How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the Scottish Elections

A Guide to the Holyrood Election System

The Debating Chamber of the Scottish Parliament Building. Source: Wikipedia

The Debating Chamber of the Scottish Parliament Building. Source: Wikipedia

I know that it feels like we’ve just finished a rush of politics and campaigning and that the next step will be a while away but believe me, a year is not a long time and the 2016 Scottish Parliament General Election will be upon us before we know it. The various parties and actors are already starting to formulate their plans and draw their lines and the speculation over what could result from the vote and how those results could be achieved are being debated over the various Internet and social media channels.

In much of this speculation and amongst my conversations with some of my peers I’ve realised that more than 15 years after the first Scottish elections there remains much to be said about our level of knowledge about how our votes are cast and how the seats are calculated. Here, therefore, is a guide to how it all works.


The Scottish elections are run using the Additional Member System (AMS) which is one of the electoral systems used around the world to produce a “fair” result both in terms of proportional representation as well as giving the public an MSP linked to their own area therefore able to represent them and to be accountable to them.

It does appear, at first glance, somewhat strange that Scotland was granted a proportional system for elections whereas many of the major parties who set up the Parliament in the wake of the 1997 devolution vote were and still are firmly against using any kind of PR system UK wide. This is where the slightly darker edge of realpolitik appears. One of the great fears of Westminster when thinking about Scotland has been the rise of the Scottish National Party and the AMS was installed specifically and explicitly to try to check that rise as PR systems rarely result in majority governments.

This fear was freely admitted to just recently by one of the architects of the Scotland Act 1998, Sir Malcolm Bruce, in his outgoing speech in the House of Commons in March 2015. Viewable from 1min 35sec below.

Whatever the motivation by which Scotland came to have this system we do now have it and it has proven to be a system which successfully balances those crucial requirements to have a fair system and to foster local responsibility.

So how does it work? The Scottish Parliament is made up of 129 MSPs who are elected by two separate ballots on voting day. 73 of these MSPs are elected on the constituency vote and the remaining 56 are elected on the regional vote.

The Constituency Vote

The results of the Constituency Vote in 2011. The winners are indicated by the colour of their associated party. Yellow - SNP, Red - Labour, Orange - Liberal Democrat and Blue - Conservative.

The results of the Constituency Vote in 2011. The winners are indicated by the colour of their associated party. Yellow – SNP, Red – Labour, Orange – Liberal Democrat and Blue – Conservative. Source: Wikipedia

This is the simpler of the two to explain. These 73 MSPs are elected based on the First Past the Post system similar to the one used in the UK General Election. Each voter casts a single vote (marked with an X on the ballot paper) for a person from the selection (this person may or may not be a member of a political party and will indicate if they are on the form). Which ever person gains the most votes in each constituency wins the seat linked to it. Note that an absolute majority of votes is not required merely more votes than any other single candidate.

Whilst it is simple and grants that vital sense of local responsibility it is not as fair a system as it could be. In order to win a seat, a candidate or party must gain enough support in a single constituency to beat all of the other candidates. A small party with support across the country may gain, for example, 10% of the national vote yet gain no seats at all. Conversely, a larger party may hit a level of support across the country such that it wins nearly all of the seats. For example, the recent UK General Election saw the SNP win around 50% of the Scottish vote which saw them win 95% of the Scottish seats. Unlike the UK Elections, however, the Scottish elections include a mechanism to prevent either such extreme.

The Regional Vote


The results of the Regional Vote in 2011. Again the seats won are indicated by party colour as before with the addition of green for the Scottish Greens and grey for Independent candidates.

This is the slightly tricky one. I’m afraid that increased fairness comes with increased complexity. The country is divided into eight regions each entitled to send seven further MSPs to Holyrood. To elect them the voter makes a single vote on their regional ballot form (again marked by a single X). The difference is that this time the voter is voting for a party rather than a person. The actual people elected are selected by the parties and placed on a ranked list where the representatives are given the actual job in order of their position on that list compared to the number of seats won. The Scottish Greens have selected and published their lists for each region here.

