Wales’s voting system explained (or at least made a tiny bit simpler)

Guest blog with Dr. Diana Stirbu, devolution expert from London Metropolitan University @diana_stirbu

For those four or five in ten of us who bother to stroll along to our local polling station on May 5th, at least it will be worth the walk. We’ll be kept busy in that voting booth because two different elections are taking place that day. Plus, there will be three ballot papers (four if you live in Ogmore where there is a by-election for the Westminster seat)-two separate ones for the National Assembly election, and one for electing your local Police and Crime Commissioner. Of course, it could have been “better” had the forthcoming EU Referendum not been set for June 23rd instead of the same date as these elections. “Better” only because it would have certainly boosted turnout which has little prospect of rising much from a pretty shocking 42% in the last Assembly election in 2011. We know (see Roger Scully’s blog) that there is far more interest in the In/Out referendum (with 82% very/fairly interested), than in the Assembly elections (59% very/fairly interested). Meanwhile, only a third of us is very/fairly interested in the Police and Crime Commissioners ballot-and that seems rather high to us! Still, we can take some comfort that, given the general snubbing of the Welsh election by media outside, a referendum on the same day would have drowned out the miniscule chance of any serious UK coverage.

So, how do we vote for Assembly Members (AMs), and how do our two different votes affect the overall picture of AMs elected? The National Assembly Wales 2016 site provides useful, basic information. We are trying to do something different here-to explain how the system works and then, what the implications are for how you decide to cast your two separate votes.

On 5th May, you will be choosing (assuming you are registered to vote) the 60 AMs that sit in the Assembly, the body that represents the people of Wales, makes laws for Wales and holds the Welsh Government’s feet to the fire. Unlike in UK elections, here, we choose more than one representative. In fact, each of us will elect FIVE representatives: one for your own patch (the “constituency”) where you live- let’s say Ceredigion for now- and four AMs for the wider “region” in which your constituency is located-Mid and West Wales in this case. In total, there are 40 constituency and 20 regional seats in the Assembly to be filled, the latter across the five regions of Wales, which contain between seven and nine constituencies each.

Under the Additional Member System (AMS) -the name of the electoral system that is used- your constituency and regional AMs are elected in two different ways. These two processes are important because the two ballots have big implications- for how parties put forward their candidates, how they campaign, and how we voters might ultimately try to influence our preferred outcome for the overall composition of the Assembly and the new Welsh Government.

The mysterious acronyms-PR, FPTP, STV, AMS, MMS-and some mind-boggling arithmetical calculations to translate the votes we cast into actual seats won (which leaves even the brainiest mathematicians scratching their heads) is not for the faint-hearted. To complicate things further, the AMS is what’s called a ‘hybrid’ system, blending the more familiar first-past-the-post (FPTP) as used at Westminster with an element of proportional representation (PR), meaning AMS combines bits of both. Note, the Welsh voting system is not PR, it just contains an element of PR. The share of PR-based seats is small in Wales (just a third of the total) whereas in Scotland where the same system is used, regional AMs comprise 43% of the Scottish Parliament which makes their election fairer in the sense of which parties get which seats based on votes cast.

So, how best to explain this mongrel system? Imagine the Welsh election as that blue ribbon Olympic event, the 100 metres final. In FPTP, there are no silver and bronze medals awarded; whoever crosses the finishing line first takes the gold medal (along with the garland, the plaudits, and more than half the prize money – in this case, the majority of seats in the parliament and a stab at forming a government). Most of the time, it makes no difference how close the race was, or how many runners came close to winning.

Under FPTP, a candidate can win with a quarter of the votes cast as long as they have polled more than other candidates. That’s all pretty straightforward and evidently, FPTP has some incontestable merits: it usually produces stable, majority governments, and it creates a clear connection between the politicians we elect and their local areas. In theory, we know him/her and he/she knows who constituents are. On the down side, FPTP disproportionately rewards the bigger parties with concentrated bases of support, whilst the smaller parties-no matter their relative overall popularity-are disadvantaged unless their support is particularly ‘lumpy’ i.e. concentrated in one patch. We needn’t look further than last year’s General Election to see FPTP’s weaknesses. Much has been made of the SNP’s extraordinary surge, gaining almost all of the Scottish seats (56 out of 59, or 95% of seats). It did this with exactly half of the votes cast in Scotland (and 4.7% of the votes cast UK-wide). Meanwhile, UKIP, the Lib Dems and the Greens were justified in seeing themselves as the big losers, considering their 12.6%, 7.9% and 3.8% respective share- because it was thinly spread across the UK- translated into just one seat for UKIP, eight seats for the Lib Dems, and one for the Greens. The slogan for FPTP might be that not every vote counts (or some votes count more than others) which, you might think, is particularly unhelpful in a climate of public disenchantment with politics and politicians.

What about the alternative scenario where an element of proportionality comes into play? In this, the gold, silver and bronze medalists split the prize money according to where they finish in the race, but also in terms of how close they were in crossing the finishing line.

