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The Governance of Britain

Review of Voting Systems: The experience of new voting systems in the United Kingdom since 1997

© Crown Copyright 2008

Foreword by the Secretary of State

In July 2007 the Government published the Governance of Britain Green Paper, which outlined proposals for a new and deeper phase of constitutional renewal, and included a commitment to complete and publish this Review of Voting Systems.
This followed a manifesto commitment to review the experience of the electoral systems introduced for the devolved administrations, the European Parliament and the London Mayor and Assembly.
Since these systems were set up there have been three elections in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and two elections for the European Parliament, London Mayor and Greater London Assembly.
There is therefore a wealth of information on the practical operation of different forms of voting systems within the United Kingdom, which this Review has been able to draw upon. In addition, the Review refers to the findings of studies of electoral systems in other democracies.
The Review does not make any recommendations for reform but describes the strengths and weaknesses of different voting systems to inform the continuing debate on electoral reform.
Rt Hon Jack Straw MP
Lord Chancellor
and Secretary of State for Justice
Comment: Interesting that Jack Straw takes ownership of this document, but it is Michael Wills, his no:2, who has been fronting the defence in the Commons. Reply?.

Terms of reference for the voting systems review

To provide a summary of the available evidence from the following:
1. voting systems used in the UK for the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament, the Greater London Assembly, and the London Mayoral elections
2. international experiences of voting systems, which mirror those used in the UK
3. the findings of the Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting system (Jenkins Commission, 1998)1
4. the report of the Independent Commission on Proportional Representation (ICPR, 2003) established at the Constitution Unit at University College of London
5. those parts of the Power Inquiry an independent inquiry established in 2004 and chaired by Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, that considered issues around electoral systems
6. the findings of the Richard Commission in Wales and the Arbuthnott Commission in Scotland.

Executive Summary

This review is a desk-based study, drawing upon previous reviews of voting systems, academic papers, books and other resources. The cut-off date for the collection of information in this review was 31 October 2007. systems, academic papers, books and other resources. The cut-off date for the collection of information in this review was 31 October 2007.
Comment: No, it doesn't repeat itself in the PDF. Reply?.
The principal remit of this review is to describe the experience of the new voting systems in the UK — for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly, London Assembly, London Mayor and the European Parliament. The experiences are drawn together under commonly used criteria for assessing the performance and characteristics of different voting systems. This review also includes the experiences of some relevant international examples that have comparable voting systems.
The purpose of this review is to contribute to the knowledge base and debate on whether or not changes should be made to the voting system for the House of Commons. We have set out to provide, as much as possible, objective information to contribute to this debate but not to make judgements or recommendations that are inherently political in nature. We understand that this review may receive comments from many sides and we welcome contributions to a healthy debate.
The study and analysis of voting systems does not always produce conclusive findings. Comparing voting systems is inherently a political task and the debate will present differing views. Attitudes towards different voting systems can be highly influenced by a system's impact on groups or parties that a person supports or opposes. Opinions, and to some extent the interpretations of research findings, may also reflect the values different people place on certain properties and characteristics of voting models and the resulting nature of representative democracy.

Previous reviews

Since 1997 there have been several different reviews of voting systems.
The Independent Commission on the Voting System (Jenkins Commission, 1998), tasked with recommending a system for Westminster, proposed a change from the current First Past the Post System (FPTP) to Alternative Vote Plus (AV+). This was a new model with a preferential voting system including a top-up list vote to ensure reasonable proportionality. The Commission took the view that this would extend voter choice and maintain a link between constituents and representatives.
The Arbuthnott Commission for Scotland (2006) recommended that the Additional Member System (AMS) should be retained for the Scottish Parliament but revised in terms of the language used, ballot paper design and the introduction of open lists. It also suggested that Scottish Parliament elections and local government elections should not be on the same day and recommended the use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for the European Parliamentary elections in Scotland. The Richard Commission8 for Wales (2004) favoured changing the voting system to STV for the Welsh Assembly if the size of the Assembly were to be increased.
The Independent Commission to review Britain's experience of Proportional Representation Voting Systems in the UK (ICPR, 2003)9 did not propose a particular voting system, but it observed that changing the voting system for the House of Commons would have far-reaching effects (notably, coalition government). The ICPR also observed that the introduction of new voting systems elsewhere in the UK has not had as dramatic an impact as either proponents or opponents of change had suggested. In general, the new bodies elected under proportional representation (PR) have produced stable, if not always popular, government.
The Power Commission (2004) recommended that the current voting system for Westminster be replaced with a more "responsive electoral system" but gave no firm views on which system would best achieve this.
The Electoral Reform Society's (ERS) review of the new voting systems introduced for the UK (2007) critiques the FPTP system and recommends STV as a suitable system for Westminster. While recognising that the causes of political disengagement are very complex, the ERS argue there is a strong link between the type of voting system and voter turn-out. For the devolved jurisdiction, the ERS recommend that STV be introduced in Scotland, Wales, the London Assembly and the European elections and that the Alternative Vote System (AV) be introduced for the London Mayor.

