A guest post by John S Sharp
We get a lot of speculation (including much self-interested misinformation) on the effect of different voting strategies under AMS for the Scottish Parliament; and beyond that I've seen a few people suggesting reforms. We indulge in endless discussion of voting strategies and outcomes when I think that a simple form of proxy voting - as you might do as do to authorise a delegate to vote on your behalf at a congress or AGM - could entirely solve just about all the problems commonly discussed. This might be termed Single Proxy Vote (SPV) - although it has a somewhat different context from what is normally meant by proxy. None of this can be an original idea (it's all too obvious, I think) but I have not been able to find any documents describing anything similar for an elected chamber.
There is only really one big idea (which admittedly might be a cultural shock to traditionalists) and it is that after a voter has cast his or her single electoral vote within a constituency, then the MSP so elected, instead of casting one vote in the parliament, will cast the number of votes that (s)he gained in the election, along with a further adjusted share of the votes for their party. With electronic voting it should be easy enough to administer this at the time of votes within the partliament.
How constituency and list voting could work
Starting with the votes cast at the polling booth, a voting form would show :
(a) a list of constituency candidates - one entry for each party / named person
(b) a list of parties that have put up some regional list candidate(s) - one entry for each party
Effectively this latter part (b) resembles the current regional list, but each entry, whether a constituency person/party, or a list party entry, has equal status - and the elector has only a single vote, to be placed against any entry.
A constituency MSP will be elected, taking into account only the votes cast for the constituency candidates. One may expect that most electors would cast their single vote directly for a constituency candidate, but the voter may alternatively choose to vote for a party with list candidate(s) only, if preferring this to any constituency candidate. Votes cast for losing constituency candidates, and for list-only parties, would be accumulated, according to party.
We might also start with the idea that the total number of list MSPs in the parliament will remain fixed at 73 constituency seats and 56 regional seats. We can assume that there will generally be more votes cast for losers than for winners (perhaps up to twice as many) and also note that there are fewer regional seats than constituency seats. Hence, if reallocated party votes were simply divided levelly to each of the regional MSPs (and this could be done either within each of the 8 regions, or nationally) then on average each one might end up with more votes than a constituency MSP - typically up to twice as many votes in parliament. We might want to stick to the principle that the constituency MSPs should have most of the voting power (73 / 129 = approx 57% as at present). It is not difficult to address this: once list MSPs have reached some threshold of votes, then the remainder would be spread back to constituency MSPs (still within party, of course - thus, the addition per MSP would vary between parties).
The Electoral Commision would have to set the broad principles of this in advance. For example, we might think that in principle, the average voting power of a Regional MSP should be the same as an average constituency MSP. In that case, only 56/(56 + 73) of the total votes cast should be allocated to the list MSPs, and the remainder then spread back to the constituency MSPs (all calculations being made within party). If we think that, in principle, constituency MSPs should typically have more voting power, the votes allocated to list MSPs can be proportioned down.
There would be some problems in trying to treat fairly parties with small shares of the vote. Firstly, a party polling a reasonably uniform, say, 2% across the country, would fail to get any constituency MSPs, and would also fall below the threshold needed to justify a "whole" list MSP in any of the Regions. However a party getting 2% ought to get some representation in a parliament of 129 MSPs. This could be addressed by having a "National List" to support the election of a list MSP from a party that has accumulated enough votes, in comparison to those counted on a genuine Regional basis. Secondly, a number of parties will not attract enough votes to justify any list MSP, even on a nationwide scale (in 2011 there were 16 parties which gained less than 1% of the total vote). It is perhaps an open question as to whether votes for these parties simply do not count; or whether they could be reallocated, either according to a binding declaration in advance of the election, or determined by the party post-election).
The Electoral Commission would have a job to do in setting actual thresholds after total votes were known; this should be uncontroversial, as the balance of voting power between the parties would not be affected by such decisions.
At this point, I'd say that the principles are well-defined and the rest is just a matter of detail. Before looking at this in some more detail (using example figures from the 2011 Scottish Parliament election) consider some of the advantages we might obtain from such a system.
Advantages and potential problems
1. Electors cast only one vote.
2. Every vote counts, and eventually has exactly the same weight in parliament, whether the constituency is large or small, and whether the candidates are running neck and neck or the result looks a foregone conclusion.
3. Each constituency is represented in proportion to its population (or rather its population x turnout rate) - which means that differences in size do not create a democratic imbalance.
4. If preferred, we could have single member, or multi-member constituencies, or a combination of types, even within one election.
5. There is little motivation for tactical voting - in the present sense of voting for a party candidate you don't really want in order to stop one you really hate succeeding in a FPTP election. Doing so will always damage your preferred party.
