I had the privilege of being able to observe the elections in Scotland at first hand on Thursday … and on Friday with the delayed count in the local constituency.
A lot has been said about confusion in the whole process and I feel it’s important to unpick some of the comments and look at what did actually happen in the electoral process.
Firstly, there were three different voting systems in use on the day, two of which looked identical to each other and required the voter to mark their papers in the same way. These were the regional list ballot for the Additional MSP and the constituency ballot for the local MSP. Both of these ballot papers were on the same sheet of paper. The Arbuthnott Commission recommended that these two ballots, previously on separate sheets of paper, should be combined onto one sheet to emphasise the fact that the total votes for a party in a region is more important in determining the number of seats they win than the votes cast for the constituency MSP. To quote the report:
We also recommend redesigning the ballot papers to reflect more accurately the way mixed member systems work and to counter perceptions that the regional vote is less important. In mixed member systems it is the list vote, not the constituency one, which is key to deciding the overall share of seats in the Parliament and the election of the government. This is reflected in the design of the New Zealand ballot paper, which puts both votes on one paper, with the party list vote given primacy. The voter is also helpfully informed that “This vote decides the share of the seats which each of the parties listed below will have in Parliament.”
The regional result is declared on the basis of the d’Hondt method, which is a system of proportional representation. Constituency results, declared on the basis of first-past-the-post, are taken into account in calculating the regional result.
The Arbuthnott Commission had noted that the voter understanding of the electoral systems in Scotland was generally low, in other words, people were confusing the constituency and regigional ballots as some sort of first choice and second choice votes. I believe that this misunderstanding persists to this day and little has been done in the information provided to voters to educate them of the importance of the regional vote. The subtlety of the system of electing MSPs is that voting away from one’s constituency party on the regional ballot is more likely to result in the second vote securing a regional list party member (see the reference on the d’Hondt method for more information as to why this is).
The third electoral system in use on the day was the Single Transferable Vote for electing councillors in new, multi-member wards for all Scottish Councils. This was a separate ballot paper which went into a separate ballot box from the Scottish Parliament ballot papers. This system was well-publicised beforehand by leaflets which went to every Scottish household and was well-explained by information at the polling places. Also, local council candidates’ own advertising made it clear that numbers, not crosses, were to be used for voting on these papers.
Secondly, I had the opportunity to observe polling practices in eighteen polling places, including some forty-odd polling stations, on Thursday itself. All of the polling stations I saw were well laid out, had very good information about the double election and many had additional staff acting as information officers to help voters understand what they had to do. [Here is the notice that was posted in every polling booth.] This is borne out by the very low rate of spoilt ballot papers for the local council elections across Scotland. I don’t have statistics, but the proportion of spoils for the new system was vastly less than that for the existing system for electing MSPs.
Thirdly, I had the opportunity of observing the count for my local constituency. This was extremely well-organised and all of the staff knew in great detail what they were doing. The returning officer opened proceedings with a detailed explanation of how ballot papers would be handled and electronically captured before the results were calculated by computer. The whole process of handling, scanning and adjudicating on ballot papers was entirely transparent and open to challenge by candidates and their agents. Staff were meticulous in their operation of the system and I came away convinced that e-counting is definitely the way forward, subject to sorting out the computer systems, their processing capacity and software, to enable them to carry out the processing task faster and more efficiently.
What went wrong?
Firstly, what went right. The poll and count that I observed were extremely well-organised and designed to make the voter’s experience as good as possible. The purpose of the count is to determine the will of the voter, and the staff at the count go to considerable lengths to make sure this happens. Nearly all of the voters that I spoke to were well aware of the changes to the local government system, and that is borne out by the results and the low rate of spoils.
A lot of people seem to be under the misunderstanding that a cross marked on the local government paper rendered it invalid. This is not the case; if a paper was marked with only a single cross, then is was taken as a first-preference vote for that candidate. The fact that only a small proportion of papers had only a single preference marked suggests that the electorate had understood, and decided to use, at least two or more of the available preferences.
So, how did things go wrong? The delays in the system were down to one thing, the computers and software, which failed to handle the task in hand. Quite why, I don’t know, but the Electoral Commission’s investigation should get to the bottom of that. More serious is the very high rate of spoils in the voting for MSPs. In my own constituency, the difference between a Lib Dem hold and the SNP gain that was the result, was out-numbered by the spoilt ballot papers. Secondly, the rate of spoils for the regional elections was considerable. Again, no figures to hand, but the votes from this constituency were down by nearly 900 spoils from the number of votes cast.
During the count, the reason for this high rate became obvious: the majority of rejected parliamentary papers had two votes in the left-hand, the regional, column and no vote in the right-hand, the constituency, column. Candidates and agents were drawing the conclusion that voters were being misled by the instruction at the head of the sheet of paper, which read, “You have 2 votes …”.
Clearly, the Scottish electorate are quite capable of understanding a new voting system; STV for local government was a success and this is the proof of that assertion. This was the system that got the majority of the public information because it was the new one. The fact that the Arbuthnott Commission had identified that voters did not understand how their MSPs were elected was confounded by the change in the ballot papers for that election and the absence of good voter education by the Executive. To be clear; I didn’t fully appreciate the reason for the regional vote being on the left-hand side of the parliamentary paper until I’d done some research after the election, and I’m interested in electoral processes and procedures.
In conclusion, the problem with the process is not the electorate, as some have asserted, nor the voting paper, but the failure properly to inform and educate the electorate how MSPs are elected and why the regional vote matters.