Monday, 9 April 2012

Ballot Paper Confusion

Just in case you have been on another planet, you will be aware that there is the small matter of the Local Government elections on May 3rd. Nothing particularly special in the great scheme of things, having to vote in a few local representatives to organise the bins being emptied and the grass cut.

In 2007 there was a lot of confusion with both the Parliamentary and Local Government elections held on the same day, causing an unprecedented amount of spoiled or invalid papers. Hence the reason for the elections to be held separately this time around.

The Single Transferrable Vote system (STV) will be used again, and the Electoral Commission has distributed leaflets showing how to vote correctly.

However, there is still the potential for a bit of confusion, because this system is different to the one used last year for the Parliamentary one.

You have a list of all the candidates in your ward, with a box beside each name. You make your choices by entering a number beside one, some or all of the candidates. So, for the SNP, enter 1, Labour enter 2 and so on.

But you can make as few or as many choices as you want, provided you vote for at least one candidate.

Possible areas of confusion are where the same party is represented by two or more candidates. Some voters may vote on party lines, thus only selecting one candidate. Others might put a 1 against each of the same party.

Let's remember, that this is a fairly new system only used five years ago. Most people have little time for politics and some will find it genuinely hard to understand. There will be help at the polling stations, but some may feel reluctant to ask. Not everyone will read the Electoral Commission's leaflet.

Party political broadcasts may be unhelpful as well (not that many people watch them!). The SNP has the nice Miss Hoolie-esque telling us:

"Remember, SNP, 1,2 3!" (or is that 1,2,3 SNP??)

What if you don't have three SNP candidates?

The election may be carried out with no more than the average invalid papers, but I think the system will still cause confusion with some voters. Perhaps it should be a case of putting a number against every candidate, or only the top three.

No voting system is perfect, and STV is fairer than FPTP. But how many people are going to place an "X" in the box? Would it not be better if the same voting system was used for both Parliamentary and Local Government elections?

Obviously nothing will change before the next parliamentary elections, and if the invalid votes are low then nothing will. But a similar percentage as we saw in 2007 will certainly raise concerns.


  1. Indeed, and if the spoilt papers are anything like last time in volume then it'll have all been another huge waste of money decoupling the two elections.

    You'd think they'd be able to come up with some kind of system to validate the paper before it's placed in the box and to advise the voter accordingly if it's incorrect.

  2. Quite frankly, the Mixed Member Plurality system used in Holyrood elections is more complex to explain to the average voter than Single Transferable Vote. It's a common myth that STV is too complicated for the electorate to understand, which conveniently ignores the fact that all of the intricacies take place AFTER your vote is placed. On the day, it's simply the case that you rank your preferred candidates in order. What happens to your vote afterwards is labyrinthine, but doesn't change the choices you made on the slip.

    Anyone who can't understand a simple preferential voting system probably shouldn't be voting anyway. I don't share your fears and have faith that Scots as a whole are more than intelligent enough to grasp STV and employ it to do what they want.

  3. Craig, I'm speaking from professional experience of designing forms which are used to collate data. When designing a system, you aim for the lowest common denominator - in this case, the ability to understand the form.

    My concern is that the voters are simply not used to STV. Last year's elections were simply selecting a couple of candidates, and Westminster's was the old cross in the box. Now they are being asked to use numbers.

    I'm not criticising the voting system, merely highlighting the potential for a high percentage of failed ballot papers, which can be crucial to whether a party wins a seat or not.

    And to vote, you do not need to be literate or numerate. This is a democracy.