How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the 2022 Scottish Local Authority Elections

Disclosure and Disclaimer: Although I am politically active, this guide 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.

Introduction

image_2022-04-16_144721780

(2017 local authority election results map. Source: Wikipedia)

On May 5th, Scotland will once again go to the polls to elect councillors to our Local Authorities. This election will take place simultaneously with local authority elections in England and Wales along with elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Scotland is presently organised into 32 local authorities commonly called councils split into smaller sub-units known as wards. These councils are elected every five year under the proportional representation voting system known as Single Transferrable Vote, or STV. The last election was in 2017.

As with elections everywhere, there will be people looking at this election as their first opportunity to vote and if you are one of them, this guide is aimed mainly at you. You can read previous similar guides to other elections in Scotland since I started this blog behind the links covering the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Elections, the 2017 UK General Elections, the 2017 Scottish Local Authority Elections, the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections, the 2019 UK General Elections, and the 2021 Scottish Parliamentary Elections.

This will be the second election in Scotland employing our expanded electoral franchise. There are no longer any citizenship tests involved in eligibility to vote. With very few exceptions, all that is required is that you are (or will be on May 5th) aged 16+, have permanent leave to reside in Scotland and are not currently serving a prison sentence of more than 12 months. The relatively short time since the expansion of the franchise means that it will not just be 16 year olds who can vote for the first time. It’s very possible that you are now able to vote where you were not able to in the last local election in 2017. Whoever ever you are, whomever you plan to vote for, it is important that you take this chance to exercise your democratic right and power. If you want to, but you’re not sure how – this guide is for you.

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 18th of April which means that as of the posting of this article, you have only a few days left to do this.

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

Not who to vote for – we’ll get to that – this is on deciding how you will actually cast your vote. The majority of voters do so in person at their designated polling place but some will want to do so by post or via a proxy (where you nominate someone to go to the polling place for you). If you wish to apply for a postal vote you can do so here but be aware that the application must by at your local electoral office no later than April 19th. Information on proxy voting can be found here.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these methods. Accessibility being the main advantage for postal and proxy voting – you may have many reasons why there may be a barrier to you going to your polling place on the day from personal reasons through bad weather or concerns about Covid (polling places are likely to have mitigation measures in place against this as guided by the Government). On the other hand, voting in person on the day has a sense of solidarity to it that is hard to match and as postal votes are often cast days or weeks ahead of the vote there is a chance that something could happen during the political campaign that means your decision when casting the postal vote is different compared to how you would vote on May 5th.

However, there is no “right” way from these options. That you cast your vote is far more important than how you do it.

If you do choose to vote in person you will receive (or may already have received) a card similar to the one below

image_2022-04-16_143116810

On the rear of this card there will be detailed instructions on how to vote, how to apply for postal or proxy votes (including how to do so in an emergency) as well as contact details for further information if you need it.

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 station to cast your vote.

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 in a separate blog post I’ll try to link to as many of the party manifestos as I can though we also have to be aware that there may be local issues of significant importance to your community that don’t factor into those national campaigns and there may be minor parties or independent candidates in your area who have their own priorities or goals.

One useful resource is this one by Who Can I Vote For. If you enter your postcode, it will tell you your ward and local authority as well as which candidates you will have the opportunity to vote for.

Step Four:- Casting your vote

STV is not the easiest voting system to understand – harder even than the AMS system used in the Scottish elections. In principle, it’s simple to work out how to cast your vote but it’s a lot harder to work out how your vote translates into the final results. We’ll focus on the easy bit first.

When you cast your vote – either in person or by post – you’ll be presented with a ballot paper that looks a little like the one below.

ballot

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.

One point to consider is that you are not strictly voting for a political party in this election (despite how most of the parties present things in their campaigns). Instead, you are voting for people. These people may or may not be members of parties (and their entry will indicate this) and they may be more or less likely to follow that party’s line rather than their own (or vice versa). There may also be more than one candidate on your ballot paper who belong to the same political party. This information may factor into your choice of vote.

To actually vote is slightly different from most of the other elections in Scotland. Unlike, say, the UK General Election you do not simply mark one box on the ballot paper with an X. Instead you 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 have no preference amongst the remaining candidates, 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. (This said, there is a fine tradition of expressing a protest against all candidates or against the election as a whole by deliberately spoiling one’s ballot – this is a much stronger form of protest than not voting at all)

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.

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.

