Scottish election 2021: What is a peach vote? Why the parties want your second vote

On Thursday voters will be handed two ballot papers when they enter their socially-distanced polling stations.

The first is a lilac shade and on it will be, in alphabetical order, the names of the candidates and the parties to which they belong.

Enough crosses against the name of one candidate compared to the others and that person will be elected as the constituency MSP.

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The second ballot is peach-coloured, and it is this, in some cases very lengthy, sheet of paper to which all parties have turned their attention in the last few days of the campaign.

What is the ‘peach vote’ in the Scottish Election?

The peach vote elects the “additional members” for the eight electoral regions.

There are no individuals names on there, just those of the parties, and the list can run the gamut from the Abolish the Scottish Parliament party to UKIP.

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Piles of lilac and peach ballot papers at a Scottish Parliamentary election count.Piles of lilac and peach ballot papers at a Scottish Parliamentary election count.
Piles of lilac and peach ballot papers at a Scottish Parliamentary election count.

However, the reason the parties, particularly those in opposition to the SNP are courting the peach vote is because they are allocated a number of MSPs depending on how many votes they receive, once the number of constituencies already won in that region is taken into account, in the aim to make the overall result more proportional.

Given the opinion polls are suggesting a dominance of the 73 constituencies for the SNP, the percentage share of the vote on the peach ballot has suddenly become even more vital for parties to ensure they return MSPs in any kind of numbers.

For unless a party wins at least 5 per cent of the peach vote, it is unlikely to win any of the 56 regional party list slots at all.

What the parties are saying

The Conservatives are being particularly blatant about their scheme to get the peach votes – on a giant billboard they proclaim “How to Stop Indyref2 – Peach Ballot Vote Conservative”, while party leader Douglas Ross has claimed that “only by using your peach ballot for the Scottish Conservatives can you guarantee that the next Scottish Parliament will be 100 per cent focused on recovering from Covid”.

Labour has been similarly overt, with party leader Anas Sarwar launching a peach-coloured campaign bus to call for people to use their second votes for his party.

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Labour MP Ian Murray has said: “If you want a country focused on what unites us, not what divides us, then use your second vote, on the peach ballot paper, to back Anas Sarwar and Labour’s national recovery plan.”

Interestingly Scotland’s top polling expert, Professor John Curtice, has already said the numbers are showing the Scottish Conservatives could gain from peach votes, with pro-UK voters tactically voting with their list ballots to prevent an SNP majority.

Indeed, he has said that more than one in seven Labour voters – around 15 per cent – intends to lend their list votes to the Scottish Conservatives.

Scottish Lib Dems leader Willie Rennie is slightly less catastrophic in his rhetoric for the second vote, saying: “The peach ballot paper is a proportional voting system so every vote counts to put recovery first.”

Interestingly the Scottish Greens, who are standing in 12 constituencies this time as well as on the list, have said very little about the peach ballot paper at all, despite it being where the party picks up the majority of its votes and MSPs.

And while the SNP has been very much focused on encouraging people to vote for it on both the lilac and peach papers, there is a flaw in that argument for pro-independence supporters – one that is being highlighted by the new Alba Party, which is encouraging those who favour independence to vote SNP in the constituency – on the lilac paper – and for it on the peach paper.

How does the regional list vote work?

The reasoning goes that because the total votes received by a party on the regional list is divided by the number of candidates, it gets elected at a constituency level + 1, this reduces the votes a party gets at the regional level.

For instance, in the 2016 election in Lothian, the SNP won six of the nine constituency seats, with the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats each winning one.

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And while on the peach vote the SNP won a total of 118,546 votes – the highest number for any party – those votes were divided by seven (the six constituency seats won + 1), which saw that number reduced to 16,935, resulting in no SNP list MSPs.

This, claims Alba, is why people who want a second independence referendum should vote for it with their peach vote, as they are not standing in the constituencies and so will not see their vote numbers reduced similarly.

The Conservatives did well out of the peach vote that year in Lothian as it only won one constituency – so the 74,972 votes cast for the party on the list was divided by two.

As a result it had the highest number of peach votes at 37,486, so it had its first list MSP elected.

On the second round of similar calculations, the Greens had the highest share of the peach vote at 34,551 so the party had its first MSP elected. This process of recalculating the votes continued until all seven Lothian list MSPs were elected, which ultimately saw three Conservatives, two Greens and two Labour MSPs elected.

The system, while far more proportionate than the system for Westminster elections, does have its detractors, with complaints that it is too complicated for voters to understand and therefore properly influence, plus it is up to the parties who actually gets elected as they draw up a list of preferred individuals, while the voter only sees the party name.

But without a doubt, this year each second vote will be made to count more than ever before, and these final few days of the election campaign will see the parties’ focus on the peach paper preferences like never before.

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