The parties are then allocated their seats according to a version of the d’Hondt method modified to account for seats already won in the constituency vote. To illustrate how it works we shall look at the actual results of the 2011 election in the Glasgow region.

Click Image to Enlarge

Click Image to Enlarge

In this election, the nine constituency seats which make up the Glasgow region went five to the SNP and four to Labour. The total votes in the regional ballot are listed in the table. These voting tallies are then ranked into columns. In each column, the number of votes is divided by a factor related to the number of seats previously won plus 1. So the SNP, who won five seats in the constituency vote, have their regional voting tally divided by (5+1) so that 83109 divided by 6 equals 13852. Similarly, Labour’s voting tally is divided by (4+1) or 5 and the other parties, who did not win any constituency seats, have their tallies divided by (0+1) or 1. The more seats a party wins in the constituencies, the harder it is to win seats in the regional ballot.

We now look at the initial modified tallies of each party and allocate the first regional seat to the one with the highest number. In this case it is Labour with 14606 modified votes. The dividing factor is now applied again. Labour have their initial voting tally of 73031 divided by the number of seats they now have, 4 Constituency and 1 Regional plus 1, for a total of 6. They now have a modified tally of 12172.

We now look at the numbers again and allocate Seat 2 to the party with the next highest modified tally. In this case it is the SNP with 13852 modified votes. Again, the dividing factor is applied. The SNP have their initial voting tally divided by the number of seats they now have, 5 Constituency and 1 Regional plus 1, for a total of 7. They now have a modified tally of 11873.

Seat 3 is allocated in the same way. The Conservatives win and have their tally divided, and then the Greens win Seat 4. This is the power of PR. Under FPTP, neither of these parties would have won any seats despite them picking up a substantial fraction of the voting share. Their voters would have been completely disenfranchised.

The remaining seats are allocated in the exact same way, with Seat 5 going to Labour, Seat 6 to the SNP and, finally, Seat 7 going to Labour again.

Regional Vote Glasgow 2011 Pies

The effect of this bit of complex maths does a remarkable job of correcting the unbalancing done by FPTP. Where Labour and the SNP would have taken all of the seats leaving the smaller parties without representation, the overall balance comes much closer to the overall voting proportions (although in this case the poor Lib Dems, with only 2.8% of the vote, failed to win a single seat in either ballot in Glasgow).

Some Myths and Misconceptions

In the run up to the first Scottish Elections in 1999 a publication by the Scottish Parliament Election Study explored several myths and misconceptions about the Scottish Election vote, some of which still persist today. Some of these, as well as a couple of more recent examples, are explored below.

1. You are not allowed to vote for the same party on the first and second vote.

False. If only one party appeals to you and you are a convinced follower of them then you are more than welcome to vote for the same party on both ballots although you must bear in mind that any seats won in the constituencies make it much harder to win on the regional selection. You may also be mindful that the constituency vote is very much a vote for the person you wish to represent you and your area whereas the regional vote is more a vote for the party you wish to represent the country. This may result in two votes for a single party or it may not.

2. People are given two votes so that they can show their first and second preferences.

False. Both ballots are entirely separate and use different counting methods. Whilst someone may vote for two different parties this is not an indication of preference.

3. No candidate who stands in a constituency contest can be elected as a regional party list member.

False. A candidate may stand in a constituency and in a regional list in that or any other region. It is, however, expected that a candidate who wins in their constituency stand down from their list position and allow the next ranked person to take that position should it result in a seat. One person cannot occupy two seats.

4. Regional party list seats are allocated to try to make sure each party has as fair a share of seats as is possible.

True. This is the entire point of the AMS system and, indeed, any other proportionally representative system. Whilst not “perfect” in every sense (no system can be), AMS is a lot fairer and more representative than the FPTP system used in the UK General Elections.

