Holyrood Election For Numpties | Autonomy Scotland

Holyrood Election For Numpties

This is the first part of a two part blog on the system used to decide who is elected to the Scottish Parliament. Here I will try to detail in as simple terms as possible how the election works.

Here is part two looking at tactical votes.

What is AMS?

Most democratic countries have, broadly speaking, one of three types of voting system:

  1. Some have a majoritarian system, where the country is divided into constituencies and the public vote for the person who they think would best represent their constituency.
  2. Other countries have proportional systems, where the number of representatives each political party has is closely related to the share of the national vote the party received.
  3. Scotland uses the third type of system which is a hybrid of the two. The name of this system is the Additional Members System (AMS).

The system is designed in order to give you the best of both worlds. It means that the parliament should broadly reflect the spread of the vote while at the same time giving each citizen one MP whose job it is to represent them.

So, how does it actually work?

Well, the first thing to note is that there are 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament.  Scotland is divided into 8 regions.  Each of those regions is divided into smaller areas called constituencies.

There are two parts to the ballot. In one part we are asked to vote on a Member Of The Scottish Parliament (MSP) to represent our constituency. As there are 73 constituencies this part of the vote gives us 73 of the 129 MSPs.

The remaining 56 members come from the regional part of the ballot. There are 7 additional MSPs elected from each of the 8 regions.

Here is a rather large table showing the 8 regions and the 73 constituencies.

8 Regions = 56 MSP’s (8 * 7)73 Constituencies = 73 MSP’sMap
Central ScotlandAirdrie and Shotts
Coatbridge and Chryston
Cumbernauld and Kilsyth
East Kilbride
Falkirk East
Falkirk West
Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse
Motherwell and Wishaw
Uddingston and Bellshill
Central Scotland 2011 (Scottish Parliament electoral region).svg
GlasgowGlasgow Anniesland
Glasgow Cathcart
Glasgow Kelvin
Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn
Glasgow Pollok
Glasgow Provan
Glasgow Shettleston
Glasgow Southside
Glasgow (Scottish Parliament electoral region).svg
Highlands and IslandsArgyll and Bute
Caithness, Sutherland and Ross
Inverness and Nairn
Na h-Eileanan an Iar
Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch
Highlands and Islands (Scottish Parliament electoral region).svg
LothianAlmond Valley
Edinburgh Central
Edinburgh Eastern
Edinburgh Northern and Leith
Edinburgh Pentlands
Edinburgh Southern
Edinburgh Western
Midlothian North and Musselburgh
Lothian (Scottish Parliament electoral region).svg
Mid Scotland and FifeClackmannanshire and Dunblane
Mid Fife and Glenrothes
North East Fife
Perthshire North
Perthshire South and Kinross-shire
Mid Scotland and Fife (Scottish Parliament electoral region).svg
North East ScotlandAberdeen Central
Aberdeen Donside
Aberdeen South and North Kincardine
Aberdeenshire East
Aberdeenshire West
Angus North and Mearns
Angus South
Banffshire and Buchan Coast
Dundee City East
Dundee City West
North East Scotland (Scottish Parliament electoral region).svg
South ScotlandAyr
Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley
East Lothian
Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire
Galloway and West Dumfries
Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley
Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale
South Scotland (Scottish Parliament electoral region).svg
West ScotlandClydebank and Milngavie
Cunninghame North
Cunninghame South
Greenock and Inverclyde
Renfrewshire North and West
Renfrewshire South
Strathkelvin and Bearsden
West Scotland (Scottish Parliament electoral region).svg

The Ballot Paper

There are two separate ballot papers. The regional paper is coloured peach and the constituency paper is violet. The regional vote has a list of political parties whereas the constituency vote has a list of individuals who may represent a political party. Your job is to put an X beside one party in the regional list and an X beside an individual on the constituency list.


The Constituency Vote

One thing to remember is the constituency votes are counted first. As we will see later the number of constituency seats won by each party is used to help work out the regional seats.

This part of the ballot is simple and is done by First Past The Post, the same system used in UK General Elections. In each of the 73 constituencies, individuals either representing a political party or standing independently put themselves up for election. Their names appear on the ballot paper in the constituencies they are standing for. Voters put an X in a box next to the person who they think will best represent their constituency. The person with the most votes represents that seat.

For example, in 2011, in the Airdrie and Shotts constituency, Alex Neil got more votes than Karen Whitefield, Robert Crozier or John Love. So Alex Neil won one of the 73 constituency seats.

