How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the Scottish Council Elections

Disclosure and Disclaimer: I am currently standing as a candidate in the council elections. Be assured however that this post shall be objective and party neutral. This is a guide as to how to vote, not to try to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.

A Guide to the Scottish Council Elections

One of the most read articles on this blog was a guide written in 2015 which tried to explain the mechanics behind how one votes in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections and how those votes translate into seats. With the voting age in Scotland being dropped to 16 and the upsurge in political interest in Scotland there will undoubtedly be a substantial number of people in the country who will be voting for the first time and will want to know how to do it. This article is for them and those who will be speaking to them in the days to come. As said in the disclaimer, this article will not be advocating any particular choice on who to vote for and will not be discussing options such as “tactical voting”. These are topics for other articles and other blogs.


Scotland is presently organised into 32 regional authorities called councils (some call them “local” as they are currently the lowest level of effective government in Scotland but this would be erroneous as they are many times the size of actual local government in other comparable democracies)

These councils are elected every five years with the last election being held in 2012 under the proportional representation voting system known as Single Transferrable Vote, or STV. The next election is on May 4th 2017.

Council ward map vote share.png

Results of the 2012 elections by highest 1st preference vote in each ward. Yellow – SNP, Red – Labour, Blue – Conservative, Orange – Lib Dem, Green – Green, Grey – Independent

For the purposes of electing councilors, each regional council is split into multiple wards based on the population size of the council. Each ward then elects either 3 or 4 councilors. Due to the relatively small size of each ward and the proportional nature of the vote it is far easier for a non-party “independent” councilor to be elected (often based on either local popularity, past experience in council before leaving a previous party or by campaigning on a particular local issue) than is the case during either the Scottish Parliamentary elections or in the UK General Election.

First: Register To Vote

This is the most important thing. If you are not registered to vote, you cannot vote. There is no “on the day” registration in Scotland and the deadline for the Council elections is April 17th. If you are registered, you are likely to have received a polling card by now telling you where to vote. If you haven’t or if you know that you are not registered, then information on how to do so is here.

How To Vote

This is the easy bit of STV. Rather than the fairly opaque nature of the AMS system used in the Scottish elections where you are faced with two ballots which are both marked in the same way but are both calculated differently, STV presents you with a single ballot paper which will look a little like this:


The candidates will be listed in alphabetical order by surname with their home address* and their party affiliation, if any, underneath. Also present may be a party logo or a slogan representing a core issue of the candidate/party.

As with the Scottish election constituency vote and the UK General election (but unlike the Scottish Parliamentary Regional vote) you are not strictly voting for a party in these elections but for a person who may or may not be a member of a party. As there may be multiple people standing in a ward representing the same party, it is therefore important to consider the candidate as a person alongside their affiliations.

To actually vote is straight-forward. You do not simply mark one box with an X as with other elections, but instead RANK the candidates in order of preference using a discrete number for each 1,2,3 etc. You may not give two or more candidates “equal” rank. You do not need to rank every candidate. Once you get to the point where you’d prefer none of the remaining candidates to get elected, you may leave their boxes blank. This is sometimes known as “vote till ye boak”. Do not make any other marks on the ballot paper as this may result in your vote being invalidated and rejected. Once completed your ballot paper may look something like this:

ballot filled

Note: Preferences listed here are for illustration only and do not represent an endorsement, recommendation or author’s personal preference.

And once you’ve dropped your completed ballot into the box or sent it away via your postal ballot, that’s it. Simple. The seats are then allocated out such that the candidates elected are the ones deemed highest ranked by the largest number of people

* To be eligible to stand in local elections, one of the requirements is that a candidate must live, own property or work within the council boundaries. Note that the requirement applies at a council level, not a ward level.

The Hard Bit: Counting the Votes

Here comes the tricky part. Counting the votes and translating them to seats. This is a far more mathematical exercise than the FPTP system used in the UK elections (which is trivial. Person with the most votes wins the seats, the party with the most seats wins the government) and more complicated even the d’Hondt system used in Scotland and the EU elections (which can be tabulated with a pen and paper if you have to). If you’re reading this on the front page and want to delve into this maths, then click below to unfold. If not, I hope this has been useful and good luck to your chosen candidate(s) in May.

Ok. Welcome. You’re the brave ones.

The first thing we do is count the number of seats in the ward (either 3 or 4) and count up the number of valid votes cast in a particular ward. We then calculate a Quota based on these two numbers and the following equation:

The reasons for this quota and comparisons with alternative quota calculations which give slightly different results can be read here.

The ballots are now counted in a series of rounds.

In the first next round, all of the ballots are placed in piles according to their 1st preference votes and the piles checked to see if any reach the quota (this is actually done electronically these days so that we don’t need to wait days to find out the results). If none do then the candidate who received the fewest 1st preference votes is eliminated and their ballots placed on piles according to their 2nd choice. If still no-one reaches the quota, this is repeated such that the next candidate is eliminated and their ballots placed on their 2nd choice (or, if that choice has already been eliminated, their 3rd preference etc). These ballots are fully counted so that your 2nd choice is given the full value of your vote. Once a candidate receives enough votes to reach the quota, they are elected.

If the quota is exceeded then something slightly different happens. Unlike other systems, your vote is not “wasted” if you vote for an already wildly popular candidate. The votes in excess of the quota are themselves distributed to your 2nd or next available choice of candidate but it is done in a slightly more complicated way than simply skimming the top chunk of papers off of the pile and moving them (as this could introduce bias depending on which ballot box was opened last).

