Scotland ‘leads’ UK in fair voting, say campaigners

Scottish voters have “embraced” preferential voting, using the single transferable vote (STV), in Scottish Local Elections according to new analysis of voter behaviour published ahead of May’s local elections.

In a new report The Power of Preferences written for the Electoral Reform Society, Professor Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, found that since its introduction in 2007 voters have increasingly adapted to the preferential STV system.

STV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference and, apart from local elections in Scotland, it is also used in local and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland while local councils in Wales have been given the power to switch to the system in future if they wish.

In his analysis, Curtice found that voters have been making more of the opportunity to express multiple preferences offered by STV – ranking more candidates and giving additional votes beyond their primary party choice than before.

In 2017 85.8 per cent of valid ballot papers contained at least two preferences, well up on the 78 per cent that did so in 2007.

In 2017 60.7 per cent of valid ballot papers contained three of more preferences, up on 55.8 per cent in 2012.

Most voters are also expressing support for more than one party.

In 2017 around seven in ten Conservative, Labour and SNP supporters gave preferences to other parties/independents when there were no more candidates of their first-choice party to rank.

On average across all of Scotland’s local councils, the level of disproportionality in 2017 stood at 9.6, almost exactly the same as in 2012. It is far below the average figure of 34.5 for the outcome in Scotland of the last three Westminster elections held using first past the post.

Transfers played a greater role in deciding the eventual winner than before with only 38.5 per cent of candidates elected on first preferences alone in 2017, five points down on the equivalent figure in 2012, and slightly below the 40 per cent who were elected that way in 2007.

As many as 101 seats were won by candidates who were not initially in a winning position, well up on the 68 seats in 2012 and 73 in 2007.

Independence also seems to be shaping the way voters rank candidates. Almost half of SNP supporters gave their next preference, after all SNP candidates had been eliminated from the count to a party other than the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats. This is well up on the 18 per cent who did so in 2012.

Just 24 per cent of SNP supporters gave their next preference to one of the three main unionist parties, well down on the 38 per cent who did so in 2012.

Labour voters in 2017 were much more likely than they had been in 2012 to give their next preference to a candidate from another unionist party, either a Liberal Democrat or Conservative – in both cases, this was around double what it had been the case in 2012.

The ERS commissioned the report ahead of next month’s Scottish local elections which will be the fourth time voters have headed to the polls using the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

Professor Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, said: “It’s clear that voters in Scotland are increasingly making use of the opportunity afforded by STV to express multiple preferences, and in so doing to back more than one party.

“The way in which they did so had two marked features at the last elections in 2017.

“On the one hand, voters were more likely to cast multiple preferences than previously, and in so doing to rank candidates from more than one party. Moreover, lower preferences influenced the outcome in seats to a greater extent than before.

“On the other hand, voters were less likely than previously to express preferences across the constitutional fault line that divides Scottish politics. Independence supporters were less likely to give a lower preference to a unionist candidate, while backers of the Union were less likely to give a lower preference to a pro-independence candidate.

“Meanwhile, the pattern of voting behaviour in last year’s Holyrood election suggests that this polarisation of Yes and No supporters may well be even more marked in this year’s local ballot.

“Consequently, the outcome in May is unlikely just to turn on the distribution of first preferences. It will also depend on how Yes and No voters use the opportunity afforded by the STV ballot paper to express more than one choice – and on what the parties do or do not do to encourage them to do so.”

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society said: “Scotland is a leader in the UK when it comes to fairer votes – using proportional systems to elect their Parliament as well as their local councils where the Single Transferable Vote (STV) has been the norm since 2007.

“This report shows how Scottish voters are choosing to make the most of the power of preferences that STV provides when they vote for their local councils. Using it not only to give a second, third or even fourth preference but often using it to express their support for more than one party.”