Experience of the new voting systems

The choice of the new voting systems introduced in the UK reflects specific devolved functions, geographical contexts, and the political climates of the time and regions. These systems have also only been in place for between two and three terms and may still be undergoing a fine-tuning process. This should be considered when comparisons are made with the different history and functions of the House of Commons.
The Additional Member System (AMS) for the National Assembly for Wales resulted in an initial minority Labour Government, followed by a coalition with the Liberal Democrats until 2003, a minority Labour government until 2007, and most recently the formation of a Labour-Plaid Cymru Alliance following the 2007 elections. Labour has dominated the constituency elections. The regional list system has allowed much stronger representation for Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
AMS for the Scottish Parliament resulted in a coalition government between Labour and the Liberal Democrats between 1999 and 2003. The 2007 election resulted in a Scottish National Party minority administration with support from the Scottish Greens. The regional list system has allowed significant representation in the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish National Party, Conservatives, Scottish Greens, Scottish Socialists and independent candidates.
A difficult issue in both Scotland and Wales has been the friction between constituency members and list members. Part of the issue has been the fact that unsuccessful candidates for constituency seats can be elected through the list. The tensions have been exacerbated by the fact that list members are mainly from opposition parties. Other countries with AMS, like Germany and, since 1996, New Zealand, have not experienced the same problem. The Government of Wales Act 2006 ended "dual candidacy" in Wales.
STV for the Northern Ireland Assembly has led to the most proportional distribution of seats in any UK election. Four large parties have tended to dominate, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The most recent election saw the DUP and Sinn Fein emerge as the two leading parties in terms of vote share.
AMS for the London Assembly helped the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UK Independence Party (UKIP) secure seats in the Assembly through the list. All constituency seats have been won by Labour or the Conservative party. In the London Mayoral elections second preference votes, under the Supplementary Vote (SV) system, have helped to decide the outcome of both the 2000 and 2004 elections. Complexity of the ballot papers has been a particular problem in the London elections, especially in 2004, when the Assembly and Mayoral elections were combined with the European Parliamentary elections.
The closed list system, employed in the European Parliamentary elections in Great Britain since 1999, has enabled much stronger representation for the Liberal Democrats, and seats for the Greens and in 2004, UKIP. Labour's share of the seats in 2004 was 24 percent, compared with 71 percent in the last FPTP election in 1994.
Turn-out in all of these elections (except Northern Ireland) is considerably lower than in the UK General election. Turn-out in Scotland and Wales fell significantly in 2003 compared with 1999. Turn-out rose in the second set of London and European Parliamentary elections over the period, with a range of factors, including postal voting and combination of polls, making a contribution. Electors' perceptions of the relative powers and importance of the elected bodies may also play a part too.
The Electoral Commission's findings about the elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and for the European Parliament have a common theme about the need for better information for the public, both about the purpose and importance of the elections and the processes involved. Assessing the experience
This review looks at the experience of the new voting systems under seven criteria, of which the findings are briefly summarised below. Proportionality
All the newly introduced voting systems have achieved a greater degree of proportionality than FPTP, although only STV in Northern Ireland has achieved what academic observers consider to be close to genuine proportionality. While the FPTP system for Westminster currently favours the Labour Party, it allows large swings in seats to be won by the two major parties although this is less predictable with the emergence of a stronger third party, the Liberal Democrats.
Comment: stv appears to be the fairest method of election, certainly much fairer than ist past the post. Reply?.
Factors other than the voting system impact on disproportionality, in particular district magnitude and patterns of voter behaviour. While there is a consensus about the factors contributing to proportionality and disproportionality, there are different interpretations about which factors are problematic. Some argue that disproportionality of FPTP is unfair to small parties, in particular for the Liberal Democrats, and call for a change of the voting system. Others argue that the disproportionality is a result of several factors: changing patterns of voter support, turn-out and constituency size, with the voting system not being the sole cause of disproportionality. Factors that could be influential include constituency boundaries and voter turn-out. It is clear that PR systems do introduce a greater degree of proportionality. However debates critiquing FPTP need to take into account the complex factors, other than just the voting system, that contribute to disproportionality in recent UK elections. Voter participation
International evidence suggests that proportional systems have around five percent higher turn-out but this has not been the experience of the new systems introduced in the UK. Turn-out is lower in most of the elections of the devolved jurisdictions and European Parliament when compared to elections in the House of Commons. Voter turn-out in the elections in Scotland and Wales under AMS was initially relatively low in 1999, declined in 2003, but improved slightly in the most recent elections in 2007. London and the European elections saw improvements in turn-out under the SV, AMS and the Party List systems in the 2004 elections, although turn-out was still very low in comparison to other elections. Northern Ireland under STV has seen a slight decrease in turn-out since 1998.
The General FPTP elections saw a sharp decline in turn-out in 2001 compared to 1997 with only a slight improvement in 2005. Turn-out in 2001 and 2005 was lowest amongst voters who said they had no interest in politics and who perceived little difference between parties. Studies show that various social and demographic factors, such as deprivation and age, may contribute to the propensity to vote. In the 2005 General election there were indications of rising inequalities in turn-out (those considered least likely to vote were not turning out), but perceived voter efficacy (feeling that your vote counts) amongst those with low levels of knowledge was not found to vary between FPTP and other voting systems. The causes of turn-out are multiple and complex and it is difficult to assess the impact of the voting systems in isolation.

Stability and effectiveness of governments

Both PR and FPTP are associated with examples of stable governments in the UK. FPTP in the UK has tended to produce a clear majority winner with governments serving full terms. However, coalition government is the most common form of government under proportional systems in the UK and most coalitions stay in power for long periods. However, there can be periods of uncertainty following elections while potential coalition negotiations take place, particularly when the results are close, such as experienced in Scotland following the 2007 election. Because PR increases the chances of coalition government with a greater number of parties involved, this can increase the chance of instability and more frequent elections or changes of government, as described further in the international section. Sometimes small parties can hold the balance of power, although this has not been a dominant feature in the UK.
While coalition governments can be stable and effective, the nature of government formation and policy development is different. There is debate about the appeal of coalition governments in terms of the effects on parties and on voters before and during elections and in how governments decide their policy platforms after elections. Voters may feel they have less influence on what government is formed as coalitions depend on which parties strike the governing coalition deal, and the consequential impact on the policy agenda. FPTP often produces an undisputed winner and can award the winning party with a surplus of seats to govern without necessarily being dependent on a coalition. This also demarcates the opposition in Parliament as a clear alternative to and check on the Government. On the other hand, as pointed out by the ICPR12, coalitions have led to more policy innovation with the need to negotiate and obtain consent across represented parties. Views about the benefits of coalition governments vary. If PR were to be introduced for the House of Commons it would have far reaching effects in terms of changing the nature of government formation and policy development.
There has been no shift in public opinion towards PR as a result of the last FPTP elections of 2005. Survey results from the British Election Study (1992-2005) of public attitudes show a tension between people agreeing with the merits of greater proportionality but also being cautious about the consequence of more small parties being represented in Parliament. 13

Impact on the voter

Voters can exercise more choices under more proportional systems. This 28. is because voters can vote preferentially, "splitting their ticket" between constituency and list parties and voting for small parties who are more likely to win seats.
We do not find, on balance, that any voting system is inherently more confusing than another for the voter, in terms of casting their votes correctly. While FPTP is simpler in theory for voters and has lower invalid voting rates, ease of voting has not been an overwhelming problem in the new systems when elections are not combined, and taking into account a period for adjustment. Combined elections increase the levels of invalid votes, although, given the limitations in the data on invalid voting, it is difficult to assess reliably the nature of relationships between different combined systems or whether some are better combined than others. Ballot paper design is an important factor in voter understanding and in casting votes correctly, as evidenced by the London Assembly and London Mayoral elections in 2004 and the Scottish Parliamentary in 2007 elections.
FPTP is considered to have the simplest direct relationship between a single representative and the constituents who elect them. STV allows constituents a choice between representatives because there can be multiple representatives for a constituency from various parties. AMS allows for the direct relationship between electors and their constituency representative, but the existence of list representatives, often from different parties, has resulted in competition between the different categories of representative. However, choice is enhanced under AMS because a member of the electorate can either approach one constituency member or any of the regional list members. The closed party list establishes the lowest level of connection between constituents and their representative. Whether the connection between constituents and representatives is stronger under FPTP and STV (both candidate-based systems) depends on political perspectives about whether single or multiple representatives are best.

Social representation

Whilst internationally, PR countries tend to do better on female representation, in the UK, positive action policies has also played a key role. A much higher proportion of women has been elected to the Scottish, Welsh and London Assemblies than is the case for the House of Commons (or in Europe and Northern Ireland). List systems may help, but the driving factor has probably been the Labour Party's "twinning" arrangement for male and female candidates in constituency seats in those Assemblies. Women\s representation is poor in the European Parliament and Northern Ireland despite PR systems being in place. No voting system in the UK has led to significant improvements in the representation of black and minority ethnic (BME) groups. Party selection processes for fielding candidates are much more important for improving social representation than voting systems.