5. The number of seats won by each party is decided by the number of first votes they get.

False. Despite the confusing naming in previous years there is no “first” and “second” vote. Both votes work together to determine the number of seats gained by each party.

6. A Party must gain at least 5% of the regional vote to qualify for any regional list seats.

Strictly False But… Many proportional voting systems around the world impose a minimum voting threshold before any seat allocation is possible, often this is set at 5%, however Scotland is not one of them. This said, a party gaining less than 5% of the regional vote in any particular region is extremely unlikely to win any seats, no seat has yet been won in any Scottish elections on the basis of a vote share of less than 5%.

7. If my party looks like it’s going to win a lot of constituency seats, we should create a separate party to help win more list seats.

False. This is known as a “decoy list” which is not allowed in the Scottish elections although is or has been permitted in some, notably the Italian elections. This specific idea stems from the suggestion of creating a formal, pro-independence “45 Party” to give SNP voters a place to put their regional votes (see here). If such a party was formed out of a genuine pro-independence sentiment then it may be a possibility but if it were seen by the Electoral Commission as an attempt simply to boost SNP seats and subvert the proportionality of the system then it could be blocked. Voters looking solely to maximise pro-independence representation in Holyrood may have to look elsewhere but this is a discussion for another article.

It’s worth noting that the Labour party attempted something similar in 2007 when they proposed standing Labour candidates in the constituencies and Co-Operative Party members on the regional list. The Electoral Commission, however, ruled that as one could not be a member of the Co-Op party without also being a member of Labour the Co-Op Party was not a distinct entity thus the plan was not permitted.

8. MSPs elected by the regional vote are worth less than an MSP voted in via the constituency vote

False. All MSPs are equal in Parliament and several parties, large and small, have counted even their leaders among those elected via the regional vote.


And that, in a little over 2000 words, is how the Scottish Election works. I hope I’ve done a little to enlighten but with such a complex topic I know that I’ll have missed something or could explain something better. Let me know if there’s anything here which could or should be expanded upon.

Further Reading/Viewing

The Additional Member System explained by the Scottish Government –

The Additional Member System explained by the Electoral Reform Society –

The d’Hondt system explained in the context of the EU elections (i.e. without the modifications made by a prior constituency vote) –



20 thoughts on “How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the Scottish Elections

  1. Excellent and well explained article.
    Small error re constituency vote ~ should read 5 and 4 seats to SNP and Labour respectively. See paragraph under Glasgow Results Table.

    “In this election, the nine constituency seats which make up the Glasgow region went four to the SNP and 3 to Labour.under Glasgow Result Table.”


  2. The calculations for adjusting Labour’s and SNP totals, respectively, we’re wrong or at least confusing. “4 Constituency and 1 Regional plus 1, for a total of 5” (Labour) should be a total of 6, as that is the divisible number to reach the modified total. Likewise with SNP after gaining the second regional seat, “5 Constituency and 1 Regional plus 1, for a total of 6” should be a total of 7


  3. This is an excellent explanation of the system – but we need to educate SNP voters about this. If all SNP voters vote SNP in the constituency vote, then the SNP should gain a majority. However, if every SNP voter votes Green in the regional vote, the Greens could become the second largest party and the YES movement would have a HUGE majority in Holyrood.


    • Hi Alex a was going for SNP first box solidarity second as a indy2 is highlighted in there new adverts a understand the SNP staying quiet while negosatiating more powers via smith com. So if we return a SNP majority landslide like GE for first box and solidarity second then it means a referendum date we need to see in black and white the manifestos so we can say right that’s the road to Indy we don’t need SNP for Indy mandate we can do it via second box with our interests in Westminster at an all time high and the Torys keep mentioning indy2 surely we can have 1 via backing other party’s no disrespect to the greens but we need to see alliances with packs !


      • This article is designed to simply lay out the pure mechanics of the vote. I do realise that there’s going to be a lot of talk about policy voting and tactical voting over the next few months. I’m planning on writing something weighing up the options and possible impacts of each nearer election day once we see some more party lines drawn and public polls published.


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