Scottish election 2021: Will this election see demands for a new voting system?

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried” is the Churchillian quip most often quoted when the root of the UK electoral system is occasionally dug up, examined for signs of life and then replanted.

It’s a remark that makes the war-time leader’s faith in democracy sound flippant, but Winston Churchill also said: “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”

Today those of us who are able will go to polling booths and do just that – put our crosses on a bit of paper in an individual and personal bid to influence which party will form the next Scottish Government.

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However, the manner in which that government is elected is more complex than Churchill ever imagined.

Is it time to ditch the current system for electing MSPs to the Scottish Parliament?Is it time to ditch the current system for electing MSPs to the Scottish Parliament?
Is it time to ditch the current system for electing MSPs to the Scottish Parliament?

Scotland is divided into eight parliamentary regions, each returning a different number of constituency MSPs and seven list MSPs to Holyrood, though a process called the Additional Member System (AMS).

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Voters are faced with two ballot papers, one lilac, one peach.

On the first the cross goes in the box against the name of the person who is standing to be a constituency MSP for the party to which they belong, and the person with the most votes wins.

It’s the same first-past-the-post system as is used in general elections, and it elects 73 of Holyrood’s 129 MSPs. So straightforward, so simple.

Then it gets a bit more complicated. To ensure the parliament is representative of how people voted as a whole – so that votes are not “wasted” – the peach ballot paper allows electors to mark a cross against a party.

It may be the same party as they plumped for on the lilac paper, it may be a different one.

Either way the winning party in the constituency can find itself unlikely to win any additional MSPs on the list as the number of votes is tallied and then divided by how many list seats are available plus an extra one for good measure.

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In this way, other parties receive a share of MSP seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them.

The adoption of AMS came when the parliament was being created in the late 1990s. Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians were keen to mark Holyrood out as different to Westminster and one way to do that was to introduce a form of proportional representation into the voting system, as this would, they thought, ensure that no one party could ever be in the majority.

This, in turn, would force parties to work together for the good of the nation, rather than continually be pitted against one another in a binary system that left much of the electorate feel unrepresented.

Until 2011 that theory held up. Coalitions between Labour and Lib Dems followed, there was a “rainbow parliament” with a host of smaller parties and independents winning seats, then a minority SNP government that relied on the support of the Scottish Conservatives to get its budgets passed.

Alex Salmond’s victory against the odds of AMS in 2011 – a result that ultimately led to the 2014 independence referendum – was put down as a fluke, and indeed Nicola Sturgeon’s failure to repeat that success in 2016 seemed to prove the point.

And yet, this time round the prospect of another SNP majority, even if a slim one, is on the cards, with opinion polls predicting a near clean sweep of the 73 constituency seats across Scotland.

Further, all other opposition parties have been focusing heavily on gaining votes on the peach ballot paper to counter-balance the SNP’s success on the lilac paper.

This includes the new Alba Party – led by Mr Salmond – which hopes to create a “super-majority” of pro-independence MSPS.

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A well-organised bloc of voters could then deliver somewhere near three-quarters of the seats to pro-independence parties in the next Scottish Parliament with less than half the vote.

That idea has caused some consternation and led to accusations that Mr Salmond is attempting to “game” the AMS system. AMS, it seems, has engendered tactical voting of a kind never imagined back in 1997.

Already there have been calls for reform of the election system, something that would need a two-thirds majority vote in the parliament under the Scotland Act, and the Single Transferable Vote – already used in council elections – is generally the one system that is suggested.

This would scrap constituencies and see voters split into regions, and numbering their preferred candidates on the ballot paper.

The strength of the parties should ultimately match the strength of their support in the country and rather than one person representing everyone in a small area, the regions would have a team of MSPs reflecting the diversity of opinions in the area.

Willie Sullivan senior director with the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, says that STV is the preferred option in terms of true proportional representation, and if the Scottish Parliament was starting from scratch, it should be adopted.

However, he adds: “The AMS system works well and is far superior to just first-past-the-post. The test of the system is do the seats won match the vote share?

“In Holyrood, I would say yes. There have been suggestions that the system can be ‘gamed’, but so can any, including STV, so we will need to wait and see what the result of the vote is.

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"If pro-independence parties win 70 per cent of the seats on 50 per cent of the vote, then questions may well have to be asked about reform.”

Certainly at the 2016 election, the proportion of seats to votes worked well for the SNP, which won more than two million votes, 44 per cent of all valid votes cast, and ended up with 63 MSPS – 48 per cent of the 129 seats available.

The Conservatives received just over a million votes, 22.4 per cent of all valid votes and became the second party in Holyrood with 31 MSPs, or 24 per cent of the total seats up for grabs.

The Greens fared the best, however, winning 163,598 votes in total, 3.5 per cent of vote share, but gaining six MSPs, or 4.7 per cent of the seats.

But as Mr Sullivan admits, no system is perfect and this was shown at the same election when Labour received 20.8 per cent of all votes – 950,180 – but just 18 per cent of seats, at 24.

It was even worse for the Liberal Democrats, who after having 297,522 votes cast for them – or 6.5 per cent of vote share – only got five MSPs, or 3.9 per cent of the number of seats available.

Mr Sullivan says: “The system we have brings everyone’s votes into play and while there’s no harm looking at STV and having that debate, let’s wait and see if the system is broken.”

Given the 2016 outcome it is perhaps unsurprising that Willie Rennie, Scottish Lib Dem leader, is proposing a shift from AMS to STV for Holyrood elections – though he puts that down to the prospect of “three nationalist parties arguing with each other” in the next parliamentary term.

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"It would be wrong for, you know, a party that's getting … 45, 50 per cent of the vote, [to be] getting 90 per cent of the seats,” he said. “That would be completely unpalatable.

"So therefore, that's why it should tempt other parties to engage in proper reform on this, rather than using the inertia to hold things back.

“I hope it does encourage others to accept if [gaming the system] is not this time, it might be another time.”

The Scottish Greens meanwhile, who are expected to return a record number of MSPs this year – perhaps as a result of the Alba party awakening independence supporters to the idea of not using both votes for the SNP – back an Open List PR system, which is used in Scandic countries, and allows voters to rank individuals in order of preference rather than just parties, who then choose who tops their list.

It is also an approach favoured by some standing as independents in this election.

The other parties have not said much on the subject of electoral reform – unless it is in reference to Westminster and scrapping first-past-the-post there.

The idea of boosting the pro-unionist vote with the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems coming to some agreement about where they would stand, also died a quick death.

Whether they could be persuaded that it is time for change will depend on the outcome of today’s vote.

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