Political campaigning

There has been relatively little change in the focus of campaigns under the new voting systems. Although some small parties have been able to take advantage of strategic campaigning for the list seats under AMS, wider national issues and traditional constituency-based tactics tend to predominate. The role of UKIP in the 2004 European Parliamentary elections, and the Greens and Scottish Socialists in the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, are exceptions. It may be that lessons learned from these experiences may lead to more distinctive approaches from the larger parties in time. Previous reviews reported that campaigning for General elections in the UK focused on marginal seats but other research comparing countries with different systems found that more people reported contact with a political party under FPTP than other voting systems. It is difficult to draw conclusions from the limited research available about experience within the UK.

Impact on administration

Changes to voting systems have taken place at the same time as other innovations and new demands have been placed on electoral administrators and returning officers, such as increased use of postal voting.
The more complicated count methodologies required for PR elections (especially STV) can prolong counts. This has increased demand for electronic counting, which has in turn introduced new technical challenges to the way elections are traditionally run.
Combined elections and the use of different voting systems increases the complexity for voters and brings into play the importance of the consistency of information provided to voters and the design of the ballot papers.
In the current complex environment of multiple jurisdictions, multiple systems and sometimes combined elections, careful consideration continues to be required for running elections for devolved jurisdictions. Given the range of concerns around the need for consistent information, consistent practice in counts and improved ballot paper design, greater lead-in times would be needed for elections to facilitate effective planning if changes were proposed for Westminster. Given these existing challenges, careful consideration would need to be given to any change for Westminster, and the consequential impact on the progress already made, and progress yet to be made in the administration of elections in the UK.

International experience

A few international examples were selected for examination in this review from established western democracies with voting systems that provide a degree of comparability with the new voting systems in the UK. These examples show that the political culture is central to the number of parties in parliament, the longevity of governments and political behaviour under different systems. While PR enables a greater number of parties to be represented and the likelihood of coalition governments, the longevity of governments and parties differs by political context.
Internationally, turn-out under proportional systems is on average about five percentage points higher than for majoritarian systems (principally, but not exclusively, FPTP). This differential cannot be attributed solely to the voting system with multiple factors impacting on voter turn-out. Countries in Europe with relatively high turn-out operate closed list systems, which make the least connection between individual candidates and constituents, a feature valued highly in the context of the UK.
New Zealand changed from FPTP to the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system as recently as 1996. Important changes experienced have been the shift to mainly minority administrations supported by other parties in Parliament, with the role of the parliament in policy-making and scrutiny being strengthened. There have also been unexpected developments such as innovative coalition agreements and turn-out rates falling below the rates under FPTP after an initial small boost at the introduction of MMP.
New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland provide examples of stable coalition governments. Coalition formations in the Netherlands and Italy have resulted in greater volatility than in the cases of Sweden and Germany (except for the close contest for the 2005 election in Germany).
The provinces of British Columbia and Ontario in Canada formed citizen-based bodies to recommend options for electoral reform that were put to referendum. In British Columbia, the Citizens' Assembly of 2004 recommended a change from FPTP to STV, but the majority fell just short of the 60 percent threshold for the referendum. In Ontario, the Civic Forum of 2006 recommended that FPTP be replaced by MMP (AMS) but the referendum supported keeping FPTP with a majority of 63 percent.


This review has discussed the experience of the newly introduced voting systems in the UK in terms of performance against particular criteria. While this type of analysis does not provide objective conclusions about different voting systems, it assists in the debate by clarifying the relative merits of different systems as experienced in the UK. Voting systems have multiple impacts and consequences but the interpretation of these as either positive or negative is largely a matter of political judgement.
We have presented this collation of information and analysis to contribute to the debate on voting systems, which is, and will always be, a political and normative debate.

Implications for Westminster

This review was undertaken to consider the experience of the new voting systems introduced in the UK once they were embedded, to inform the debate on whether the voting system for Westminster should be changed to some form of PR.
A move to any form of PR for Westminster would imply a range of significant changes including:
  • more small parties represented in Parliament (due to proportionality)
  • greater tendency for coalition governments
  • multi-member constituencies.
On these three points and, in the case of greater proportionality, research and evidence is clear about the outcome of a shift to PR. The benefits of PR are that it is likely to increase people's choices in elections and provide a more proportional allocation of seats in Parliament. This in turn increases the likelihood of coalition governments. There would need to be a shift to more government by consensus and compromise, particularly in the period following elections when coalition or other agreements were being negotiated. This consequential change to the nature of government formation is a key consideration in the debate about whether PR should be introduced for Westminster, including the subsequent changes to the nature of policy development. Any party could become part of the coalition government, regardless of its size or share of the votes.
The benefit of FPTP is that it generally delivers an undisputed result and winner. Under FPTP it is possible for the government to be formed by a party that has a small majority, and potentially a disproportional share of seats. However the government will generally be formed by the party with the most seats, and usually, the party with the most votes. Under FPTP, power is vested in the "largest minority", while under PR, disproportional power can be wielded by any number of small parties with a minority of votes as part of a coalition government.
A key question is whether there is public knowledge of, and interest in, voting systems reform for Westminster. Limited survey data shows that few people have firm and consistent attitudes about different voting systems, though peoples' views are open to change when they receive more information.14 While some people do support greater proportionality, the popularity of PR has not been on the increase. Support for PR decreases in survey results when questions suggest that PR would result in more small parties in Parliament, indicating that there is concern and public uncertainty about the influence of small parties and coalitions on government.
On other desired outcomes, such as improving voter turn-out or social representation in Parliament, we cannot say that a shift to PR would guarantee improvements given the range of contributing factors. In terms of administrative issues, as set out in the 2007 Scottish Elections Review, a comprehensive research and testing programme would need to be implemented well before changes are introduced. Careful consideration would need to be given to the range of potential outcomes and unintended consequences of changing the voting system, some of which would be very difficult to attribute or control.
When considering a change to Westminster, two other points are worth noting.
The Single Transferable Vote (STV) has been proposed by some proponents of PR as an alternative to FPTP in Westminster. STV has not yet been tested in a nation of similar size to the UK. Currently, countries that use STV for national- level elections tend to be relatively small in terms of population size. STV is used in the Republic of Ireland, Malta and Australia (a medium-sized country but where STV is used for the Senate and local elections in Australian states), some local councils in New Zealand, and several states in the USA.15 Party List systems are the most widely used system among Western democracies that have recently shifted to a form of PR.
Another point of consideration is how any voting system for the House of Commons would interact with a reformed and substantially or fully elected House of Lords. It is not within the remit of this review to comment on House of Lords reform. However, in terms of international examples of two chamber models, the Republic of Ireland is the only country that uses STV for election to the main legislative house. Australia uses AV for electing the House of Representatives and STV for electing the Senate in its bicameral Commonwealth Parliament. In Italy, the Chamber of Duties and the Senate are both elected through a form of Party List (PR). In Germany, the main chamber is elected using AMS or MMP and the members of the second chamber are appointed by, and usually consist of, members of the Governments of the Länder. There is a great deal of diversity. Some countries balance mixed and purer PR systems across both Houses. Further research and analysis would be needed to consider complementary systems and appropriate models for Westminster. It is clear that the voting system for the House of Commons should not be considered in isolation from proposals for a substantially reformed House of Lords.