Instead a statistical method is applied by which the number of votes in excess of the quota is calculated. Essentially the ratio is calculated of the number of votes cast over the quota and the total number of votes. If a candidate received, say, 1687 votes but the quota was 1159 then this ratio would be 0.31298 (ratios are rounded to five decimal places). The candidate is duly elected then ALL of their ballots are transferred to the next available choice but are given a weight of that ratio. This means that your individual 2nd choice vote might be worth less than a 1st preference vote given to a candidate or a 2nd choice vote transferred from an eliminated candidate but this is balanced by the fact that if the votes were just skimmed off the top of the pile, the votes underneath (which may have been yours if your box was opened first) would be worth zero. It all balances.

It’s a very complex and involved process to dissect in detail what happens at each round but what these transfers can mean is that someone who gets the most 1st preference votes may not win a seat and surprises can happen right to the very end. To take a real world example from 2012, consider the results from the four member ward of Avondale & Stonehouse in South Lanarkshire.


You can see here that the first candidate elected, from the SNP, did so by exceeding the quota but that all other candidates had to rely on transfers to do so. You can also see that multiple transfers were required for even the second candidate to get elected and that the final candidate elected, an independent, actually received fewer 1st preference votes than the Conservative candidate who was not elected at all.

What this means is that trying to predict (or even “game”) the STV system is particularly difficult as it often requires co-ordinating not just 1st preference votes but also 2nd, 3rd and other preferences. STV is remarkably resistant to “tactical voting” though – as stated earlier – this is a strategy best left to another article or blog. What STV is good at doing is working out which candidates are most liked, by the most number of people and ensuring that they are most likely to be elected. And that is, after all, the point of democracy.

Hopefully this has helped folk understand how the council elections work and how to make sure that your vote is counted. Good luck to everyone involved in May.


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

  1. The multi member system has not been a success in Orkney where wards cover large areas and more than one island. This means that councillors become ‘detached’ from those they should be representing. Orkney further suffers from large numbers of ‘independents’ – many are supporters/members of political parties but hide under the title of ‘independent’. It is good to see the Greens in Orkney are standing under a party label with an actual list of issues they are putting forward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a common issue due to the non-local nature of our “local” elections. There are more than a few islands on the West Coast who have, say, 1/3rd of a councilor to represent them.

      Scotland would do well to really have a very serious discussion about this problem as soon as possible.

      Liked by 1 person

      • How would we solve the problem though? The only thing that comes to mind is to make each island a 1-member ward, and let them have their own elections (presumably either FPTP or AV).

        The problem would seem to extend to having a more localised level of government. I feel like proportionality doesn’t lend itself particularly well to small electoral areas, unless you’re happy to have huge numbers of elected officials.

        (This isn’t meant as sniping incidentally – I’m very much in favour of electoral reform in Scotland, hence why I tried to get the SNP to make it party policy to implement STV in Holyrood elections – and *almost* succeeded.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • No implication of sniping taken. It’s a discussion worth having.
          If Scotland was a normal European country the powers of our regional authorities would largely sit in councils which looked more like our current wards.

          But there’s a very good case to say that “the islands are different”. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’d maybe suggest something like the old Þings. Non-party local colleges or moots to help decide local issues. You’re right that many of the islands are too small for proportional representation but if that’s the case then maybe they’re small enough for direct democracy.


          • Interesting… Although being a cynical bugger, I’m sceptical that such arrangements would truly be non-party, certainly not as time went on. And assuming it would also mean volunteers rather than paid politicians, I tend to think these things end up being filled with local busybodies and folk with vested interests. Again though, I’m a cynical bugger. It’s certainly a debate we need to have!


  2. Definitely well-timed on this, Craig. I’ve been out canvassing for the past few months, and just recently I managed to find no less than three folk in a single night who weren’t aware that they *could* give multiple preferences.

    And hey, I’m one of those people that actually *likes* reading about the way electoral systems work. Studied it at college, even, and I can say that this was definitely more digestible than a lot of other explanations of STV I’ve seen, so cheers for that.


    • If I sounded slightly scornful about people who read blogs about electoral systems just imagine those people who *write* blogs about electoral systems. They must be *really* strange. 🙂

      On a serious note, thanks for the comment. I’ve met more than a few folk out there who didn’t really get the voting system either. Had the same issue last year with AMS (and I remember the 2007 debacle when we tried to run both on the same night!). Voting is harder than it looks.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Scornful? Nah, didn’t even notice anything like that – I was just commenting on it because I know most people don’t take the same interest you and I do 😛


  3. Excellent as always I will send u alink when I use it Craig. Ps I wish you all the best with the vote the more people like you who go for election the better scotland will be


  4. “Once you get to the point where you’d prefer none of the remaining candidates to get elected, you may leave their boxes blank.”

    Unfortunately I see many people misinterpreting this.

    Let’s say I’d prefer only pro-indy candidates elected, but there are only three such candidates (one Green and two SNP) in a four-member ward. Here you’re encouraging voters to opt out of saying who the fourth member should be.

    (I realise you’ve said “may”, but then again, for that matter you are perfectly entitled to stay at home and not vote at all.)

    Essentially, “prefer none of the remaining candidates to get elected” is wishful thinking and should be highlighted as such. There may be people who genuinely don’t have a preference between the Lib Dem candidate and the UKIP candidate, but at least they should be expressing that with their eyes open.


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