In a ‘pure’ PR system, seats correspond almost exactly to the total share of votes received by the parties, so in theory every vote counts. However, the spread of seats across many parties in pure PR mean ‘winners’ can’t form a government alone so often need the support of other parties. Now one might see this as good or bad, depending on viewpoint, but there are some other issues to consider with PR and mixed systems. First, the link between you as voter and the politicians who represent you is a little less clear. In our AMS system, for your regional vote, the parties put forward their favoured list of up to 12 candidates and they choose the order in which the names appear (and therefore, the order in which they might be elected). Your choice is for a party not an individual. The complications do not stop there either: then we use a method called “D’Hondt” (after the Belgian mathematician who invented it) which calculates how the 20 regional seats are allocated. The “simple” process followed in each region to allocate the seats is as follows: step one-count the votes for each party on the electors’ second ballot paper; step two-divide that total by the number of constituency seats won by that party through the first ballot papers, and add one. The party which finishes top (and the person top of its party list) gains the first regional seat. Step three- repeat this formula to fill the three additional seats, in each case dividing each party’s list vote by the number of constituency seats plus one, and any additional seats allocated in previous rounds. Essentially, this better matches our choices as demonstrated in our votes on the two ballot papers with the overall picture of AMs in the Senedd, meaning fewer “wasted” votes.

So basically, the regional vote compensates or ‘tops up’ parties with extra seats those who fared less well in the constituency ballot. It does also penalise parties who win a large share of the regional vote, especially if they have already won plenty of constituency seats in that region. Historically, Labour has always done very well in the constituencies, winning 24 seats in 2007 and 30 in 2003, but has won at most only two seats in the regional ballot-in 2007 and 2011-despite a good share of that ballot too. Plaid Cymru has captured a similar share of the vote in each part of the ballot (winning nine constituency and eight regional seats in 1999, seven constituency and eight regional seats in 2007, and five constituency and six regional seats in 2011). Initially, the Conservatives fared much better in the regional ballot, with eight of their nine seats in the first Assembly coming from the regional list, but, since 2007, they have made important constituency gains, and in the last Assembly, they had six constituency and eight regional seats. The Lib Dems had the same return from both ballots (three and three) in every election until 2011, when they gained one seat on the regional vote but lost two seats in the constituencies, giving them two constituency and three regional seats overall.

So why is any of this relevant?

The experience to date, as the numbers above underline, shows that it is really difficult for any party to gain an outright majority in the Senedd-that is, to form a government on its own. If it wins plenty of constituency seats in every region, a party is unlikely to gain more than a couple of additional seats in the regional ballot. Similarly, even if parties are nearly annihilated in the constituency contest, like the Conservatives were in 1999 and 2003, they can still have a substantial presence in the Assembly thanks to the compensation of the regional lists. In a nutshell, that is why we are all expecting another minority, or some version of a coalition government after May.

Does the voting system we use make the election in Wales less competitive, or more? Both and neither is the answer, I’m afraid. In theory, it gives us more choice, but the current levels and distribution of party support means the scope for real change is limited by the compensatory element of AMS. Basically, what is gained with one hand can be taken away with the other.

But the AMS empowers us as voters to a greater extent than you might realise. Some see tactical voting as “ignoble” or as an indictment of the system. Negative tactical voting is more prevalent in FPTP, but a more nuanced tactical approach can work better in AMS like Wales’s. For a start, you have two votes. Vote splitting (in effect, voting for one party in the constituency ballot and another in the regional one) is relatively common under the AMS in Germany, for example, although only around a quarter there actually do split their votes. And the system at least gives you a wider choice than FPTP. Aside from the normal choice of the best placed challenger in the first constituency ballot, should you so wish, you can minimise the chances of your least favourite party making inroads via the regional ballot. To ensure that you make your votes count more, if in your region there are a number of safe constituency seats held by your preferred party, it is unlikely that it will gain many more seats in the regional ballot. This offers opportunities to use the party lost vote to vote for another party (your second favourite, for example), thus improving the chances of your preferred parties and/or minimising those of your least favourite party. This way, at least more votes count than under FPTP. Nevertheless, this is not simple and it will take some well-researched and soundly informed local predictions to ensure that this works in the way you would like it to.

The AMS also impacts on the parties’ strategies: how they campaign, where they place candidates on either the regional or constituency list (or both). The latter is important to ensure the election of key figures that they need in the Senedd-party leaders in some cases. This election promises to produce a big churn of new AMs. Much of this is due to retirement (13 AMs step down voluntarily). However, it is very likely that some high profile figures, such as the Conservative William Graham will lose his place in the Senedd due to selection (not election) choices (Graham lost his position at the top of the regional list for South Wales East). So, selection and election are very closely related.

Then, there is the UKIP factor, for whom the AMS will work very well, thank you. It is poised to win enough votes in both the constituency (without capturing a single constituency) but more importantly in the regional ballot, to be handsomely compensated with, at the very least, one seat in each of the five regions.

Realistically, there are six parties with chances of representation in the Senedd: Labour, Plaid Cymru, Conservatives, Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens. Without a real surge in support for one, single party (as in Scotland), there is a very slim chances for an electoral earthquake. This makes it difficult to imagine Labour will win fewer than 23 seats or more than 31 overall. In the absence of viable alternative alliances between the non-Labour parties, some have argued that leaves Wales “condemned to a one and half party state”, as Plaid’s Adam Price suggested? In reality though, Labour’s smooth route to power-shared or sole government-has come about, partly through its own neat political reinvention post-devolution, and partly due to it facing a divided and unstrategic opposition with little unity of purpose.

You’d expect us to say that there are plenty of reasons to get excited about the Assembly election. Navigating the voting system is not top of everyone’s agenda but it is worth doing if you want to properly maximise your two votes. After all, aside from the sound and fury of manifesto pledges and the rough and tumble of party battles for your vote, in the final instance, elections are really a rather intimate and empowering affair. Once you are in that polling booth with your ballot papers, the noise will subside and you will be alone with the right to choose, not just your gold medalist, but the other politicians you want to see on the podium too.