Instant runoff voting in Scotland's local elections

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Thursday was election day across Britain, with voters picking local government councilors and members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

For the first time, Scotland will be choosing local authority councilors using the single transferable vote (STV) method, a form of instant runoff voting that is designed to produce a proportional outcome. Rather than having a single member per council ward, each ward will elect three or four members. Voters will rank the candidates in order of preference. This same system is used for parliamentary elections in the Republican of Ireland and local government and European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland.

The change was authorized by the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004. Its passage was a condition set out by the Liberal Democrats for entering into a coalition government with Labour in the Scottish Parliament following the 2003 election.

Under the old system, with four or more parties competing in each ward, it was typical for the winning candidate to receive far less than 50% of the vote. The Vote Scotland website estimates that only 40% of the voters had the satisfaction of seeing their choice elected, but under STV, the number one choice of about 80% of the voters will wind up in office. (An Electoral Reform Society study on the most recent local election in Northern Ireland showed that 75% of first preferences went to candidates that were elected, and another 12% of first preferences were for a party that had at least one member elected from that constituency.)

Instead of doing a hand count, Scotland is using scanning machines which read and perform optical character recognition on hand-marked ballots. A company called DRS is providing the scanning technology, and the Electoral Reform Society, a non-partisan group that encourages adoption of STV, is helping to educate voters about the new system. If the voter's intent is uncertain, the scanner will capture an image of the ballot and transmit it to an election official, who will read and interpret it. In all cases, the paper ballot marked by the voter is preserved and available for hand-counting if necessary. (There ought to be a law against any automated counting or voting system that doesn't preserve a paper record which has been verified by the voter.)

The ERS study in Northern Ireland showed a high degree of voter satisfaction with the voting method and outcome. Spoiled ballot counts were nearly the same as in the last parliamentary election, which used the traditional X next to your candidate's name.

That same study also had some interesting notes on the strategies used by parties to maximize the number of seats they captured in a given constituency, with pictures of signs and handbills used by parties to instruct their voters. In Northern Ireland, each constituency had six seats up for election. The RTE website has detailed counts for each constituency, showing vote transfers as candidates were elected and eliminated. For example, here's the count for the North Antrim constituency, home turf for Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley. Despite the DUP's dominance, with 49% of first preferences, minority interests still were able to elect a representative. The DUP won three seats; Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and the Ulster Unionist Party won one each.

Things are a bit more complicated for Scottish voters. While the local elections are using STV, Scottish Parliament elections use a form of proportional representation called the additional member system. A voter votes for a specific candidate to represent his constituency, then casts a vote for a party's regional list of candidates. When all the votes are counted, a method is used to "top up" each party's number of seats in the region, so that the overall total is as close as possible to the proportion of votes cast for each party. The extra members for a party for a region are taken in order from a list of names supplied by party leadership, which means that these members aren't being elected by name by the public. You can see an example of both ballots and an attempt at an explanation from one of Scotland's local authorities, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles).

UPDATE 2007/05/04: Things did not go smoothly in Scotland. Three different votes with two different voting methods on two ballots caused some confusion, the scanners jammed on the paper ballots, and the software was having difficulty with "consolidating" the votes. That latter problem is surprising because it doesn't have anything to do with voter confusion or scanning problems. Consolidation is what's done once the ballots have been scanned and interpreted -- the process of counting first preferences and redistributing the surplus votes of elected candidates and the votes of eliminated candidates. That part should have already been perfected.

The good news, for those who believe in a United Kingdom, is that the Scottish Nationalists beat Labour but fell short of a majority of seats, and will have to solicit the support of parties that oppose secession in order to form a government. The other pleasant surprise is that the Conservatives, who have had their difficulties north of the Tweed in recent years, finished third, ahead of the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives had a great day south of the Tweed as well, taking about 40% of the vote in local elections and winning 50% of the more than 10,000 council seats up for election. Particular congratulations go to former MP Michael W. Bates, leader of the Tories' efforts to rebuild the party in the North of England. The Conservatives took control of several northern councils including Blackpool (gain from Labour), Chester, East Riding of Yorkshire, and South Ribble. I'll be interested in seeing the vote breakdown by region.

The map of England is increasingly blue, and that's a good thing. (I will never forgive USA Today for assigning red to the Republican Party in their famous county-by-county map of the 2000 presidential election. Red, the color of socialist parties everywhere, properly belongs to the Democrats.)

Here's what Conservative Party chairman Francis Maude had to say about the result:

Now that most of the results are in, it's clear that we've made a massive breakthrough. We now control over 200 councils across England - three times as many councils as Labour and the Lib Dems combined. What's more, we've made a great breakthrough in the North of England with more councils than Labour in the North West and Yorkshire.

We're now the only party that represents the whole of England. This is a great base on which we can build victory at the next election, taking our message of change, hope and optimism to more communities across the country.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 3, 2007 10:08 PM.

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