Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why you should seriously consider using all (or most) of your preferences when you vote today

After I mentioned the other day that I was planning to give the Labour candidate my sixth preference out of six in the local elections, Auld Acquaintance left this comment -

"I wouldn't even give that bunch of chancers my 6th preference, In fact I am not even using all my preferences."

That of course chimed with the sentiment uncovered by the poll I ran a few weeks ago, when most of you said that you weren't planning to rank the three London parties at all, and also with a comment that was left by an anonymous poster at the time -

"Surely the best way to not vote Labour up is to leave them off the ballot. Just select SNP and SSP and that's that?"

I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth, but the latter comment did make me wonder slightly if there might be some confusion about the voting system. There seems to be a sense that only ranking the SNP candidates somehow makes for a more 'emphatic' vote against Labour (or Tory, or whichever party), or conversely that opting to rank the other candidates with your lower preferences would 'dilute' your vote for the SNP. Neither perception is accurate.

If your top preferences are for the SNP, your vote cannot possibly stray from the SNP column until all the Nationalist candidates in the ward are either elected or eliminated. So if an SNP candidate fails to be elected, you need have no fear that your lower preferences for unionist parties will have somehow contributed to that. But if you don't fill in those lower preferences, what you are effectively doing is abstaining on every question other than the fate of the SNP candidates - including, for example, whether you would rather see an independent or a Labour councillor elected. How many of us are truly neutral on that point, particularly if we live in a council area where the fight for control is between Labour and SNP? We wouldn't literally be "voting Labour up" by abstaining, but we'd sure as hell be missing a golden opportunity to vote them down.

In my own three-seat ward, there are two SNP candidates, one SSP, one Labour, one Tory and an independent. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the Labour candidate and both SNP candidates will be elected. But from what I've heard about him, the independent seems rather impressive (notwithstanding his sniping against the local SNP!), so it's perhaps not entirely inconceivable that he might just about find himself in the mix. Now, let's suppose the SNP candidates are the first two to be elected, and their excess votes are then proportionately redistributed to help decide whether Labour or the independent claims the third seat. It would seem absurd to have abstained in that stage of the voting, given that it would dilute the SNP's overall chances of dislodging Labour from power in the council. So here's how I'll be ranking the candidates -

1. SNP
2. SNP
3. SSP
4. Independent
5. Conservative
6. Labour

Only the sixth preference is superfluous here - not ranking Labour at all would have exactly the same effect, but all of the other five preferences are potentially significant. I would obviously prefer Labour to Tory in a Westminster contest, but given the state of play locally it makes sense from a tactical point of view to place the Tory fifth. I'm placing the SSP third solely on the basis that they are an explicitly pro-independence party - I've no idea where the independent candidate stands.


  1. Thanks for that timely explanation. I was in danger of making only my three choices (as yours; SNP, SNP, SSP) and leaving the rest, but I shall now complete the form.

    I suspect we shall have exactly the same result as your ward. But I'd hate to think I had, by omission, contributed to the Labour man's success.

  2. STV really hasn't been explained properly to people. This morning I casually mentioned voting to a work colleague who is only 21 (and should therefore pick these things up easily), and he didn't understand the system at all until I explained it to him. If I'm perfectly honest, I didn't truly understand it myself until Lalland's Peat Worrier's recent posts on how the votes were divvied up - I thought once your highest-ranked candidate was through, that was your vote used up, but it's far more complex than that.

    It doesn't help that the literature from the Electoral Commission doesn't properly explain it, and the parties hardly help matters with their leaflets and adverts.

    It's not even a truly proportional system. GIVE US OPEN LISTS!!!!

  3. Auld AcquaintanceMay 3, 2012 at 12:52 PM

    I still take a different view, James, and it goes along the following lines.
    If there are 4 Councillors elected in a ward which has say 2 SNP candidates.
    You may vote SNP 1 and 2 and leave it at that. Which basically means you are leaving 2 candidates unvoted for.
    You could vote SNP 1 and 2, Green3,and someone else 4...leaving your other preferences out.
    That would result in you having matched 4 preferences for 4 candidates.
    However as in the first Instance, it may well be that one or more of your preferences gets eliminated, so they dont get elected...But at the least you will have used your vote for all the available amount of electable candidates.
    The other option is as you say...To rank all or most of them, say putting Labour in 6th preference out of 6.
    If Labour are strongly contesting the ward, you may find that as the eliminations have proceeded that its down to Labour v SNP for the final seat...Your Labour vote under certain circumstances could be the difference between the two, thus you have ended up unwittingly allowing them the final seat.
    Therefore I am as a Nationalist disinclined to run the risk of even giving them a 6th preference.

  4. "If Labour are strongly contesting the ward, you may find that as the eliminations have proceeded that its down to Labour v SNP for the final seat...Your Labour vote under certain circumstances could be the difference between the two, thus you have ended up unwittingly allowing them the final seat."

    No. There are no circumstances whatsoever in which that could happen. As I tried to explain, if your top preferences are for the SNP candidates, your vote (all of that vote, 100% of it) will simply not budge from the SNP column until all of the SNP candidates have been either elected or eliminated.

    The 'risk' of using your lower preferences is therefore, quite literally, non-existent. The risk of NOT using them, and as a result seeing a party you do not favour seize a seat that the SNP are not in contention for, is very real.

  5. It's an interesting conundrum, which I spent some time thinking about last night. Especially after a rather pathetic leaflet from the Labour candidate was pushed through my door by an agency worker, along with an advert for custom-made window blinds. The Labour leaflet explicitly solicited my second-preference vote.

    The ward elects three councillors. Standing are two LibDems, one Tory, one SNP, one Labour and one "Borders Party". I explicitly asked our candidate (a sitting councillor) if he had a preference as to who he would prefer to work with, as regards using a second-preference vote (as I expect him to be elected with votes to spare). He told me just to put a 1 against his name and leave it at that.

    Well, I swithered. Give the Labour lassie her wish, as she's unlikely to be elected but if she is she won't have many colleagues to gang up with? Go for the second-string LibDem just to annoy the first-string LibDem? The Borders Party just seem to be Tories in sheep's clothing.

    In the end, not really knowing how the sociodynamics work in the council, not knowing which of his rivals our candidate would prefer to work with, I just did as he said and only used one vote.

    I suppose it's a tricky one. If it got out that the SNP was recommending a particular second-choice vote, I can just imagine the headlines. But I would genuinely have liked to know who else would have been preferred as the other ward councillors, from the SNP perspective.

  6. Great article, James! I wish you had posted it sooner though. No-one I know seems to understand properly how the STV system works.


  7. Well today, I just voted SNP 1 & 2.

  8. Looking at what actually happened yesterday, our sitting councillor was right. He was the last of the three councillors in the ward to be elected in the iterative redistribution of the votes. Therefore none of his first-preference voters would have had their votes transferred at all. Waste of time for his supporters to have bothered listing further preferences.

    I suspect he knew that was how it was going to pan out. However, maybe saying "I'm pretty sure I'm going to come third out of the three winners so dinna fash yersel" would have been seen as talking down our chances - or something like that.