The Labour Party pledged in its 1997 manifesto to bring forward a programme of constitutional reform. This has led to devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a Mayor and Assembly for London, the first stage of reform of the House of Lords, the Freedom of Information Act (2000) and modernisation of the House of Commons. This programme led to the creation of a number of new democratic institutions. A variety of voting systems are used for elections to these institutions. They are summarised in Chapter 2.
The Labour Party's 1997 manifesto also made a commitment to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons and the establishment of an independent commission on voting systems to recommend a proportional alternative to the FPTP system. The Independent Commission was established in December 1997 under the chairmanship of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. When it reported, in October 1998, its principal recommendation was a two-vote mixed system, described as an alternative top-up (AV+)18. Under this system, the majority of MPs would continue to be elected on an individual constituency basis by AV. Candidates with the most votes would be elected. The top-up element would ensure reasonable proportionality by taking into account the distribution of second votes.
Comment: Yet another broken promise by Labour. Under Blair, the Government were more concerned with grabbing power than sharing it. Will Brown be any different? Reply?.
The Government was not convinced by the Commission’s recommendations and decided to review the performance of the systems once they had sufficient time to bed in. At the 2001 General election the Labour Party’s manifesto pledged to “review the experience of the new systems and the Jenkins Commission Report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons [and whether] a referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster”19. The Labour Party manifesto for the 2005 election stated that the Labour Party “remains committed to reviewing the experience of the new electoral systems ' introduced for the devolved administrations, the European Parliament and the London Assembly”. It also noted that the Labour Party’s view remained that a referendum was “the right way to agree any change for Westminster”20.
This paper is the result of this review. It provides a summary of the following: voting systems used in the UK for the National Assembly for Wales,
  • the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament, the Greater London Assembly, and the London Mayoral elections
  • international experience of voting systems, which mirror those in the UK
  • the findings of the Independent Commission on the Voting System (Jenkins Commission), a report commissioned by the Government as a consequence of a manifesto commitment in 199721
  • the report of the Independent Commission on Proportional Representation (ICPR), established at the Constitution Unit at University College of London, which reported in 2004; and those parts of the Power Inquiry, an independent inquiry established in 2004 and chaired by Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, that considered issues around electoral systems23 the findings of the Richard Commission in Wales and the Arbuthnott Commission in Scotland.25
This review includes an assessment of the voting systems and their impacts against a range of commonly used criteria, discussed in Chapter 6. These are: the proportionality of outcomes: the relationship between representation
  • and votes voter participation
  • the possible impact of different voting systems on the stability and effectiveness of government
  • the impact on the voter in terms of choice, ease and understanding, and
  • the connection between the voter and the representative
  • the extent to which those elected represent society
  • the impact on political parties and candidates
  • the impact on the administration of elections.
This review brings the available evidence together in summary form and is a result of desk-based research by officials in the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). In addition to the sources listed in the terms of reference this review includes findings from research and evaluations. Since the review is intended to summarise and bring together existing material, the MoJ has not commissioned any original research, nor has it undertaken any consultation with external stakeholders.

Chapter 2: Summary of electoral systems operating in the UK Westminster Parliamentary elections

First Past the Post (FPTP): Voters fill in a ballot paper by marking an "X" against a single candidate. Winning candidates must get more votes than any other candidate in the constituency (a plurality, but not necessarily a majority).
There are 646 constituencies across the UK.
Five years is fixed as the maximum duration for a Parliament but the Prime Minister normally requests dissolution from the Monarch before Parliament expires. (The statutory electoral timetable is set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983.)

European Parliamentary elections

Closed Party List system in England, Scotland and Wales: There are considerable variations in the different types of list systems but the basic principle behind them is that the proportion of votes that each party receives determines the number of seats it can fill. Each party draws up a list of candidates in each constituency and the size of each list is based on the number of seats to be filled. Since the basis of the list system is a vote for a party rather than a candidate, the type of list that is used is the means of determining the allocation of seats between the party candidates. In the Closed List systems voters choose their preferred party, rather than candidate. Closed Party List system operate in 11 regions of Great Britain, including the nations of Scotland and Wales, electing 75 Members of European Parliament (MEPs).
The Single Transferable Vote system (STV) is used in Northern Ireland (See description of STV below under Northern Ireland).
The allocation of seats is determined by the d'Hondt formula (see Annex B).
78 seats are allocated to the UK.
Elections are held every five years.

Scottish Parliament elections

Additional Member System (AMS): Electors cast two votes — one for a constituency representative and one for a party list. The percentage of list votes obtained by each party determines their overall number of representatives and is used to top-up the number of constituencies won to the required degree of proportionality. The constituency or directly elected members are usually elected by FPTP; the list element is usually closed.
There are 129 seats in total, with 73 Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs) elected on FPTP basis and 56 additional members elected from party lists drawn up from each of the European Parliamentary constituencies. Elections are held every four years.
National Assembly for Wales elections Additional Member System (AMS): Electors cast two votes — one for a constituency representative and one for a party list. The percentage of list votes obtained by each party determines their overall number of representatives and is used to top-up the number of constituencies won to the required degree of proportionality. The constituency or directly elected members are usually elected by FPTP; the list element is usually closed.
There are 60 seats in total, 40 members elected on FPTP basis using the same boundaries as elections to the House of Commons and 20 additional members elected from party lists based on the former European Parliament constituencies. Four members are elected from each of these regions.
Elections are held every four years

Northern Ireland Assembly elections

Single Transferable Vote (STV): Voters fill in a ballot paper by marking their ballot paper 1,2,3 and so on against their most preferred individual candidates across any party or combination of parties. Winning candidates must obtain a ‘quota’ of support to qualify for one of the seats in a constituency.
There are 108 seats, with each of the 18 constituencies for the House of Commons returning six members using STV.
Elections are held every four years. The Assembly was suspended in 2002 and not restored until 8 May 2007. Elections were held during suspension in November 2003 and March 2007.

London Assembly elections

Additional Member System (AMS): Electors cast two votes ' one for a constituency representative and one for a party list. The percentage of list votes obtained by each party determines their overall number of representatives and is used to top-up the number of constituencies won to the required degree of proportionality. The constituency or directly elected members are usually elected by FPTP; the list element is usually closed.
There are a total of 25 seats, with 14 members elected on FPTP basis in electoral areas designed specifically for these elections and 11 additional members elected from London-wide party lists.
Elections are held every four years

London Mayoral elections

Supplementary Vote system (SV): Voters fill in a ballot paper by marking an "X" against their first preference candidate and, if they want to, against a second preference candidate. A winning candidate must either: 1) get majority (50.1 percent or more) support from voters’ first preferences, or 2) obtain majority support following one or more redistributions of the second preferences of voters backing the bottom candidates, or 3) be the leading candidate after one or more such redistributions of second and subsequent preferences of voters backing the bottom candidates.
Elections are held every four years.
The following systems are not part of the remit of the review of voting systems, but are listed here for completeness:
Local Government elections in England and Wales
First Past the Post (described above under Westminster): In English county authorities, most seats (93 percent) are elected using single-member FPTP, the remainder are two-member with a small number of three-member seats elected at the same time as the single-member seats. In English shire districts and unitary districts there are a mixture of single-member, two-member and three member wards (single or multi-member FPTP). In Metropolitan authorities three-member FPTP is used in nearly all wards and in London boroughs in nearly all wards (98 percent). Welsh unitary authorities have a mixture of single-member or multi-member wards with all councillors elected at the same time using FPTP.
There are a variety of electoral cycles. In 243 of the 386 authorities in England (including all county councils and London boroughs) and the 22 authorities in Wales, elections for all seats are held every four years. The remaining 143 authorities in England elect a proportion of members in different years over a four-year period (elections by thirds (136 authorities) where a third of councillors are elected in three out of four years; or elections by halves (seven authorities) where one half of councillors are elected every other year).
Local Government elections in Scotland: Single Transferable Vote (STV), previously FPTP: described above under
Local Government elections in Northern Ireland: Single Transferable Vote in multi-member local authorities.
Local Mayoral elections in England and Wales: Supplementary vote (SV), as for the London Mayor.

