How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the 2021 Scottish Election

Disclosure and Disclaimer: Although 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 trying to convince you to vote for or against any particular person or party.


On May 6th, Scotland will once again go to the polls to elect a new Parliament. This will be the sixth election since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the second election since I started writing this blog and these “How to Vote” guides. You can read my previous guides to elections in the UK behind these links which cover the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Elections, the 2017 UK General Elections, the 2017 Scottish Local Authority Elections, the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections, and the 2019 UK General Elections.

This will also be the second Scottish Parliamentary election that will include voters who were born after the re-establishment of Parliament and possibly the first to include election candidates who were born after the start of the devolution era.

It is also the first Scottish Election to involve voters from Scotland’s newly expanded electoral franchise. Whilst 16 year olds were enabled to vote in elections follow the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish Electoral Franchise Act returned voting rights to EU/EEA citizens who had them stripped from them as part of Brexit but also extended voting rights to non-EU citizens. Anyone in Scotland who is aged 16 or over on May 6th and has right to permanently reside in Scotland. Limited voting rights have also been extended to prisoners who can vote if they are serving a sentence of less than one year (though the recent presumption against prison sentences of less than one year means that this affects very few prisoners – perhaps only around 500 individuals). As a result, Scotland has the second most expansive electoral franchise in the UK (Wales also allows all permanent residents aged 16+ to vote but has extended prisoner voting to those serving less than four years) and, prisoner voting aside, one of the most expansive franchises of all European democracies.

The result of this is that this election will include the voice of tens of thousands of people who have, until now, been unable to vote in the country they pay their taxes and many call “home”. As noted in my disclaimer at the top of this article, I am a politically active person but this blog isn’t about any of that. I want to walk first-time voters through the voting system for this election. Whomever you actually vote for, this is how to do it.

Step One:- Registering to vote

You cannot vote in this election unless you are registered to vote. It is also important to note that there is a deadline for registrations. You cannot just turn up at the Polling Place and register “on the day” as is possible in some places like the USA.

The deadline for this election is 11:59pm on the 19th of April which means that as of the posting of this article, you must do this immediately as there is only one day left.

You can register to vote HERE.

In order to be eligible to register you must meet several criteria. As noted above, the primary ones are that you are or will be aged 16 or more on May 6th 2021 and that you are a permanent resident of the UK living in Scotland. The full list of criteria for voting eligibility can be found here.

Once you have registered to vote you will remain registered until certain of your circumstances change (such as your address) so if you have already registered for a previous election then you should be registered for this one too assuming you are eligible.

Step Two:- Deciding how to vote

The majority of voters do so in person at their designated polling place. Once you have registered, you will be sent a polling card with information on it telling you where this polling place is and which polling station within it you should go to.


You do not need to bring this card with you when you vote but it can help to speed up the process, particularly at busy times. The agents at the polling place will be able to help direct you to the right place.

If you are unable or don’t want to go to the polling place in person then there are other options. This can be for any or no reason but we are still in the midst of a global pandemic (Polling Places are preparing for this with safety measures likely to be in place similar to those seen in shops such as instructions to wear masks, physically distance and the option to bring your own pen/pencil) and even in May the weather can be an issue so some vulnerable people may wish to take precautions against this. People who are likely to be out of the country on the day of the vote may also be in this block.

Two basic options are available. First, there is a postal vote where your ballot paper is sent to you by post and you can either return it by post or take it to your polling place on voting day. To get a postal ballot you must register for one and unfortunately, as of the writing of this blog, the deadline to apply for a postal ballot has already passed.

The second option is a proxy vote where you nominate a trusted person to go to the polling place in your place and to vote for you. This may be an option for people who are travelling or are overseas as it may be difficult to get a postal ballot out to you and then returned in time. You must already be registered to vote to apply for a proxy vote and the deadline for registering for a proxy vote is 5pm on the 27th of April. You can apply for a proxy vote here.

Step Three:- Deciding who to vote for.