* In previous LA elections (such as the one from which the example ballot paper came from), all candidates had to provide their current address on the ballot paper – effectively making where they lived a matter for the public domain. From 2022 onwards, their full address will only be printed if they live outwith the constituency in which they are standing.

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 in that the person with the most votes wins the seats, the party with the most seats (generally) 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 of the blog 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. If you’re feeling particularly brave or interested, please click the Continue Reading button below. Even if you do, feel free to skip to the final section where I talk about some voting strategies.

Hi. Welcome to the hard bit.

The first thing we need to do before we even start counting votes is that we need to determine how many seats there are in the ward in which you’re voting (this will be indicated on your polling information card). Most wards will be returning either 3 or 4 councillors but how many there are impacts how your vote will be counted. In order to be elected, a candidate needs to receive a certain number of votes known as the Quota which is based on the following equation:

Quota

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 you haven’t voted for all of the candidates and have left some boxes blank or if, by the time your ballot is transferred onwards, all of the remaining candidates on your list have already been eliminated then your vote will stop transferring and will be ignored for the remainder of the contest.

If they receive more votes than the quota, then the next step is triggered. Unlike other elections, your vote is never “wasted” even if you vote for someone who is already extremely popular. Back in the day of hand-counted, hand-calculated ballots, the votes in excess of the quota were skimmed off and then placed on piles as per their 2nd choice candidate. This, however, introduces bias in the form of the luck of the draw of whether or not your ballot is at the top or the bottom of the pile. Nowadays, a statistical method is applied whereby all of the votes to an elected candidate are distributed to their 2nd choices but the “weight” of each of those votes is adjusted downwards. This means that the voting power of a vote transferred from a successful candidate will be less than one transferred from an eliminated one. You can think of this as meaning that some of the value of your vote has been “spent” to elect someone and the “change” is now being used to try to elected someone else.

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. For an example from the 2017 election, you can follow the results of the ward in which I took part as a candidate. I didn’t win, but we can follow the progress of votes for me and for the other candidates to see how they all moved around.

Clydsdale South Results

STV isn’t a perfect election system (none are; they all have their trade offs) but the complexity of the count is balanced against the advantage of having local candidates accountable to your area and its relative proportionality (meaning that across Scotland as a whole, one can expect the percentage of candidates of a particular party to closely match the percentage of votes for candidates of that party – though STV does have its issues around favouring larger parties over smaller ones).

However, that relative complexity does come at the cost of possibly creating some confusion around how one should vote if you want to achieve a particular result (such as favouring a particular party or coalition of parties).

Myths and Strategies

People or Party?

As stated above, you are technically not voting for a party in this election but people who may or may not be members of that party. We also have to remember that while party politicians will likely follow a party line to a greater or lesser degree, they are also fundamentally interviewing for a job and that job is to represent you and your community. When you come to rank a particular candidate over another you may wish to bear that in mind. You may wish to rank a competent and/or experienced candidate over an incompetent or corrupt one and this may be true whether or not those two hypothetical candidates are members of the same political party or members of rival parties. You may even decide that a particularly competent candidate has value even if they belong to a party that you don’t particularly agree with and that even if this means that they are not your first choice, then they needn’t be your last either.

Should I only vote for people/parties I like?

Not necessarily. The advantage of ranked voting is that it gives you the opportunity to place someone last on the list and effectively say “I only want you to be elected if absolutely everyone else has been eliminated” (Note however that you cannot leave any gaps in your numbering. If there are five candidates and you wish to place one 1st and one 5th then you cannot skip the numbers in between. Doing so will void your ballot entirely).

In this sense, placing someone low on the list is equivalent to a vote against them whereas placing them high is a vote for them. It is important to say that your vote will only transfer to a candidate once everyone higher on your list has either been elected or eliminated so there is no possible way for your vote to favour a candidate low on your list over someone higher up. Your vote will not help a low-placed candidate gain any advantage or preference from you above that which you give any candidate higher up than them. You will only give them any kind of endorsement after those higher candidates are either elected or eliminated. If you wish to maximise your voting power, then you should rank as many candidates as you can until you reach the point that you genuinely cannot express a preference between the remaining candidates.

