At last, we have some hard data about the May 3 elections - even if it is only details of the candidates and contestants - with which to leaven the endless speculation. What can we glean from them?

In the constituency contests, the total number of candidates is down from 406 in 2003 to 334. This is almost entirely due to the virtual withdrawal of the Scottish Socialist Party (only one candidate) from this part of the fray.

The pattern of competition is very much as would be expected. In more than half of the seats (42) there is a "straight fight" by the four major parties. In the remainder, there are 20 independents and a scattering of "others", representing a variety of causes and concerns.

In what has become a characteristic feature of modern elections, the seats fought by the main party leaders - Jack McConnell and Alex Salmond - have attracted more publicity-seeking "others" than anywhere else.

There is perhaps more cause for concern when the list contestants are looked at.

First, there is the blatant manipulation by the SNP. Their lists are (almost all) called "Alex Salmond For First Minister". This not only highlights what is assumed to be their strongest electoral asset but puts them at the top of the ballot paper. What next? "A Brilliant Party - Scottish "?

The sheer number of list contestants is forbidding. Across the regions there are 28 different "parties" and seven individuals on the lists. Twelve of the 28 have names beginning "Scottish" (ranging, alphabetically, from the Scottish Christian Party to Scottish Unionist). There is as clear an example of a single-issue party as one could find (Publican Party - Smoking Room in Pubs) and obvious publicity-seeking (Adam Lyal's Witchery Tour Party - I've mentioned them, so I guess it works).

One can only wonder about the motives of those standing under the title Scotland Against Crooked Lawyers. And what is the difference between the Christian People's Alliance and the Scottish Christian Party? Is it a case of the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front?

Even the major parties behave oddly when it comes to the regional vote. Although voters don't see them, parties have to provide the relevant returning officer with a list of the names of those to be elected, in order, if any list seats are won. In many cases they submit more names even than there are list seats to be allocated. This is bewildering. What good can it do anyone's self-esteem (or chances in a constituency) to know they are ranked 12th in their party's regional list?

Elections are supposed to be "democracy's feast" - a chance for every citizen to play a part in the process of government - but there is a danger the list voting for the Scottish parliament will be seen as something of a farce. This could make voters cynical about the electoral process and undermine such respect for the parliament as the public still retains.

On the other hand, elections have always provided an opportunity for the concerned, aggrieved, pompous, eccentric or just plain bonkers to have their say. Trying to find ways to exclude them would not be democratic. One just has to trust the judgement of the electorate. After all, what at one time might seem eccentric (the Scottish Jacobite Party) could in time become part of the political mainstream - as is demonstrated by the rise of the SNP.

Last week: Does it have to be this complicated?