Leader: Case for voting reform is up against tricky questions

IT SHOULD be the priority of an electoral system that the outcome reflects as accurately as possible the proportion in which votes are cast. A challenging paper reflecting on the results of the May 2011 election to Holyrood, co-authored by the Electoral Reform Society and the country’s acknowledged polling expert Professor John Curtice, raises tough questions here.

There should be, the paper argues, a more proportional system and one less likely to deliver an overall majority. It calls for a change in the way that MSPs are elected and suggests an alternative to the additional member system. One proposal is to elect list MSPs from one Scotland-wide list rather than through a series of regions such as South of Scotland or the North East, with individual constituencies continuing to send members to Holyrood.

Another option suggested is a system of regional proportional representation used in countries such as Norway and Sweden, where the number of seats won by a party is proportional to the number of votes secured on the regional lists.

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The report’s unease over the current system springs from its evident dislike of outcomes that give one party an overall majority, and in particular the outcome of the May election, by which the SNP, which secured less than 50 per cent of the “list” vote, won more than half the seats in the parliament. Two points immediately arise. The first is whether the electoral system should be reformed in such a way as to make an overall majority even more difficult to achieve than the present arrangement specifically designed to make it so.

If voters’ preferences are such as to deliver a strong majority of votes for one particular party, it would be a perverse system that translated such a decisive preference into a minority government. This might be the very result from which voters, for one reason or another, were expressing a desire to escape. The present system was not intended to make an overall majority impossible as such, but rather to set hurdles for such an outcome so that the country was not saddled with an administration allowed to run roughshod over the views and interests of minority parties.

There is a second question. Can, or even should, an electoral system seek to compensate for the evident political weakness of unsuccessful parties? The May result reflected an unlikely convergence of political factors: the rout of the Liberal Democrats in the wake of the Westminster coalition deal with the Conservatives; and an absence of opposition leadership capable of matching the stature, appeal and political acumen of SNP leader Alex Salmond. Was the outcome the result of a technically flawed or perverse voting system, or the clear preference of voters when confronted with the choices before them?

Prof Curtice has set important and searching questions deserving of discussion. But the case for reform needs greater exploration.