While there are many hot topics in the build-up to the Scottish Holyrood elections in 2021, the subject of list or regional votes has once again reared its head.

The emergence of The Alliance for Independence (AFI)  and the Independence for Scotland Party have many SNP and pro-independence supporters questioning whether they should vote for the SNP on both ballots if they should utilise their regional list vote to vote for another party. 

But what is a list vote and why is it a hot topic in Scottish politics?

Scotland’s voting system

Scotland is divided into 73 constituencies and each constituency elects one MSP. These MSPs are elected by 'first past the post' (FPTP) system, the same voting system which is used in Westminster. Simply put, the MSP with the most votes is elected. in exactly the same way as MPs are elected to Westminster. The constituency vote is sometimes referred to as the elector's 'first vote'. However, due to the nature of FPTP not being proportional (for example the combined vote against the winner is often more than voted for the winner), a counterbalance is created in the voting system with a more proportional outcome. 

The Additional Member System (AMS), based on the German mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, is used in Scotland and is significantly more proportional than FPTP. Such an election system is known as a hybrid electoral system. AMS means that the overall number of MSPs elected for each party is roughly proportional to their electoral support.

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What is a list vote and how does it work?

Under the system used in Scotland, voters have two votes. The constituency MSP is elected under the First Past the Post system. The 'second vote' is used to elect 56 additional members that will complete the political landscape of Holyrood. Scotland is divided into 8 parliamentary regions and each region elects 7 regional MSPs. In the second vote the voter votes for a party rather than a candidate. The parties are then allocated a number of additional members to make the overall result more proportional. The regional MSPs are selected from lists compiled by the parties. These MSPs are sometimes referred to as List MSPs.

Is AMS proportional?

AMS is not entirely proportional but does return more accurate results than a system such as FPTP. In  2016 for example the SNP polled around 44% of the vote over both ballots but returned 49% of the MSPs. However, the system was introduced in an attempt to make it more difficult for parties to have an overall majority and to encourage parties working together in coalition or ‘king-maker’ governments. 

Why is there such interest in the use of the regional vote?

In 2016, the SNP won 59 FPTP seats and returned just four list seats, with some arguing that the list vote hindered the party obtaining more seats as they had won the majority of FPTP votes. However, the real catalyst for the discussion around the list vote in the build-up to the 2021 election is due to the creation of pro-independence parties. Many are discussing the idea of voting for the SNP but using their list vote to provide a ‘pro-independence majority’ at Holyrood.

While some argue that this would put independence at the heart of Scottish politics, others believe that it could hinder the independence campaigning message. However, in reality, it is not an entirely new idea to try and use the list system to promote a message. At the start of the Scottish Parliament, Labour considered running Co-operative Party candidates on the list to be able to win seats that it did not due to its FPTP success.

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What has been said about ‘splitting votes’?

The idea of voting for one party at the constituency stage and another party at the additional member stage is sometimes referred to as splitting your vote 

On the subject of the breakout of independence parties, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in an interview ‘Vote SNP with your first vote, and vote SNP with your regional vote as well,’ and I will be pointing to the fact that the one time we did win a majority was when we maximised the constituency and the regional vote.”

Professor John Curtice said on the prospect of vote splitting:  “Look, if the polls are right at the moment, you don’t need a clever wheeze, you’re going to get a whopping majority anyway, so why risk it?”

Dr Thomas Lundberg also said on the matter: “I’ve read about the interest in ‘gaming’ the system, with a new pro-independence party standing only on a regional basis. There is, of course, the danger that the constituency vote is not what people expect and the regional seats are needed.”