Chapter 3: Arguments for and against different voting systems

This review looks at the impact of different voting systems against a range of criteria, with a focus on the systems that have been introduced for the devolved jurisdictions (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the European Parliament, the London Assembly and London Mayor. To start with, however, we provide a summary of the arguments commonly used to support the existing FPTP system used for UK General elections and those used to argue in favour of a change to a more proportional system.
The main advantages of the FPTP system are said to be:
  • it is a well-established system in the UK. It is easy to understand and
  • everyone knows how it works
  • ballot papers are easy to complete ' a cross by a single candidate. Counting, equally, is relatively easy ' the candidate with the most votes wins the constituency election and represents the people of that constituency at Westminster Members of Parliament represent constituents within a defined
  • geographical area, which makes it possible to identify constituents and their representatives and to build links between them. It is possible for an MP to be reasonably independent of his or her party, if he or she retains the support of the local party the winner-takes-all aspect of the system encourages the major parties to
  • maintain a broad appeal, thus discouraging extremism. It is also difficult for extremist parties to establish a strong enough base to win seats at Westminster
  • the system allows the electorate to be decisive about who should be the party of government. Unpopular parties can be removed completely from power more often than not, governments have a working majority in Parliament, so that decisive government is possible. This enables the formation of a clear opposition in Parliament who can present themselves as an alternative to, and check on, the government of the day.
The main disadvantages of FPTP are said to be:
  • it is capable of delivering highly disproportional outcomes at the national level. Governments can be elected without a majority of the popular vote and can even win a majority of seats without winning more votes than any other party.
  • many constituencies are "safe" seats for particular parties, with little prospect of changes. Therefore people who do not support the majority party have no prospect of making their vote "count". Similarly, even voters supporting the winning candidate may feel that their votes serve only to increase an already large majority
Comment: In my opinion this is the main disadvantage of FPTP, and it's decisive. FPTP effectively disenfranchises voters who favour minority candidates or parties. Reply?.
Comment: In areas where there has always been three main party MP's, the elector feels it is not worth voting because they "always get in" Reply?.
  • campaigning, particularly by the national parties, is strongly focused on a few marginal constituencies (and even specific areas within these constituencies). This trend is accentuated as campaigning technology becomes ever more sophisticated
Comment: ..and this is surely an unwelcome distortion of the electoral system Reply?.
  • movements of opinion can be heavily exaggerated, with large swings in seats from one major party to another. Landslide majorities may not reflect public opinion
  • governing parties equipped with large majorities may not pay sufficient heed to opinion in Parliament or amongst the general public
  • small parties tend to be excluded from parliament unless they have a strong base in a particular region. Those with an even spread of support across the country are particularly penalised. This reduces the diversity of views expressed in Parliament, and alienates voters who do not wish to vote for the major parties
  • in areas where most constituents do not vote for their elected MP, it can be difficult for them to feel properly represented.

Proportional systems in general

There are many varieties of proportional voting systems but there are three broad types used in the UK:
  • those where the vote is for a party list, either at national or regional level
  • the Additional Member System, which combines the First Past the Post system at constituency level and a party list at regional or national level
  • the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies.
Some of the advantages of proportional systems are said to be:
  • that the outcomes are proportional at a national level, appealing to people’s sense of fairness and ensuring that everyone’s vote counts in some way.
  • voters have more choice as more parties have the chance of being elected. Minority interests can be represented in Parliament
  • voter turn-out tends to be around five percentage points higher in countries with a form of PR, including List PR
  • government tends to be by coalition (or through a minority government supported in Parliament by an agreement with other parties). This means that a wider range of interests are represented in government and that parliaments tend to have a stronger hold over the executive
  • it is possible to maintain constituency links under the AMS or STV.
The arguments against proportional systems are said to be:
  • the prevalence of party list systems, in whole or in part (as in the Additional Member System), makes the candidate and representative remote from the voter, compared with single member constituencies
Comment: Is there any evidence to support the assumption that voters feel an affinity for their representative under FPTP?

My own view is that a great many voters have little or no awareness of the ...
  • where party lists are combined with constituency members in the UK experience, there is a tendency for conflict between the two types of representative
  • the tendency towards coalition or minority governments can have a number of negative effects. It can take a long time to form a government; governments may be indecisive on policy agendas; small parties can have significant power in coalition formations; and parties which have become unpopular with the electorate may be able to retain a stake in power
  • voters may not really know what policies they are voting for, as successful parties are those that are able to negotiate the best deals in coalitions as they are being formed
  • there may be stagnation over time, with the same parties regularly forming governments. This may lead to more extreme parties forming in order to express grievances.
[ note: we now skip to chapter 6]

Chapter 6: Assessing the experience

In this chapter, we assess the experience of the new voting systems in the devolved jurisdictions as well as General elections in the UK since 1997, against the themes (or criteria) outlined in the introduction. The purpose is to present findings of the experience of the various voting systems in the UK to contribute to the debate on whether changes should be made to the voting system for the House of Commons. As it is a desktop review we do not make any recommendations but set out findings to inform the debate.
This review, as with many others that try to independently compare voting systems, has looked to compare voting systems using criteria describing potentially desirable properties. These are broadly similar to those used by the Jenkins Commission81 and the ICPR.82 However, we have added a section on the impact of different electoral systems on the administration of the elections. This is an important factor to consider as we rely on returning officers and electoral administrators to deliver elections and they face increasing challenges.
This section also sets out the findings of the SER, although this does not include the Government's official response to the SER conclusions, which will be made in due course.