“Vote till ye boak”

The flip side of the argument that you should rank every candidate is that there may come a point that either you simply do not care one way of the other about remaining candidates or they are equally repulsive to you. We do have to consider that if your vote does transfer to a candidate and that candidate ends up being elected then they will claim your vote as a mandate for their actions in office. If you wish to avoid this happening even in the unlikely event of a low-ranked ballot being transferred to them then you may wish to abstain and simply not rank them. This is perfectly valid, albeit more of a philosophical argument than one about maximising the impact of your vote. Indeed, by leaving some boxes blank you will be giving up some of your potential voting power in the same way that not voting at all or submitting a completely blank ballot means giving up all of your voting power. This may be an acceptable trade-off against potentially backing someone who you do not want to see acting in your name.

Party-Max

Some parties will be standing more than one candidate in some wards and may be running quite a subtle and sophisticated game of vote management that – to the outside observer – can look unintuitive. It may be that they have an experienced councillor and a first time candidate. Given that they want to get their veteran in, they may tell everyone to rank the veteran 1 and the newbie 2. However, we live in an extremely data-rich environment these days and folk are trying to use that data to eke out any advantage they can. This can include how they approach voters with how the party thinks the voter should rank those candidates. There have been cases of parties telling one street to vote the veteran as rank 1 and their newbie as rank 2 and then going to the next street over and saying the opposite. Don’t be afraid to ask activists why they are asking you to rank their own candidates in a particular way. And certainly don’t be afraid to make your own judgement about those candidates – parties are ultimately biased and will almost never tell you to vote against their candidates or to rank another party above themselves. If you feel affinity towards a certain party then by all means place their candidates high on your list but do not be discouraged from voting for others either if you still have preferences – those transferred votes can help determine who does and does not sit alongside your preferred party on the council.

Indy-Max

This last example is unavoidably the one where I have to put a crack into the objectively I wanted to maintain in this article. The constitutional divide Scotland finds itself in will rear its head during this election (despite the fact that local councillors have little power to influence the timing of an independence referendum).

However you may wish to cast your vote in this election to ensure a maximum number of pro- (or anti-) independence councillors. In the case of a pro-indy coalition, you’d probably want to rank all of the openly pro-indy candidates high on your list and all of the anti-indy candidates low on your list (or not vote for them at all, see the sections above for the comparative advantages or either). This, however, leaves you still in the position of ranking candidates within those two blocs as per your preference or ranking down or entirely omitting candidates or parties you don’t like. And, again, indy isn’t the only issue in this election (or even the main one given it is a local election) so you might find yourself considering that a candidate who agrees with you on all but one issue is worth a higher rank than someone who disagrees with you on everything except that one. Ultimately, your vote is yours and unless you choose otherwise, it stays strictly between you and your pencil.

Conclusion

In some ways, the strength of the STV voting system are also their weakness, its selectiveness allows people to make extremely nuanced and subtle judgements about the candidates and parties in an election and they entirely eliminate the dilemma of being forced to vote for a party you dislike in order to prevent a victory by a party you despise. However, it is a complicated voting system – especially for those used to marking a single box with an X. When I stood in 2017 I couldn’t express my dismay when I saw ballots cast for me get dismissed as invalid because the voter had marked two boxes with an X or with the same number. They probably did so in good faith but their mistake cost them their vote.

If this guide, long and complex as it is, helps someone maximise their vote and helps a candidate win their election as a result of that vote then it will be worth the effort. Hopefully, it has served to help you better understand how these elections work and how to make sure that your voice is counted.

Good luck to all candidates in May.

TCG Logo 2019

4 thoughts on “How Scotland Votes: A Guide to the 2022 Scottish Local Authority Elections

  1. Pingback: Scottish Local Elections 2022:- The Manifestos | The Common Green

  2. Excellent, but you omitted to provide a note explaining the asterisk here – “The candidates will be listed in alphabetical order by surname with their home address*”.

    My understanding is that they only provide a specific address if the candidate lives outside the constituency, which happens to be the case for the candidate from the Scottish Green Party in my constituency. If so, do you think this will/should disadvantage them?

    I’m presented with candidates from 3 parties that I violently disagree with (unrelated to the independence issue). This may be the case in a significant number of constituencies. The correct strategy is ‘vote till you boak’, which would normally mean putting the C&UP candidate last in my case – or preferably for (boaking reasons) not including them, which would produce the same result.
    Tricky in this case!

    Like

    • Thanks Gordon. I knew I had forgotten something in there.

      Will it disadvantage them? A very good question – one worthy of study when we see the results. My preference would have been for no addresses to appear on the ballot papers. It makes where candidates live a matter of public domain and could be a security risk – especially for unsuccessful candidates who don’t then qualify for any kind of security the way an elected official might.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Democracy on your Doorstep | The Common Green

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