There’s a need to do a wee explanation of STV for dummies because there seems to be a lot of confusion about it. Admittedly when you look at a typical Saturday evening’s entertainment on STV and it’s wall to wall Ant and bloody Dec, it’s pretty apparent that they’re pretty good at doing dummies all by themselves. But it’s not that sort of STV I mean. We’re talking about Single Transferable Voting, the voting system used in Scottish local elections.
I first published a version of this article before the last council elections way back in 2017, but it is still relevant to this May’s election, perhaps even more so since there is now a new pro-independence party that is an option on some ballot papers, a party about which opinions are, to put it mildly, divided.
I am not going to tell anyone who to vote for, I have my own personal preferences about the independence parties which I will rank most highly, and I am sure that you do too. It is abundantly clear from the experience of the past year or so that bloggers, myself included, have at best only a marginal impact on the outcome of elections in Scotland. All I would counsel is that you rank everyone on the ballot, and that you rank the candidates who represent pro-independence parties above those who represent parties opposed to independence. I am not going to offer any opinions on the order in which you should choose to rank your preferences.
However I will say that you should always rank the Tories and any other right wing British nationalists in last place, and will note that our mendacious media and the anti-independence parties will always use the SNP vote as a proxy for independence support and will ignore the votes received by the other pro-independence parties as they attempt to push an anti-independence narrative.
One of the sources of confusion is that in Scotland we use different voting methods in different elections. In Westminster elections it’s first past the post. In Holyrood elections it’s first past the post in the constituency vote, which is then topped up by the regional vote list where the d’Hondt method is used. And when we used to have elections to the European parliament before the Tories robbed us of this, the entire vote was conducted according to the d’Hondt method. The local elections that we are having in May are determined by a different system of proportional representation, called Single Transferable Vote, or STV. Because different voting systems require different approaches to tactical voting, confusion easily arises.
First past the post is the oldest voting system, and the one that’s most entrenched in the minds of voters. Under first past the post you have a single vote, and you mark an X beside the name of the candidate you want to see elected. Under STV you rank candidates 1, 2, 3, etc. You need only rank those you want to vote for, you only need to put a 1 beside your favoured candidate for your ballot to be valid. Or if there are three candidates from your favoured party you can rank them 1, 2, 3, and that’s all you need to do. You get as many ranking choices as there are candidates on the ballot paper, although you don’t have to rank every single one of them for your vote to be valid.
However you can influence who else gets elected after your number one choice by ranking everyone on the ballot. Under first past the post, you cast a vote FOR a candidate, and that means many voters are reluctant to exploit their STV ballots to the full because they feel that by ranking everyone on the ballot they are voting for candidates or parties that they may not wish to vote for, or even despise.
One of the biggest differences between FPTP and STV is that with FPTP you only vote for a single candidate. With STV you can also use your vote to vote against a candidate. Under STV, when you rate a candidate last, you’re not voting for them, you’re voting against them, you’re saying that you want everyone else to get elected before them. Don’t think of it as voting for a particular candidate, so much as rating them all from epic all the way down to wanker. Or, as they put it in Northern Ireland where they use STV for elections to Stormont, Vote Till You Boak. That’s how the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland managed to deprive the Unionists of an overall majority for the first time ever.
For me, and I suspect for most of the readers of this blog, the boak-making candidates in most local authority wards will be Tories and also, in some areas, your actual out and out fascists. Those are the candidates I’m going to rate lowest of all, because they’re the most boak inducing. By rating everyone else on the ballot above them, I am helping to ensure that everyone else will be elected before the Tories or the far right. Ranking them at the bottom of my list of preferences is not a vote for them, it’s a vote for anyone but them. It’s a way you can use your STV ballot in order to have the best chance of getting a council that you approve of, or at least the one that you least disapprove of.