Scottish Parliament election, 2011: Airdrie and Shotts
SNPAlex Neil11,98450.2+10.1
LabourKaren Whitefield9,98341.8-0.9
ConservativeRobert Crozier1,3965.8-2.6
Liberal DemocratsJohn Love5312.2-3
SNP gain from LabourSwing+5.5

The Regional Vote

Unlike the constituency vote, there are no names on the Regional part of the ballot. Here you are voting for a party. Behind the scenes, in advance, each party provides a list of candidates. The higher up the list a candidate is the more likely they are to be elected on the regional vote.

The Green Party list for the Glasgow region for 2016  is below. So, If the Greens win three Glasgow regional seats then Patrick Harvie, Zara Kitson and Sean Templeton will become MSPs.

1. Patrick Harvie
2. Zara Kitson
3. Sean Templeton
4. Martha Wardrop
5. Patrick McAleer
6. Anni Pues
7. Lee Wallace
8. Kim Long
9. Anna Crow

In some circumstances someone at the top of the list may have already won a constituency seat. If this is the case the next person down would get a seat in this case Martha Wardrop.

D’Hondt Method

The complicated part is how the system calculates how many of the seven seats in each region each party gets. This is called the D’Hondt Method. To help explain lets look at the Glasgow results in 2011.

Glasgow Region 2011 Raw Votes:

Lib Dem5,312

The SNP got the most votes in the region. However, you may be surprised to learn that Labour actually got one more seat than the SNP.

The next two sentences are the key to understanding the how this works:

There are seven rounds of vote counting in each region, one for each seat. In each round the number of votes each party receives is divided by (1 plus the number of seats they already have).

It might be worth reading that part again.

Lets go through the seven rounds in turn from Glasgow 2011 in order to make sense of it.

Round 1

Remember that the constituency votes are counted first. Therefore we know how many constituency seats each party has won in each region before working out the regional seats.

There are nine constituencies in the Glasgow Region.

Of the nine Glasgow constituency seats, in 2011 the SNP won 5 while Labour won 4. So, to determine who won the first round in the Glasgow region we first need to divide each party’s total votes by the seats they have won already plus 1.

So, despite getting fewer votes Labour won the first round as their raw total was only divided by 5(4 constituency seats plus 1).

Whereas the SNP raw total was divided by 6(5 constituency seats plus 1).

PartyRaw VotesNumber of Seats before calculation,Raw Votes divided by (Seats +1)
Lab win73,0314 Constituency seats.14606.2
SNP83,1095 Constituency seats.13851.5
Cons12,7490 Constituency seats.12749
Green12,4540 Constituency seats.12454
Lib Dem5,3120 Constituency seats.5312

Note the votes for the other parties were only divided by 1 as they do not have any seats yet.

Round 2

Labour and the SNP now have five seats each so we do the calculation again using the original raw vote amounts.

The SNP win the second regional seat taking their total to 6 for round three.

PartyRaw VotesNumber of Seats before calculation,Raw Votes divided by (Seats +1)
SNP win83,109513851.5
Lab73,0315(+1 from last round)12171.83333
Lib Dem5,31205312


Lets continue through all seven rounds to see what happens.

Round 3

The Conservatives win a seat.

PartyRaw VotesNumber of Seats before calculation,Raw Votes divided by (Seats +1)
Cons win12,749012749
SNP83,1096(+1 from last round)11872.71429
Lib Dem5,31205312

Round 4

The Green party win one seat.

PartyRaw VotesNumber of Seats before calculation,Raw Votes divided by (Seats +1)
Green win12,454012454
Cons12,7491(+1 from last round)6374.5
Lib Dem5,31205312

Round 5

Labour win a second regional seat

PartyRaw VotesNumber of Seats before calculation,Raw Votes divided by (Seats +1)
Lab win73,031512171.83333
Green12,4541(+1 from last round)6227
Lib Dem5,31205312

Round 6

SNP win a Second Regional Seat.

PartyRaw VotesNumber of Seats before calculation,Raw Votes divided by (Seats +1)
SNP win83,109611872.71429
Lab73,0316(+1 from last round)10433
Lib Dem5,31205312

Round 7

Labour win the last round and their third seat.

