Disclosure and Disclaimer: Whilst I am politically active and an active member of the Scottish Green party, this post is intended to be objective and politically neutral. This is a guide on how to vote, not a blog to try to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.
This is a blog that even up to a few weeks ago, I did not expect to have to write. The UK was originally due to leave the EU before this point and as of the current situation, has the right to leave at any time if the UK parliament can ratify the agreed Withdrawal Arrangement. Even now, at this late stage, there is a possibility that this blog will prove redundant. But as things stand, a deal is looking unlikely and it is almost certain that the UK will, possibly for the last time, take part in the European Parliamentary elections on the 23th of May.
If you are unsure on how to vote – not who to vote for, unsure about how to actually cast your vote – then this blog is for you and is a continuation of my long running series which has also covered the UK General Elections, The Scottish Parliamentary Elections and the Scottish Local Authority Elections.
The European Parliamentary elections take place every five years and elects members to, as the name suggests, the European Parliament. This is the only legislative body within the EU which is directly elected. Of the others, the European Commission is made up of representatives appointed by the governments of each member state and the European Council is made up of the Heads of State of each member or their appointed representative (The Queen is the Head of State of the UK but the Prime Minister represents her and the UK on the Council).
The parliament is made up of around 750 members and is the largest directly elected lawmaking body on earth (The UK’s House of Lords and the Chinese National People’s Congress are larger but are not directly elected).
The number of seats that each country is represented by is decided collectively and subject to a rule known as “degressive proportionality”. This means that whilst large countries have more seats than smaller countries, it doesn’t follow that a country that is twice the size of a smaller one will have twice as many seats. This tends to somewhat balance the tendency of larger countries to dominate proceedings in the chamber.
In common with many parliaments throughout the world, the MEPs are also arranged by party affiliation with national political parties banding together with groups of similar ideology such as the Green/European Free Alliance (which includes Green and Regional/Autonomist parties such as the Scottish Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru); The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (which includes the Labour party); The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (of which the Lib Dems are members); the European Conservatives and Reformists (where the Conservatives, unsurprisingly, find their ideological partners). A study by VoteWatch.eu has found that the group to which a particular MEP belongs is a far greater predictor of voting preference than national identity. MEPs tend to vote on party lines rather than national lines. Though an informal and likely unintentional trend this, in practice, further serves to dilute the inclination for any particular member nation taking the reigns over the whole continent.
For more details on how the EU operates, you can see my guide here.
How each representative is elected is slightly different country-to-country (and even within some countries as a different system applies in Northern Ireland as does in the rest of the UK, for example) so this guide will, as per my other electoral guides, focus on Scotland specifically. In this election, Scotland is considered a single constituency and elects six representatives. More on that a bit later.
Different electoral rules apply to different elections in Scotland so your eligibility to vote in one election does not necessarily mean that you are able to vote in another.
In order to vote in the EU elections you must be at least 18 years old on polling day and not subject to any legal incapacity to vote. You must also be one of the following:
- A British citizen, EU citizen or qualifying Commonwealth citizen resident in the UK.
- A UK citizen living abroad and who has registered to vote in the last 15 years.
You must also register to vote. This is important. You cannot vote unless you are registered and in order to vote in the EU elections you must have registered by the 7th of May. That’s tomorrow if you’re reading this right after I’ve launched the article.
You can register to vote here. It takes five minutes. You can also apply for postal or proxy votes if you are unable to attend the polling station on the day. Once registered you will receive information about where your local polling station is either on a polling card or here.
Important for EU citizens
If you are an EU citizen resident in the UK you must also fill in a form declaring that you do not intend to vote in your home country. You cannot vote twice. This form can be found here and must be submitted to your local authority by the 7th of May.
The Voting System
As mentioned previously, Scotland is treated as a single constituency in the EU elections and it elects six members to the parliament. The way it does this is by the d’Hondt method which will be familiar to those who have voted on the regional ballot in the Scottish elections.
Unlike systems like First Past the Post used in the UK General Elections, in the d’Hondt system you will not be voting directly for an individual candidate. Instead you will be voting for your preferred political party. Each party will – through various internal means – draw up a list of candidates. If the party wins a seat in the elections then the first candidate on the list will be elected. If they win two, then the second person on the list will be elected as well. If, during the parliamentary session, a candidate leaves office, then the party will approach the next person on the list and invite them to take the seat. If the party runs out of people on their list, then their seat becomes vacant until the next election.