A. Proportionality

During the 1950s the French political scientist Maurice Duverger theorised that a FPTP system naturally resulted in the dominance of two political parties and added that FPTP systems would act to delay the emergence of a new political force.83 This became generally accepted, although there are international examples, such as Canada and India, where FPTP has co-existed with multi- party representation.
The experience of the UK in the 1950s and 1960s to a large extent has borne out Duverger's thesis and representation in the House of Commons reflected votes cast with a reasonable degree of proportionality. However, with the growing strength of the Liberals (now, after a period as the Alliance (with the Social Democrats), the Liberal Democrats) and nationally-based parties like Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, the effects of the "winner takes all" system has become less predictable. This has also led to a greater distortion of the share of seats in proportion to votes. Figure 1 below shows how the seats- to-votes ratio of the governing party has developed since 1945. A ratio of one indicates no bias towards the winning party.
Whilst recent General elections under FPTP have produced less proportional results, this has not always been the case. The graph above shows that outcomes were more proportional in the 1950s when the two main parties received the vast majority of votes cast.
The consensus view among academics and political commentators is that the operation of the FPTP system not only favours the winning party, but that other factors have combined with this since 1997 to currently favour the Labour Party. Among the main factors are:
  • regional distribution of party strength — Labour's geographic concentration
  • gives it an electoral advantage
  • differences in size of the electorate in constituencies — Labour wins more constituencies with relatively small electorates
  • differences in turn-out in constituencies — Labour wins a higher proportion of constituencies with relatively low turn-out
  • the tendency of tactical voting, thus far, to involve exchanges of votes between Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters against Conservative candidates.
The ERS (2007) argue that, in 2005, even a small Conservative lead in the nation-wide vote would have resulted in a Labour majority in the Commons. To win, the Conservatives would have needed to win by more than 11.7 percent of the votes to have a majority of seats.
Some of these factors may alter over time but, for now, they have combined to deliver the highest seats-to-votes ratio since 1945, as illustrated above. This has led to increasing comment on the disproportional nature of UK General election results. The ERS in its report, The UK General election of 5 May 2005: Report and Analysis,86 observed that Labour won an overall majority of 66 seats, or 55.1 percent of seats, with 35.2 percent of the vote, which was the lowest percentage of votes won by a majority government since the extension of the franchise in 1918. No majority government since 1970, Labour or Conservative, has won the election with more than 45 percent of the votes cast. The highest percentages were the Conservatives with 43.9 percent in 1979 and Labour with 43.2 percent in 1997 and these were both elections when the Government was replaced.
The ERS argue that since 1974 the growing strength of third and other small parties, in particular the Liberal Democrats, has increased the chance of a hung parliament (where no party or coalition of parties can control a majority of seats in Parliament). They show that this has happened because the number of votes for the small parties has increased and the number of marginal seats has fallen, meaning that greater swings in the vote are required for seats to change hands than was previously the case. The ERS argue that the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to lose many seats in the forthcoming elections even if their national vote was to decline somewhat, meaning that the two big parties are unlikely to reach 40 percent of the vote. Therefore, they consider that FPTP will continue to deliver winning parties with significantly less than 50 percent of the vote, raising concerns about the legitimacy of those governments. However, another key contributing factor which increases disproportional outcomes is declining voter turn-out, about which the causes are not straightforward. Voter turn-out is discussed in more detail in Section B.
Other research on disproportionality of UK General elections provides a different perspective and emphasis. Johnston, Rossiter & Pattie (Johnston et al)87 argue that the FPTP system is not in and of itself biased to the Labour Party. Instead the current bias is a function of primarily small constituency sizes, the increasing popularity of the Liberal Democrats in particular seats that would otherwise be won by the Conservatives and that Labour's vote share has become more efficiently distributed. They argue that the electoral system is not the cause of disproportional outcomes and that the disproportionality is not unique to the most recent General elections. Also, the fact that the circumstances now favour Labour and the size of the disproportionality is greater, is a new development. They argue that this could be reduced slightly if the Boundaries Commission reviews were both increased and sped-up but that
"bias caused by the constituency-size variations between and within countries is only one component of the total, although it may be crucial in close contests" .88
Johnston et al also point to improving voter turn-out as a potential solution as they conclude that it is how voters and parties act that contributes to the generation of the disproportionality and bias towards Labour under the current FPTP system. In their own words: ' except for variations in constituency size, the workings of the FPTP system cannot be 'blamed' for delivering two landslide victories to Labour with less than 45 percent of the votes in 1997 and 2001 and a third in 2005 when a 25 percentage points lead in seats over its main opponent emerged despite only a three-point lead in vote share. Geography is key to those biases, but not the geography of constituency definition. Rather it is a combination of the geographies of party support, turn-out and party campaigning within that geography which produces most of the bias, currently favouring Labour because of where its supporters live, where they turn-out and where it campaigns for their support.'89
Johnston et al conclude that the causes of proportionality in election outcomes require sophisticated evaluation given the complex contributory factors. Simple attributions of the cause of disproportionality to the voting system do not reflect the circumstances that took place in recent UK General elections. The experience of the devolved governments in the UK
To look at proportionality in the devolved jurisdiction elections relative to the General elections, one approach is to calculate the deviation from proportionality of the results (how far away the parties are from winning the same proportion of seats as their votes). That is, to measure how many representatives hold seats that are not justified by their party's share of the vote, either nationally or regionally. The conventional measure of deviation from proportionality is known as DV, and political scientists regard a DV score of 4-8 percentage points as indicating proportionality90.
The following graph shows the DV scores for the UK General elections, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Ireland, European Parliamentary and London Assembly elections since 1997.
The scores in Figure 2 suggest that STV was most proportional, with DV scores from 6.0 to 6.6 for Northern Ireland between 1999 and 2007, although under STV the DV score very much depends on the number of members in the multi-member constituencies. Similarly, the proportionality of AMS tends to depend on the ratio of list to constituency members, with Wales having a higher number of constituency members to list members (2/1) compared to Scotland's 1.3/1.
In Scotland and Wales, the DV scores have increased since 1999, while the opposite occurred in the London Assembly elections. In Scotland there were smaller increases between 1999 and 2007. In Wales, the DV Score is much larger in 2007 than the previous two assembly elections, which appears to be in part because some of the small parties (in particular the UKIP and BNP), increased their share of the regional list vote but failed to win any seats overall. The data also suggests that the performance of AMS in devolved jurisdiction elections has been similar to the experience of the closed list system used in the European Parliamentary elections.
Overall, the DV scores show that AMS generally produces a result less disproportional than FPTP, and Northern Ireland's experience with STV is the most proportional.
Farrell (2001) finds that while generally majoritarian systems tend to produce more disproportionatal elections results than PR systems, this is not surprising. However, he also points out that this is not a hard and fast rule, showing that there are many different factors in elections that affect the proportionality of the results, not just the voting system. For example, in the UK General elections, results have become less proportional with the increase in support for the small parties. The DV Score for the 2005 election was 20.6 but in 1951, when the Labour and Conservatives between them gained over 90 percent of the vote, the result was highly proportional with a DV score of 4.1, lower even than the Northern Ireland Assembly under STV. Other influences on proportionality include the magnitude of electoral districts and the number of seats in the assembly. Farrell shows that while majoritarian systems are less proportional in general, there are also many factors affecting proportionality other than just the voting system. He also points to the findings of Richard S Katz who contends that different types of PR systems in and of themselves do not tend to produce greater or lesser degrees of proportionality. Instead, the size of the electoral districts is a more important determinant of proportionality.92 Farrell's 2001 analysis, which tests Katz conclusion shows that if ranked by district magnitude, disproportionality under different systems decreases as district magnitude increases.93 Therefore on balance, discussions about proportionality should take into account the complex causes of disproportionality.