PartyRaw VotesNumber of Seats before calculation,Raw Votes divided by (Seats +1)
Lab win73,031610433
SNP83,1097(+1 from last round)10388.625
Lib Dem5,31205312


So, after the seven rounds of counting, three of the seven Glasgow Regional seats were won by Labour, two by the SNP, and one each by the Greens and Conservatives.

This 7 step process is repeated in each of the 8 regions to calculate the 56 seats to be added to the 73 constituency seats in order to make up the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament.

I hope this blog has made things clearer.

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If you are still confused by the regional calculation using the D’Hondt method. Here is a video in which Jeremy Vine explains D’Hondt with regards to the EU elections.

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John Cawley
8 years ago

Simply an excellent explanation of the system. Well played!

8 years ago
Reply to  John Cawley

Thank you.

8 years ago

Why have I heard suggestions that SNP people vote SNP in constituency and Green in Regions? Your explanation of the system suggests they should vote in both since they’d benefit greatly from both, unless there is some sort of handicap of say ‘if you get all the constituency seats you can’t get any list seats’.

8 years ago
Reply to  ayy

If your goal is to maximise SNP seats. Then you should vote SNP in both.

8 years ago

Can you clarify whether a goal to maximise SNP votes is the same as or not necessarily the same as a goal to maximise pro-indy party seats, please.

8 years ago
Reply to  Flora

I’m going to look at this is more detail next time but probably wont get round to it until next week. At the moment, I think if the goal is to maximise pro indy seats then SNP/SNP is probably still the percentage choice although it is more complicated than maximising SNP seats. Doing this Blog I now have a DHondt spreadsheet I can play around with for next week so might change my mind. My goal is not to maximise pro indy seats though. My goal would be to maximise diversity in parliament. I would sacrifice SNP seats for greens… Read more »

Michael Granados
Michael Granados
8 years ago

It might be helpful to illustrate the very plausible scenario where the SNP sweeps all of the constituency seats. In the Glasgow example above with the SNP taking all 9 of the constituency seats even with a substantial number of list votes with the divisor calculation the SNP would seem to take a significant reduction on the number of list seats it could take.

8 years ago

This scenario is true. So, if the goal is maximising pro indy seats then there may be an argument for switching your second vote. However, the problem is when is it sensible to do so? The SNP will get at least a list seats in most regions even if they win all the constituency seats. For switching to work there needs to be enough people to switch to Green/Rise to enable them to get more seats. It is pretty complicated but I do aim to look into it in detail and produce a guide to the ramifications. You will only… Read more »

Paul McCombie
Paul McCombie
8 years ago

@Michael Granados,

For an illustration of exactly what you’re asking, check the results from 2011 in the North East:

8 years ago
Reply to  Paul McCombie

I put the figures from that region into my D’Hondt spreadsheet. If you take 10000 SNP votes and give them to Greens then the Tories get a third seat at expense of SNP. If you take 20000 SNP votes and give 10000 each to Green and Rise the Tories get a third seat. If you give the Greens 13000 SNP votes then they win a seat instead of the SNP. If you take 40000 SNP votes and give 20000 to Green and 19000 to Rise you get the SNP seat going to Green but none to Rise It takes about… Read more »

Jim Curnyn
8 years ago

Thanks , very helpful.

Chris G
Chris G
8 years ago

There will be two separate ballot papers – one for the constituency (lilac) and one for the region (peach). One cross on each. They were only combined on a single sheet in 2007.

8 years ago
Reply to  Chris G

Thanks. I have fixed this.

John Boyle
John Boyle
8 years ago

Beautifully simplifies a system that, at first glance, seems unneccessarily complicated.

Rosemary Hunter
Rosemary Hunter
8 years ago

Thanks for doing this. It would be helpful if you could input the same 2011 total turnout figures against the current polling figures for each of the parties. I might do it myself if I get the chance, and assume that SNP win all the seats (although Renfrew is looking tight). Then move your calculation around to green and RISE. I have done a rough version some time ago and it definitely does much like you show above and allows the unionist parties to gain more seats, SNP to lose and usually no additional pro indy seats.

8 years ago

I have that on my to do list.

Dr Jim
8 years ago

SNPxSNP If there’s to be a chance of Independence, don’t be fooled by the “We need other voices” Brigade, they’re at it and we know it, they should just be honest about it If you want to vote for another party that’s your right to do so, just don’t be conned by those who are being sneaky about trying to make you mis place your vote The one thing you can be sure of is the more votes a party gets the more chance it has to win in order to tactically vote in this system you would have to… Read more »

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