Think of your STV ballot paper as you being a school teacher giving out grades. Give the good grades to the candidates you approve of, those nice independence supporting people who’ve done their homework and promise to bring you the apple of independence, regular rubbish collections, and better local public services, or whatever is most important to you. Then rate the ones who are neutral, who you think could do better.
And then you give the failing grades to the Tories who are basing their entire campaign on not allowing the people of Scotland to have a voice on a subject that local councils don’t get to influence anyway and saying that it’s everyone else who’s obsessed about that referendum that they talk about to the exclusion of everything else. If there are six candidates on the ballot, rating the Tory as a six is equivalent to giving them an F. It’s certainly not a vote for a Tory. It’s saying that you’d rather that everyone else on the ballot was elected before the Tory. And that’s because you’re a reasonable human being with a functioning moral compass, and not an apologist for the despicable Tory migrant and refugee policy, or Johnson’s law breaking, or for soliciting party donations from friends of Vladimir Putin.
The Tories are advising their voters to rank the SNP last. So we need to employ the same tactic in order to minimise the Tory vote. Abstaining after you’ve ranked all the pro-indy candidates doesn’t help to minimise the Tory vote because other people, like Tory supporters or the frothing howlers who comment on the Herald website, are going to rate them highly. If you don’t rate non-Tory candidates, you make it more likely that a Tory is going to get enough votes to get over the finish line.
Under STV, a candidate is elected once they reach the necessary quota. This quota is determined by a formula. The formula is the total number of votes cast, divided by the number of available seats in the ward plus one, then one is added to the resulting number. At which point the eyes of most normal people start to glaze over. It’s better to illustrate it with a simple example.
Imagine an election in which there are two seats to be filled in the ward and three candidates are standing: Indy Irene, Tory Tom, and Federalist Fred. There are 1500 people eligible to vote, and 1000 voters turned out to vote and cast valid votes. The formula for deciding the quota for election is 1000 divided by 2+1, plus 1. This equals 334.333, which is rounded down to 334 because you can’t get .333 of a vote, not even if you’re one of Ruth Davidson’s burly men. 334 votes is what a candidate needs in order to get elected.
450 voters ranked Indy Irene as their number 1, and 300 ranked Tory Tom as number 1, the remaining 250 ranked Federalist Fred as number 1. These first preference votes get counted first. Indy Irene has received 450 first rankings, so she’s declared elected with 116 votes to spare over the quota of 334.
Now the second rankings get counted to decide which of the other two gets elected, this is where the transferable part of a Single Transferable vote comes into play. Either Tory Tom or Federalist Fred is going to win the second seat. In this election, Federalist Fred is the lesser of two evils, because unlike Tory Tom he doesn’t advocate selling off his grandmother to an American health corporation. If all of the people who voted for Indy Irene ranked Federalist Fred as their number 2, her spare 116 votes will go to Federalist Fred.
That means that in the second round of counting, Federalist Fred now has 366 votes (his 250 first rankings plus 116 from Indy Irene’s supporters second rankings), and this takes him over the quota of 334 and Federalist Fred is declared the winner of the second seat. Even though Tory Tom got more first preference votes than Federalist Fred, Tory Tom still loses. At which point all right thinking people go, “Ha. Ha. Loser!” and do that L thing on their foreheads.
If none of Indy Irene’s supporters ranked Federalist Fred as their number two and they all had abstained, then Tory Tom would have picked the seat up in the second round because there would have been no second preferences from Indy Irene to redistribute. Which only goes to show that if you don’t rank the lesser of two evils as your number two, then the real shit will win.
As long as you rank all the other candidates, you don’t actually need to rank Tory Tom, just ensure that he’s pushed to the bottom. But you do need to rank the other candidates to ensure the Tory is at the bottom of the pile. It’s just easier, and safer, to explain to people to list all the candidates on the ballot in order of gorgeous to god-awful. This is why you need to use your second third fourth etc preferences, and vote until you boak to keep the Tories and their little helpers out.
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