All the new systems have achieved a higher degree of proportionality in outcome than FPTP, although only STV in Northern Ireland has achieved what academic observers consider to be close to genuine proportionality. While the FPTP system for Westminster currently favours the Labour Party, it is capable of large swings in seats won by the two major parties and this is less predictable with the advent of a relatively strong third party, the Liberal Democrats.
We can conclude that proportional systems tend to be just that, more proportional. However, factors other than the voting system impact on proportionality, in particular district magnitude and voter behaviour. While there is a consensus about the factors contributing to proportionality and disproportionality, there are different views on interventions. The questions that arise therefore are whether the debate about proportionality concerns the unfairness of the current system towards the emerging third party and if this is a justification for change, or whether changes in other factors such as turn-out and constituency size can reduce disproportionality. Debates about proportionality need to acknowledge the range of factors involved and require sophisticated evaluation.

B Voter participation

Voter participation is often seen as a measure of confidence in democracy and the voting system in use.94 However, the drivers of voter participation and non-participation are complex. As we will see in Chapter 7 on the international perspective, research carried out by Pippa Norris in 2003 suggests that, on average, turn-out in countries with some form of PR tends to be about five percentage points higher than in those with majoritarian systems — around 65 percent compared with 60 percent. This differential is sometimes presented as being as high as 10 percentage points, but Chapter 7 explains why this may be an exaggeration. Also, voter turn-out is higher in countries where voting is compulsory. This section explores the factors impacting on voter turn-out in the UK since 1997.
Turn-out for General elections is usually higher than for elections in the devolved jurisdictions, European Parliament and London elections and compared to local elections where turn-out tends to be in the 30-40 percent range. However, General election turn-out fell sharply in 2001 compared with 1997, before stabilising in 2005 without much improvement. Turn-out since the introduction of new voting systems initially fell in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Assembly elections but improved slightly in the most recent elections in Scotland and Wales. The 2004 European Parliamentary and London elections bucked the declining trend in turn-out, but levels are still much lower than for General elections.
Of the devolved jurisdictions, Northern Ireland has had the highest turn-out, although turn-out has dropped since 1998. The 2007 turn-out in the Northern Ireland elections did not improve from 2003, at 63 percent, though this was similar to the overall level of turn-out at the last General election. Some commentators considered that the recent Northern Ireland election turn-out was higher than expected given the uncertainty of whether a functioning Northern Ireland Executive would be established after the election. Generally, higher voter turn-out in Northern Ireland is likely to be influenced by a number of factors, such as its unique political context, the perceived impact the Assembly has on people's lives, the level of grass-root party activity and the rarity of safe seats under STV.96 In Wales, turn-out increased by 5 percentage points compared to 2003, with improvements in all but one constituency and amongst younger voters and those over 55 years. In Scotland there was just over a two percentage point improvement in turn-out. European and London elections have experienced the lowest turn-out although on a upward trend.
The experience in the devolved jurisdictions does not provide a clear pattern on turn-out. However, the causes of the drop in the General election turn-out to below 70 percent in 2001 and the small recovery in 2005 has been the subject of much speculation and analysis by researchers.
Turn-out is the product of a complex set of factors. Various factors that could be considered to impact on participation in elections are voter knowledge, the reward from voting, the cost of voting, ease or difficulty of registering to vote, the impact of efforts to increase registration, political campaigning and the impact of the news media. Other factors include perceptions about the status of different elections and that some may perceive the General election as 'first order' and other elections second, or even third. This may be caused by the lack of awareness about the different powers of assemblies and parliaments and how they affect people's lives. Others include the range of political choices, closeness of the contest, whether people feel their vote counts, whether people feel politicians speak for them, whether they are aware of the election and if there are convenient methods of voting. For example, on convenience, we know that postal voting has been associated with a doubling of turn-out at local, European Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections. We have not covered research into all the potential opportunities but provide the findings of some research that is pertinent to the concerns about the drop in participation in General elections.
Different researchers have taken different approaches to studying the causes of voter turn-out or lack of it. We present below findings from two approaches. It is important to note that research into the 'causes' of turn-out are heavily based on surveys, therefore the limitations of generalising the findings of different studies, and comparing different systems should be noted from the original sources.
One approach to the study of voter turn-out is to examine the motivations of voters. For various reasons, voters may be more or less interested or inclined to accept the efficacy of voting. A different approach is to look at the circumstances facing voters and choices put before them, such as the policies of political parties and messages from the media.
The Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement (APE) undertaken from December 2003 onwards provides some insights into the motivations and characteristics of voters.97 The 2007 survey finds that political and electoral activism remains a minority activity, with 60 percent of people not having discussed politics or political issues in two or three years. While most people agree that they want to have a say in how the country is run, there is a gap between what they say they are willing to do and what they have actually done.98 Respondents cited apathy or lack of interest in politics as reasons they are not more involved in politics.
In terms of propensity to vote, in November 2006, of those surveyed in the APE, 55 percent said they would be absolutely certain to vote in an immediate General election, whereas 11 percent would be absolutely certain not to vote. This was higher than responses in 2003 at 51 percent, and in 2005 it was 52 percent though 61 percent actually turned-out in the General election. As expected, the Audit finds that the propensity to vote increases by age and belief in a duty to vote. For example, 92 percent of those certain to vote also agreed that it is their duty to vote. However, while people who have no formal qualifications claim to be significantly less interested in and knowledgeable about politics, they have the same propensity to vote as those with A-levels or above (58 percent and 57 percent respectively). Another aspect is the propensity to vote by deprivation, where the audit finds that the very affluent and those living in rural areas have the highest propensity to vote but the propensity to vote is the same for those in 'deprived' areas and those in 'middle to affluent' areas. The 'very deprived' have the lowest propensity to vote. Overall the APE finds that across 16 indicators, there is no evidence of a decline in political engagement but that engagement levels are holding steady, although this analysis is limited in that the survey only began in 2003 after the decline of voter participation in 2001.
Other studies about voter motivations and characteristics also find that the decline in turn-out has resulted in turn-out inequality, where turn-out decreased most rapidly amongst young people and those within lower income groups.99 The Electoral Commission suggests that six key reasons for not voting are apathy (a lack of interest in politics), disillusionment with politics, lack of impact (idea that individuals can't make a difference), alienation, lack of knowledge about politics and inconvenience.100 However, in the case of 2001 and 2005, the Electoral Commission did not find that inconvenience, apathy or declining interest in politics or political activity contributed to falling turn-out but rather a perceived lack of efficacy.
The Curtice, Fisher and Lessard-Phillips study (Curtice 6.33 et al)101 examine the circumstances before voters and the impact on voter turn-out in the 2001 and 2005 General elections. They found, based on the British Elections Study, that 59 percent of people who had no interest in politics voted in 1997 but the turn-out level of this category of people dropped to 31 percent in 2001 and remained at 31 percent in 2005. These elections failed to attract people who were already less motivated to vote.102 By comparison, 87 percent of people who had 'a great deal' of interest in politics voted in 1997, but the proportion of such people who voted in 2001 and 2005 dropped only slightly, to approximately 81 percent each time. Curtice et al also show that the proportion of people in the latter group, i.e. with 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of interest in politics has remained very steady over the past twenty years, at about 30 percent. Therefore, the electorate does not appear to have become more 'disengaged' from politics in 2001 and 2005 than in 1997 but turn-out fell amongst those who were already disengaged from the political process, the voters least likely to vote and those most in need of persuading. This supports the APE findings about the increasing inequalities in voter turn-out discussed above.
At the same time, the proportions of people who had little or no interest in politics who also said there was not much difference between the parties increased, from 31 percent in 1997, to 58 percent in 2001, to 55 percent in 2005.103 Curtice et al states that 'the perception that there is not much difference between the parties grew most rapidly between 1997 and 2001 amongst the least interested in politics.'
Another criticism of FPTP is that it is said to encourage parties to cluster in the 'centre ground' of politics, which results in the two main parties promulgating similar policies. This is said to discourage voters because they cannot differentiate between the two main parties. For example, the Electoral Commission's surveys of voters and non-voters following the Scottish 2003 elections found that many people felt that there was little difference between the parties — 37 percent of non-voters in Scotland cited this as a reason for not voting. Curtice et al when comparing different countries and voting systems finds that in countries with FPTP, voters appear to be less likely to regard political parties as very different from each other and this is particularly the case for less knowledgeable voters.104
It has been argued that all other things being equal, under FPTP fewer people are likely to vote relative to PR systems for a variety of different reasons.105 One is that in constituencies where one party consistently wins, voters of other parties are less likely to think that their vote will make a difference (voter efficacy). Under a PR system, large overall majorities are unlikely and voters may have a greater chance to influence the outcome because their party can still achieve a seat even if they do not come first. With regard to voter efficacy, Curtice et al do find a difference between FPTP and other systems. Under other voting systems 38 percent strongly agreed that 'who people vote for can make a difference to what happens' but only 28 percent agreed that their vote could make a difference under FPTP. However, amongst the less knowledgeable voters,106 there is no difference in feelings of efficacy between FPTP countries and those with other voting systems. While we can generally expect voters with low knowledge to feel less efficacious, this is no less so in countries using FPTP than countries using other voting systems. So while studies on voter motivation and circumstances show a decline in turn-out amongst less interested voters and those who perceive little difference between parties, a group also likely to also have low levels of knowledge of politics, there is no difference amongst this group in terms of voter efficacy between FPTP and PR. This illustrates the complexity of determining the causes of voter turn-out.
Turn-out can be influenced by both the motivations of individual voters as well as the specific external circumstances of elections. Curtice et al have argued that if an election appears to be a foregone conclusion or if there appears to be few differences between the parties, those with less interest in politics are less likely to turn-out. They also say that it appears that circumstances created by FPTP may discourage those with little knowledge or interest in politics from voting, but precisely why this is the case is not wholly clear — particularly since perceived voter efficacy amongst low-knowledge voters is not found to differ between countries with FPTP and other voting systems. Whilst it is reasonable to argue that lack of party differentiation has an impact, there is insufficient evidence about voter efficacy or campaigning behaviour having an impact on low-knowledge voters.
Additionally, the findings about low-knowledge voters by Curtice et al do not seem consistent with the findings from the APE about voters who are less interested and knowledgeable about politics and who have no formal qualifications, who under the APE survey appear to have the same propensity to vote as those with A-level qualifications. Regardless of the causes, the issue of lower turn-out amongst voters with less knowledge is a concern in terms of the inequality in turn-out between the more and less knowledgeable voters. It will be important to study further and monitor the relationship between low knowledge and interest in politics, if these two factors are related and whether the population of non-voters will increase in the future.
It is clear that on the impact of different voting systems, voter participation is difficult to establish. However, the findings from both 'voter-motivation' studies and 'voter-circumstances' studies show a decline in turn-out amongst voters with little knowledge and interest in politics in the General elections of 2001 and 2005, and this is a concern. John Curtice suggest that, since perceptions of a close contest seem to be an important factor in determining turn-out, as British politics becomes more competitive, the decline in voter turn-out could be reversed.


