This year’s Holyrood election is both unusual and crucial – unusual because of the pandemic, crucial because of the behaviour of the Westminster government.

YEA is explicitly non-party-political, so we will not be endorsing particular parties or candidates.  We do, however, urge you to use your vote, whether postally or in person.  The turnout of just under 56% in 2016 was disappointing. If we value our Parliament, we need to participate in choosing its members.

We hope this guide will help to explain the system – Summary sections are included for anyone who would rather not read it all.

Step 1 – make sure you are registered to vote

The deadline for registering to vote is Monday 19 April. Application for a postal vote must be done by midnight on Tuesday 6 April. A non-emergency proxy vote can be applied for up until 5pm on Tuesday 27 April; for postal proxies the deadline is 5pm on Tuesday 6 April. Emergency proxies can be applied for up until 5pm on polling day Thursday 6 May. Postal votes can be handed in on May 6 at the polling station where the voter is registered if they have not been returned by post earlier.

For the first time, all foreign nationals living in Scotland, with leave to remain or not requiring such leave, can register to vote.

Yes East Ayrshire hopes that everyone reading this will be intending to cast #Both Votes Yes.

Step 2 – the vote itself

Scotland is blessed/cursed with a different electoral system for each type of election – First Past the Post (FPTP) for Westminster, Single Transferrable Vote (STV) for council elections, and the Additional Member System (AMS) for Holyrood.

There are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament.

In the upcoming election, each voter will be issued with two ballot papers, printed on paper of different colours to make them easy to distinguish. These are NOT first and second preferences, despite the fact that they are often referred to as “first vote” and “second vote”!

Voters can use both papers, or only one, and the choice made on one does not constrain the choice made on the other. Each paper must be placed in the appropriate ballot box; they are then counted completely separately.

One ballot is for a constituency MSP.  Scotland is divided into 73 constituencies, each of which returns one MSP, using First Past the Post. The ballot paper will list the names of the candidates contesting that particular seat, most of whom will represent parties.  There may be some non-party candidates, who will be described as “independent” on the ballot – this does not refer to their views on the constitution!  Voters choose one candidate on this ballot paper.

The 73 constituencies are grouped into 8 regions, each of which returns a further 7 MSPs (total 56) to complete the parliament, using the D’Hondt method of proportional representation.

The winner-takes-all FPTP system penalizes smaller parties, and leads to large majorities (such as the current one at Westminster) on far less than 50% of the vote.  The AMS aims to compensate for that by allocating regional list seats in such a way that the make-up of the parliament as a whole is proportional to the parties’ performance in the regional ballot.  This allows parties with no realistic chance of winning a constituency to nevertheless return MSPs via the list.  Since 1999, several parties have achieved this, including the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party.  The system also enabled Margo MacDonald to serve 3 terms as an independent (she died during her third term). This is not “gaming the system” – it is designed to work that way, and the Scottish Parliament has not seen fit to change the system, despite having had the power to do so, with a two-thirds majority, since 2016.

The regional list ballot paper offers the voter a choice of parties, not named individuals (unless they are independents like Margo). Scotland uses a closed list system, in which each party chooses the order of the candidates on their list. Different parties have different selection procedures, but once the nominations have been submitted to the Electoral Commission, neither the candidates nor their order can be changed. The lists are not secret, however, and any voter can find out the candidates’ names if desired.

Summary: voters choose one constituency candidate as a specific individual, plus one regional list party.  This can be, but does not have to be, the same as the party to which the constituency candidate belongs. It is not a second preference. Voters are choosing a person they wish to be represented by, and a party they wish to see in the parliament.

Step 3 – the votes are counted

The two types of ballot paper are counted separately. 

First, the winners of the 73 constituency seats are determined; the candidate with the largest number of valid votes wins.

Each region has 7 list seats; one has 8 constituencies (total 15), two have 10 (total 17), five have 9 (total 16). Within each region, the percentage of the total number of seats won by each party should be as close as possible to the percentage that party received on the list.  A party getting 25% in a region with 16 seats would expect to have 4 MSPs.

It isn’t possible, of course, to have a fraction of an MSP, so the equivalence may not be exact. There is no explicit minimum threshold, but in practice at least 5 % would be needed.

But the 8, 9 or 10 constituency MSPs have already been declared, and their seats cannot be taken away from them. So, a party may have already got as many seats as its list percentage equates to – maybe even more than that – before the first list seat is allocated.  That is why it is very difficult for any party that does well in the constituencies in a region to also win list seats.  (It’s not impossible, but requires the distribution of votes between the other parties to disadvantage them and create a “sweet spot”.)

D’Hondt for insomniacs

The D’Hondt method works as follows:

There are 7 rounds of calculations, one for each list seat.

For round 1, each party’s list vote total is divided by the number of seats it has already won in the constituencies, plus 1. (The “plus 1” is required because some parties will not win any constituencies – they may not even stand there – and division by 0 is tricky!)

Then, the party with the highest “score” wins the first list seat.  That increases its divisor by 1 for round 2.

For round 2, each party’s “score” is unchanged, apart from the party that won the first round. The second seat goes to the party that now has the highest number, increasing its divisor by 1 for round 3. (That could be the party that won the first seat, of course.)

And so on, until all 7 seats are filled.  The individuals who take those seats are determined by the party lists; candidates who also stood for constituencies and won them are removed, then the rest are elected in sequence.

Very small margins can determine the outcome, especially for the 7th seat; a party that just misses out in an earlier round is likely to pick up the next seat.

Note: when a party doesn’t get any/many list seats due to its performance in the constituencies, this does not mean that list votes for that party are “transferred” to another party. Other parties get the seats, because the first party already has as many as it is entitled to.

Summary: the number of constituency seats a party wins in a given region affects that party’s chances of also obtaining list seats. More constituencies = less chance of a list seat.  The final tallies for the parties should reflect the percentage they achieve on the list as closely as possible. This allows list-only parties to have a chance of a seat or two in the Scottish Parliament. Over the 8 regions, this leads to a fairly proportional parliament which retains the local connection of a constituency representative.

What does this mean for East Ayrshire?

East Ayrshire comprises one and a bit constituencies – the whole of Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley, plus part of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley.

Both of these were held by the SNP in 2016. Willie Coffey is standing again in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley; Jeane Freeman is retiring and the SNP candidate in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley is Elena Witham.  Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates are also standing; in K&IV there is also a Scottish Libertarian candidate. The SNP are defending majorities of 11,194 and 6,006 respectively. Turnout was close to the national average.

Both constituencies are within the South Scotland region, which in 2016 returned 3 SNP, 2 Conservative, and 2 Labour list MSPs, along with 4 SNP, 4 Conservative, and 1 Labour constituency MSPs. (One Conservative list MSP defected during the course of the Parliament and is now standing for Reform UK.)

This year, 16 parties are contesting the list seats – expect a large ballot paper! At least 9 of these will not be elected.

Summary: In the 2016-21 Parliament, voters in East Ayrshire were represented by either Willie Coffey or Jeane Freeman plus all 7 of the list MSPs. After May 6, we will still be represented by 8 MSPs – we just don’t know who they’ll be yet.

Make sure you have your say in May.