As I said at the start of this article, this blog is not here to try to persuade you to vote for any particular person or party but you will have to make that choice as you come to cast your vote. The election campaign is in full swing and you are likely to have already been bombarded with leaflets, news articles and party manifestos. There are a lot of factors involved in this election and a good number of candidates and parties to choose from. No guide can be completely exhaustive but I do have a list of many of the party manifestos on my blog here which might help you come to a decision.

Step Four:- Casting your vote

Unlike other elections in the UK, you will be given two voting papers – known as ballots – for this election. This is one of the aspects of the Scottish elections that can be confusing for new voters (and even for some experienced ones) as they address two separate but linked aspects of how the final results are tallied. Actually marking your vote though is quite simple in both cases. Just pick ONE of the options on each paper and mark it with a single X. You can then take the papers to the appropriate ballot box and drop it inside. They will be clearly signposted and staff at the polling place will be there to help you if you need it. Do not make any other marking on the papers – especially nothing that could identify you as the person who wrote it – as this may invalidate and void your vote. (This said, there is a proud tradition of deliberately spoiling ballots as a form of protest if you feel that none of the options meet your standards and this is a much more proactive form of protest than simply sitting at home and not voting)

Your polling card will indicate when your polling station is open – this is likely to be between 0700 and 2200 (7am and 10pm). The polls close strictly at 10pm and while you may be admitted after this if you are already queuing to vote (dependent on the discretion of the staff at the station) you really should try to vote before the 10pm deadline. With the threat of Covid still hanging over us, you should probably consider trying to vote outwith “peak” times if possible (not just to make things easier for you but to reduce the pressure on other voters and on staff) or considering that there may be extended queues due to physical distancing.

When you enter the polling place and approach your designated station the staff there will ask for your name, check it off the list of registered voters and give you your ballots. Your two ballot papers will look something like this:image_2021-04-18_120303

(Source here)

Step Five:- Counting Your Votes

Scottish Parliament election map 2016.svg

(Source here)

The Scottish election uses what’s known as the Additional Member System which while it is not the easiest to understand, particularly for new voters, it is designed to produce results that are relatively proportional – especially compared the UK elections where the government can gain a majority of seats and therefore effectively absolute power in Parliament based on a minority of votes. The Scottish system is often described as being designed “to prevent majority governments” but this is an over-simplification. A proportional system is designed to produce a Parliament that roughly reflects the percentage of votes cast for each political party. If a party wins 40% of the votes then they should get roughly 40% of the seats in Parliament. If the people of Scotland by majority vote for a single party, then that party should be able to take a majority of the seats and therefore form a majority Government. The Scottish elections aren’t designed to prevent a majority Government. Merely make it harder to form a majority Government that a majority of voters did not vote for.

The Purple One: The Constituency Vote

The purple ballot is probably the easiest to understand and is often the first one talked about. In this portion of the election, Scotland is divided into 73 chunks of roughly equal population known as constituencies. Contrary to popular belief (even amongst political activists) you will not be voting for a political party on this ballot but for a particular person. That person, of course, may or may not be a member of a political party and that party’s views and the candidate’s likelihood of adhering to or rebelling against their party line may or may not inform your vote for them. If they are a party member then this will be indicated on the ballot under their name, otherwise it will say “Independent”.

Party loyalty aside, the primary purpose of a constituency Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) is to represent the interests of the constituency and the people who live there and the relatively local focus of these MSPs (as opposed to the broader focus of the Regional MSPs we’ll discuss later) may mean that they are particularly suited to being approached by you about local concerns.

As stated above, to vote for your preferred candidate, mark the box next to their name with an X and place this ballot in the appropriate box.

The Constituency votes are counted using a system known as “First Past the Post” of “FPTP” – the same system used by the UK General Election. In this system, all of the ballots are counted and the candidate that receives the most votes wins the constituency. It is not necessary for any candidate to win more than 50% of all votes and in a finely balanced contest it is possible for the “winner” to receive a relatively small share of the overall votes cast. To give an illustration, in the 2016 Scottish Election, the lowest vote share for a constituency that resulted in a candidate winning the seat was 30.4% in Edinburgh Central which resulted in Ruth Davidson becoming the Constituency MSP for the Conservatives.

