Saturday, May 05, 2007

Scottish election historic... and a debacle

As I mentioned last week, the Scottish parliament's elections were held this week. Election day was Thursday.

The Scottish National Party won the election, by winning more seats in the Scottish parliament than any other party. The main opponents, by rank of seats, were the Labour Party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, the Liberal-Democrats, and then the Green Party taking up the rear. The number of seats in the 131 seat parliament, by party, are SNP 47, Labour 46, Conservatives 17, Lib-Dems 16, Greens 2, Independents 1.

A couple of notes about the Scottish parliament. First, if you add the seats up you'll notice they total 129. That's because the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General of Scotland — neither position of which is elected — both have seats in parliament. These positions, combined, are much like the Attorney General position in the U.S. or the Solicitor General in Canada (with the Lord Advocate being the senior of the two).

Second, the seats in Scotland's parliament use a system called the mixed member proportional representation system. Seventy-three seats are voted on by the people of a constituency. They choose a name on a ballot and vote for that person. This is a "first past the post" system, much like Canadian parliamentary elections and the congressional elections in most U.S. states (but not Louisiana). Canadians can think of a constituency as equivalent to a riding, and Americans can think of the constituencies as akin to a congressional district. Then, the voters vote a second time — on the same ballot — for a particular party, and this is used to determine the number of additional seats awarded to a party in a region.

The way this second ballot works takes a little explaining...

The problem with first past the post elections in multi party system is that you usually end up with more people voting against the winner of an election than for the winner. If you have four parties in a constituency, it's possible to win with the election with just slightly more than 25% of the vote (or even less than 25% of the vote if there are independents or spoiled ballots). Even Americans see this happening (more people voted against Bush in the 2000 election than for him) though it's more common with multiple parties.

So, to get around this issue and give the other parties more of a say, Scotland has this second ballot system. People vote for a party for their region on the second ballot. They do not vote for a particular person. These second ballots are totalled for the entire region. Then, the vote for a party is divided by the number of seats they won in the constituency plus 1. So, if a party received 50,000 votes and won nine seats on the first set of ballots, they would get 50,000 divided by (9 + 1) = a score of 5,000. After all the numbers are calculated for each party, the party with the highest number gets a regional seat. Each party supplies a list of people who will serve in parliament for the region if their party gets a regional seat. The first person on the winning party's list becomes the first of the seven regional members.

Then, the process is done again, but the party who just won a seat from the list has their total recalculated as the number of votes divided by the number of constituency seats plus the list seat they just won plus 1. The party this time with the most votes gets the second regional seat. Then the process continues again. Each time a party gets a regional seat their total is recalculated, with the divisor increasing by 1 for each "list" member they are assigned. The process ends when all seven seats are allocated.

For an example of how this works, see this page (it's for what appears to be a Scottish fringe party):

This means that it's incredibly likely that a party that wins a region's constituencies in a landslide is unlikely to win any of the region's "list" members unless it also has a vast majority of the votes on the second ballot. Since most people are going to vote the same way on both ballots, this method evens out the representation in parliament. As an example from the 2003 election, all 10 of the Glasgow region constituency seats were won by Labour, but the seven regional seats were split between five other parties.

So, with this in mind, here are the full results of the Scottish election:

In a first past the post only election, Labour would have won a majority. Of course, if that had been the case in 2003 Labour would have won an even bigger majority than it enjoyed, even though they only received about 35% of the popular vote. Now the Scottish National Party has won a minority government, and will probably look to the Liberal-Democrats to help form a coalition. This is historic, because the SNP have long advocated Scotland's independence from Great Britain, and have run on a platform promising a referendum on the issue. This result is similar to when the Parti Quebecois first won a provincial election in Quebec, though for the analogy to work it would be like they won when only Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia had provincial parliaments.

Whether or not Scotland will pull out of the Union is still up in the air, but the country is one step closer to a vote on the issue. John Major's Conservatives in London were against giving Scotland its own parliament in the late 90s, fearful that it would "end 1000 years of British history" (even though the Act of Union, and thus Great Britain, was less than 300 years old at that point). The Labour party said that Scotland having its own party would fatally undermine the SNP by giving Scots a measure of self governance, and thus quench the desire for independence. It, uh, didn't work out that way...

That's the historic part of the election. Unfortunately, the election process itself was somewhat of a debacle. It is being called the worst run election in modern British history. At the centre of the is a farce reminiscent of Florida's hanging chad fiasco.

Some 100,000 votes had to be thrown out because they were spoiled. In other words, the votes were filled out incorrectly and thus had to be eliminated. Spoiled ballots are a feature of non-electronic/non-machine elections. When you cast your vote on a ballot using a pen, people will sometimes put down their mark for more than one candidate. This means the vote is invalid, but it does get counted among the votes cast. In Canada people would sometimes spoil their vote as a protest (though there's no constitutional requirement for the government to do anything if a sufficiently high number of spoiled votes ever appeared), but most spoiled ballots were accidental. On Thursday's Scottish election, 100,000 votes — or approximately 1 in 20 — had to be ignored. What's worse, the proportion hit about 10% in some constituencies. In six locations the number of spoiled ballot exceeded the difference in votes between the first and second place candidates. In Scotland's 2003 election the percentage of spoiled ballots came to 0.81% (roughly 1/6 what it was this year).

The vast majority of spoiled ballots were due to a poorly designed form (much like the criticism levelled at Florida in 2000). If you made it this far, you know about Scotland's two-ballot election system. In the past, both ballots were on different pieces of differently coloured paper. It was easy to understand what you were supposed to make one mark on each piece of paper. This time around the two pieces of paper were thrown onto one form. Voters were supposed to put one mark in each column, only. Instead, some voters became confused (ala Florida's "Jews for Buchanan") and put down two marks in the first column, none in the second, and thus their vote wasn't valid. The ballot paper said, "You have two votes", apparently resulting in the confusion.

Adding to the the confusion was the fact that two different elections were held on the same day. The town council elections were held at the same time, using a different piece of paper and a different voting system. In these elections you chose members by putting down a number, ranking the preference. It saved money having two elections at once, but some of the parliament ballots had numbers on them, indicating that some people read the rules for the council elections and applied those rules to the parliamentary election ballot, spoiling them.

Then there is the mess with the counting machines. The ballots were paper ballots, but they were machine counted. The ballot was fed into a machine, and the machine read the vote and tallied it. This worked well at first (i.e. with the first few dozen ballots at any given polling station) but then the counting machines started to mangle the ballots. The stations kept mangled ballots (which apparently couldn't be counted due to the mangling, adding insult to injury) separate from the other ballots for later hand counting.

If this wasn't enough, in one polling station a man returned to the station, after voting, with a golf club! He attacked he ballot boxes with the club, physically tearing a number of ballots. He was eventually hauled away. In the Western islands a thick fog grounded the helicopter that was supposed to fly over to pick up the ballot boxes. Instead, they had to secure trucks and drive the ballots to the mainland via ferry.

The Labour Party has announced that they are challenging the election results. Not surprising as they are behind by only a single constituency. Meanwhile, there will be an inquiry into the election. What a way to start a parliamentary session. And some wags have pointed out that it doesn't bode well for independence when a country disenfranchies 5% of the electorate...

For information about the debacle, see this article:


Michael said...

Small correction: it was the Parti Quebecois, not the Bloc, that won power in Quebec. The Bloc is a federal party.

Allan Goodall said...

I fixed it! I knew it was Parti Quebecois the second I read your post!