6. Devious gerrymandering of boundaries has little reward, and so we can be relaxed about setting of boundaries.
7. Each elector has a link to a constituency MSP (a point that many adduce in favour of maintaining FPTP).
Some might think the following could be described as problems. I think that they are really just differences.
1. Commentators might have a bit more of a problem in speculating on resuts of a vote in parliament, but if they can't fix that with a spreadsheet, then they are not up to much.
2. Some MSPs might be said to be more important than others, measured by voting entitlement; but why should they not be, if they have drawn the electors' votes.
3. You might not like the idea of seeing votes in parliament recorded as numbers such as 12,306 (Sturgeon), 4,462 (Scott) etc. (using examples from the 2011 election as described below). We could make the numbers smaller by some formula such as 1 parliamentary vote for each 100 electors' votes (so 123 for Sturgeon, 44 for Scott). Or the MSP with the highest total of electors' votes would get 100 parliamentary votes, and all others indexed to that scale. I think that any of these "simplifying" schemes just make things more complicated and it's best just to stick to the original figures.
4. There could be slightly different incentives to commit electoral fraud. At present there is a significant gain from fraud only if it affects the FPTP result in that constituency. In many, probably most, constituencies the result is not close enough to be affected unless fraud is carried out on a large scale, and in any case there would be focus on any suspicious activity around a close result. Under SPV proxy voting, there would be some gain from any undetected fraudulent voting, or corrupt loss of valid voting, wherever it might occur. A few hundred votes added to a fourth place gives as much fraudulent gain in the parliament as would adding it to the winner, or adding it to a near second place to swing it it to a win. Overall, however, SPV should make it more difficult to achieve any significant scale of influence through fraud.
5. It becomes more difficult for any single party to get an absolute majority of votes in the partliament. You can firmly and exactly say that a party must exceed 50% to do it. However, I'd suggest that this voting system might have some direct effect on fragmentation of parties, as in next point.
6. This voting system might encourage parties to fragment, on the grounds that this could be done with no or minimal impact on the total strength of the party in parliament. For example, if some SLab members wanted to stand on Labour / Independence platform and drew some votes away from mainstream SLab (and SNP) they could argue that this would not reduce the total Labour-aligned vote in the parliament (I recognise however that there would be a lot more to be said about party whip). Similarly, any major policy splits within SNP, could lead to group(s) prepared to compete separately within the banner of independence.
7. All the calculation part sounds horribly complicated, and therefore would put people off. However, once you convince yourself that it is all fair, I'd suggest that the only point at which this matters is in the few hours between the close of polls and the announcement of the new crop of MSPs, each with their numbered voting entitlements.
How might things have worked in 2011
To illustrate with results from constituencies in the 2011 election
- in Glasgow Southside, Nicola Sturgeon would have been elected for the Scottish National Party, with a basic entitlement to cast 12,306 votes in the parliament, plus some "spread back" top-up to be calculated as above. Unsuccessful candidates' votes would be reallocated as follows: Labour 7957, Liberal Democrats 612, Conservative 1733.
- In Shetland Islands, Tavish Scott would have been elected for Scottish Liberal Democrats, with a basic entitlement to cast 4,462 votes (plus spread back top-up) in the parliament. Unsuccessful candidates' votes would be reallocated as follows: Conservative 330, Scottish Labour 620, SNP 1,134, and Independent* 2,845. Obviously, the redirection of votes for an Independent is problematical in comparison with that for party allegiance, but I see no reason why an Independent could not be required to state in advance of election how (or if) reallocation would be applied to his/her votes in the event of an unsuccessful candidacy.
The overall result, based on constituency vote only, would have given SNP 902,915 votes available for their MSPs to cast in the chamber (45.39%); Labour would have had 630,461 (31.69%) etc.. For smaller parties such as Scottish Greens, we'd have to guess that their region vote (4.37%) is more representative of the votes that they might have aggregated under what I am describing as STV. Thus, in 2011, pro-independence parties would have fallen short of being able to assemble a pro-independence majority in the parliament.
But if we wanted a guide to how things might turn out in a future election, such as May 2016, then instead of looking back at 2011 votes, we'd be better just to look at current polling and guess that parties would poll somewhere between constituency intention and list intention figures returned by the pollsters.
Could this actually happen?
I'd assert that this style of SPV would provide excellent democratic accountability, and if by some chance we were already using it, very few would want to change it for FPTP or multiple-vote AMS. However, starting from where we are, is there any chance that we could move to SPV? I would think not. It's just too big a change in one step from what we do now. If we had a need to elect another assembly on a party political basis - i.e. not our main parliamentary chamber - then perhaps there might be more readiness to trial a break from our tradition of one vote per member in the chamber.
* * *
Just a reminder, because people often seem to forget what's written at the top of the post by the time they get to the bottom : this has been a guest post by John S Sharp, and the proposal outlined in it is his own.