Once all of the constituency seats have been allocated, the results are used to inform the second part of the election.

The Orange One: The Regional or Additional Member Vote

In the orange ballot you vote for the political party that you think best represents your interests. Again, you do this just with a single X in the box next to their name. However, this vote is counted using a different method to the Constituency vote.

In this part of the election, Scotland is split into eight regions. Each of these regions is allocated seven seats (for a total of 56 MSPs). The people actually elected to fill these seats are selected by the political parties themselves who draw up a “list” of candidates. If the party wins one or more seats in a region, then people are taken from that list in numerical order and offered a seat as an MSP (if they refuse or are unable to take the seat then the next person on the list takes their place). You, as a voter, have limited influence over who is placed on these lists and in which order (though members of political parties may or may not have had the ability to vote for these lists according to each party’s individual arrangements). The larger regions compared to the constituencies mean that the responsibilities for Regional MSPs are a bit more diffuse than Constituency MSPs but each MSP has equal standing in Parliament (Regional MSPs are not second-class compared to Constituency MSPs) and you as a voter have the right to approach any of your Regional MSPs to ask them to advocate for you (which can be useful if any of them or your constituency MSP is part of the problem you’re trying to solve or their party is ideologically opposed to your solution). After the election, you can write to any of your MSPs using tools such as this one.

Once votes are in, the parties are allocated their seats according to a version of the d’Hondt method modified to account for seats already won in the constituency vote. We can illustrate this using the results for the South Scotland region in 2016.



The way that d’Hondt works is to take the number of votes a party has and divide it by the number of seats that party has already won, plus 1. In the Scottish elections, this includes the seats already won in the Constituency elections. For example, in 2016 in the South of Scotland, the SNP won four Constituency seats thus started the Regional battle with their Regional votes divided by 5 (4+1). This is repeated over several rounds and the party with the highest adjusted vote in each round wins a seat.

The table above shows the regional votes for the top six parties in that election divided into the various rounds. The SNP and Conservatives each won four Constituency seats and Labour won one so these potential regional seats are blacked out having already been “won”.

The next highest adjusted number of voters is Labour in round 2 at 28,036 so they win the first Regional seat in the South. This is followed by the SNP with their round 5 count of 24,043 (which is their total Regional vote count of 120,2017 divided by five). Further seats are allocated in the same way until all seven Regional seats are determined. Three for the SNP, two for the Conservatives and two for Labour.

Added to the previously won Constituency seats, this means that across the region, the SNP won seven seats, the Conservatives won six and Labour won three. Translated into percentages, that meant that the SNP won 44% of the seats in the South of Scotland based on 38% of the vote, the Conservatives won 37% of the seats based on 35% of the vote and Labour won 18% of the seats based on 18% of the vote. The Scottish AMS system produces results that are, overall, roughly proportional to the Regional vote – although it can be seen even here that it slightly favours larger parties over smaller ones with the SNP in particularly winning more seats than they were “due” based on their vote share.


This has been your guide to the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary Election. Please share it with any new voters who could benefit from it. There are plenty of other issues to talk about when it comes to voting but most of them quickly enter the realm of “Who to vote for” rather than “how to vote” so I won’t be covering them here. This includes issues such as “splitting” your two votes (While the majority of voters tend to vote for a particular party on their regional ballot and a member of the same party on their Constituency ballot there is absolutely nothing prevent you from doing otherwise for any reason) or “tactical voting” (which means voting not for your personally preferred candidate or party but one that either may maximise MSPs who support a particular issue or even maximise the chances of a candidate or party you hate losing the election).

I certainly have my own views about who and which party I think folk should vote for but as per my disclaimer, that’s for another day.

The elections are only a couple of weeks away now and I hope as many people as possible turn out and take part in them. As Plato once opined, the penalty for refusing to participate in politics is to allow in someone worse who didn’t.

And finally, don’t forget to come back here after the results are in for my breakdown, analysis and opinions about what happens next in the Scottish Parliament.

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6 thoughts on “How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the 2021 Scottish Election

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