPs + 1) and stay the same. Party A would then win the first round and get one MSP elected.

In round two, this MSP would be added to Party A’s calculation, so their 20,000 would now be divided by three (number of MSPs + 1), giving them 6,667. This would be lower than Party B’s number of 8,000, so Party B would get an MSP in the second round. This would continue until all the regional MSP places are assigned.

So how does this help smaller parties in Scotland?

Those who receive a significant number of votes on the list system, but are unlikely to gain enough support to unseat a major party in a constituency can use the list vote to ensure representation. As they will have fewer MSPs elected in constituencies, their vote is not reduced by the D’Hondt system as much as larger parties.

In Scotland, there have been parties who have been regularly represented without any success in constituencies.

The Scottish Greens had six MSPs elected through the regional list in the 2016 election, accounting for all its parliamentary representation. The Scottish Socialist Party had six MSPs elected in 2003 through the regional list.

On 26 March 2021, former first minister Alex Salmond launched the Alba Party, after leaving the SNP in the fallout from sexual assault allegations against him. He stated the party’s intention was to stand on the regional list only, with the aim of maximising the number of independence-supporting MSPs in Scotland. The party will not stand in constituencies to avoid splitting the SNP vote.

In a similar vein, former MP George Galloway, launched Alliance for Unity (now known as All for Unity), an electoral alliance made up of opponents to Scottish independence. It is urging voters to support pro-union candidates in the constituency vote and back All for Unity on the regional list, in order to maximise the anti-independence vote and deny the SNP a majority in parliament.

Both parties endorse votes for other parties on the constituency vote, and are campaigning purely on the list. This is intended to take advantage of the lower threshold required on the list to get elected.

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, and a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Go to ideas.theferret.scot, email us at factcheck@theferret.scot or join our Facebook group.

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