This system can be criticised here for the lack of ability to control who appears on the list and in which order. Some parties will simply appoint their list internally. Some will allow their members to vote on the list order. Few, if any, will allow non-members the ability to influence the list.
But what this system loses in direct and personal accountability it does make up for in some sense of proportionality. It’s not perfect – d’Hondt does still somewhat favour larger parties over smaller ones – but it’s certainly better than FPTP where it is possible for parties to sweep up almost all of the seats in Scotland based on less than 50% of the vote.
Casting your vote
When entering the polling booth to cast your vote you will be present with a ballot paper that looks something like this.
You will mark the box next to your preferred party with an X. Only a single mark is required. There is no ranking of preference or multiple choices possible here. Do not make any other mark on the ballot paper as this may result in your ballot being spoiled or sent for arbitration. Ballot papers in this latter category are reviewed by the officials at the counting station in the presence of candidates and can lead to…interesting results.
Once you have marked your ballot, you can cast your vote by placing the card in the nearby ballot box (staff will be on hand to help you if required) and that’s it. The easy bit is done.
Counting your vote
This is the hard bit about the d’Hondt system. The actual counting of the votes is a little bit complicated and not just a simple case of the party with the most vote wins. This information isn’t essential to know if all you want to do is cast your vote but it will help you understand how your vote contributes to the result.
As mentioned previously, Scotland is considered a single constituency with six seats. Under the d’Hondt method, the votes for each party is calculated and divided by the number of seats that they have already won (which will initially be zero) +1. Whomever has the highest tally of votes then wins a seat.
This process is repeated with each party’s votes divided by the number of seats they have already won +1 and whichever party has the highest number of votes wins the second seat. This process is iterated and repeated again until all six seats are allocated.
To see this in action, let’s look at the results of the 2014 EU elections in Scotland.
In the first round of voting, none of the parties have won any seats so all of their vote counts are divided by (0+1). This results in the SNP winning Seat 1 with 389,503 votes. Their tally is then divided by (1+1) or 2 dropping their adjusted count to 194,752.
This means that Labour’s adjusted count of 348,219 (because they haven’t yet won any seats) is enough to win Seat 2 and their count was adjusted down to 174,110.
Seat 3 went to the Conservatives and then the next highest count after adjustment was the SNP. It was at this point that the d’Hondt system acted to give a second seat to a party. The SNP’s vote was then adjusted down by a factor of (2+1) to 129,834.
Similarly, Seat 5 was granted to Labour and then the final seat went to UKIP – narrowly edging out the SNP.
Had a seventh and eighth seat been part of the election, they would have gone to the SNP and Labour again with hypothetical seat nine and ten going to the Conservatives and Greens respectively. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out how many seats Scotland would need to be allocated for the lowest ranking party, NO2EU, to have won a single representative.
In this way, you can see how the d’Hondt system can keep allocating seats to parties until all of the seats have been filled. In practice, most countries that use systems like this for their internal elections also split themselves into smaller constituencies which tends to favour larger parties but gives a greater degree of local representation for each politician. A notable exception to this is Israel which elects its Knesset based on a single constituency of 120 members.
In terms of proportionality, the limits of d’Hondt is visible here. The SNP and Labour both won 33% of the seats based on 29% and 26% of the vote respectively (which is more proportional than the aforementioned 95% of seats based on ~50% gained by the SNP in the 2015 UK General election but still represents an overallocation). The Conservatives and UKIP both won 17% of the seats based on 17% and 10% of the vote respectively.
The limited number of seats means that whilst there is no official “threshold” above which a party must get to before it is even allowed to win seats (Israel discounts your party completely if it fails to win 3.5% of the vote, for example), it is difficult for a party to win a seat in the EU elections in Scotland until it reaches around 10% of the total vote. The lowest percentage of the vote which has resulted in a seat in a recent Scottish EU election was 9.8% gained by the Lib Dems in 1999 but this was at a time when Scotland was allocated 8 seats.
There will undoubtedly be articles written about which party you should vote for or even “tactical voting” strategies designed to maximise your vote’s impact for a certain party or cause but these lie beyond the scope of this particular article – as stated at the start, I intend this to be a guide for a first time voter for whom the ballot booth may be something that they are not used to seeing the inside of.
Let me know if this includes you and if this has been helpful to you or if there’s anything else you’d like me to explain further. I shall likely return to this subject before long – possibly as I report on the results of the election after May 23rd.
(P.S. I have a new logo to match Common Weal’s new website!)