Tuesday, 26 April 2016

A Beginner's Guide to the Welsh Assembly Election Voting System

A little over a week away from the 2016 National Assembly for Wales election and many people my age voting for the Senedd for the first time do not understand the system that is used to elect our AMs. Therefore I have decided to write a quick guide describing how you use your 2 votes. "2 votes?" I hear you say. Well, technically we shall be getting 4 votes on the 5th of May but 2 of them are for the Police and Crime Comissioner elections which I will be ignoring for the rest of this blog post. Insofar as the Assembly election goes, we have 2 votes which immediately sets it apart from Westminster elections.
The familiar Westminster constituency map of Wales is also important to the Assembly elections.
In last years General election in every part of the UK the population was divided into constituencies of varying size, each electing a single MP to sit in the House of Commons. They are elected using the First Past the Post method (FPTP), meaning whichever candidate comes first in a contest is elected. The overall percentage of the vote does not matter, last years election varied from Labour's Steve Rotherham winning Liverpool Walton by a massive margin of 81.3%, to the first ever constituency win of less than 1/4 of the vote in Belfast South where the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell clung to victory with only 24.5% of the vote. Still, as he came first in a contested field, he won the right to attend parliament. 

Wales is divided up into 40 constituencies in both elections, meaning 40 out of 60 of Wales' AM's are elected as they would be to Westminster. These are therefore not proportional systems of electing your representatives and has helped contribute to Labour Party dominance in both elections. However, in its proportional element there is something which sets Cardiff Bay elections apart. 

In the early days of the campaign for the Assembly whilst Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats were keen on devolution, they also did not want to hand over the keys of the primordial Assembly to become Labour's personal fiefdom. A compromise was therefore struck. 20 additional members would be elected via the d'Hondt method on party lists (known as the Additional Member System, or AMS). This would give Plaid and the Lib Dems (and everyone else besides Labour for that matter) a chance to capitalize on the new institution with greater representation than they'd had in the past. However, as there would be more constituency AMs where Labour excelled the 'deck is still stacked' in favour of Labour. As the 2011 election showed the Conservatives, Plaid and the Lib Dems the number of seats roughly equaled their share of the vote, whereas Labour were overrepresented by about 13%.

Regional map of Wales overlaying the constituencies, complete with incredibly originally named regions!
The d'Hondt method requires you to use your second vote on choosing from a closed party list who you want to be your regional representative. South Wales West is the smallest region with only seven constituencies. Mid and West Wales; South Wales Central and South Wales East each have the average of eight, whereas North Wales has the largest amount of constituencies at 9. Regardless of the size of the electoral region, 4 AMs are elected from each to give a total of 60 AMs. The system also takes into account the constituency victories in each region, making it less likely that those who did well on the constituencies will do as well on the list. Scotland uses the same system as Wales, however they have a greater number of regional representatives as a proportion of the total number of MSPs.

Instead of an individual (except in the case of independent candidates) standing on the regional list you vote for a political party. Parties are entitled to place anything from 1 to 12 candidates on lists in each region, although only 4 can be elected in each region at most therefore the extra 8 are only needed in case of resignation or death. As was the case after the 2015 General Election when sitting Tory regional AMs Antoinette Sandbach and Byron Davies won election to Westminster, they resigned their seats and were duly replaced by the next person on the Conservative list in their region, Janet Haworth and Altaf Hussain respectively.

Following so far? Good, because here is where it gets complicated. I'm going to attempt to use as little mathematical terms as possible to keep things simple but quite frankly I might not do a very good job of it. If you would like a more technical description of AMS check out Roger Scully's recent blog on the subject. The d'Hondt method first takes into account the number of votes a party receives on the regional ballot. In Mid and West Wales in 2011 the result eneded likewise:

Plaid Cymru: 56384
Conservatives: 52905
Labour: 47348
Liberal Democrats: 26847
Other parties also contested but their results were low enough to not impact upon the result. 

Seeing the results as they are would suggest Plaid Cymru would get the first AM from the list, however the system takes into account the number of constituency AMs elected and as Plaid won three constituencis in the region their total would have to be divided by three before they would be eligible. The Conservatives also won three meaning they would not be eligible at first either, and Labour and the Lib Dems each won one contest meaning you would divide their total by one also.

Lib Dems2684713423.58949

The numbers in bold represent already allocated seats from the constituency ballot. Although Plaid Cymru topped the poll, as they did well in FPTP in this region they would have to wait their turn. The largest number of a non-already allocated seat goes to Labour÷2 on 23692. Therefore the first elected AMS representative for Mid and West Wales is Labour's Joyce Watson. As a consequence we should divide Labour's total by three, where we get 15794.67, which is again the highest number not yet allocated giving Labour a second regional AM in Rebecca Evans. 

Dividing Labour's total by four gives us a number smaller than two unallocated numbers for other parties, thus meaning Labour will win no more in this region. The next largest number is PC÷4 which means Simon Thomas is the next elected representative. When dividing Plaid's total by 5 we find a number smaller than the Lib Dems÷2 granting the final seat to William Powell. Accordingly, we end up with this the AMs representing the region being allocated in this manner (Additional Member allocation represented in brown).

Lib Dems2684713423.58949

AARRRGGGHHHH!!!! I haven't had to use this much maths since my GCSE exams!

AMS provides an element of proportionality to make it different from Westminster elections, however especially in Labour dominant southern regions the d'Hondt method can't always make the system perfectly proportional. Due to their dominance in the constituencies, Labour were oversubscribed by three AMs at the last election, with the Conservatives being neglected of two seats they would have had under a pure d'Hondt system, and Plaid lacking one.  

Below CGP Grey describes the system in a simpler way than I just managed! He calls the system Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) as that is name they use for it in New Zealand where they use the same system, minus a few technicalities to stop a huge number of small parties getting into parliament.


picture credits
Wikimedia Commons, Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right.