Voter turn-out in the elections in Scotland and Wales under AMS was initially relatively low in 1999, declined in 2003, but improved slightly in the most recent elections in 2007. London and the European elections saw improvements in turn-out under the SV, AMS and the Party List systems in their 2004 elections, although turn-out was still low in comparison to other elections. Northern Ireland under STV has seen a slight decrease in turn-out ince 1998. The General FPTP elections saw a sharp decline in turn-out in 2001 compared to 1997 with only a slight improvement in 2005. Turn-out dropped most in 2001 and 2005 amongst voters with no interest in politics and who perceive little difference between parties. The situation is made more complex by other studies that show various aspects such as deprivation and age as contributing factors to the propensity to vote. There is a suggestion that the trends of voter turn-out in the General elections suggest rising inequalities in turn-out, but perceived voter efficacy amongst those with low levels of knowledge does not vary between FPTP and other systems. Whilst this section has touched on just a few studies on voter turn-out, it is clear that the causes of turn-out are multiple and complex and it is difficult to assess the impact of the voting systems on turn-out in isolation.

C Stability and effectiveness of governments

Assessing the stability and effectiveness of governments is contentious and difficult. The debate has tended to focus on whether coalition governments can be as stable and effective as majority governments.
Supporters of the FPTP system often point to the fact that it has been associated with stable government in the UK and tends to produce a clear winner in a General election. It has produced a number of sustained periods of unbroken government by one party, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century: Conservative 1951-64 and 1979-97 and Labour since 1997. It has more often than not produced an unequivocal result, with the governing party being returned to Parliament with a comfortable working majority.
Only on two occasions in the past 60 years has a General election resulted in the party with the lower share of the vote forming the government. In 1951 the Conservative Party polled fewer votes than the Labour Party but won more seats and governed with the support of the National Liberals. In February 1974 the Labour Party polled fewer votes than the Conservative Party, but won more seats and formed a minority administration until a further election in October of that year.
On three occasions in the past 60 years an election has resulted in a party governing with a majority of fewer than ten seats. Only in one instance (Labour, October 1974-79) has the party managed to govern for a full term, although it did so with an agreement with the Liberal Democrats (Lib-Lab pact) for the latter part of its term from 1977.
Table 17 shows that no party has governed with the support of more than 50 percent of the popular vote since the Second World War.
Jenkins' perspective when looking at government stability over a longer period was that:
In only 64 of the past 150 years has there prevailed the alleged principal benefit of the first-past-the-post system, the production of a single party government with an undisputed command over the House of Commons.
Opponents of a move from the FPTP system for General elections point to the stability of governments since 1945 and contrast this with the prevalence of coalition government in Continental Europe under various PR systems. Italy is often used as the example of frequent changes of government, while Germany is used as an example of where a small party (the Free Democrats) have wielded disproportionate influence by choosing which other party it should join to form a coalition government. Nonetheless, Germany has had stable government, with the CDU/CSU/FDP coalition in power for 16 years between 1982 and 1998, and the SPD and Greens for seven years thereafter. Whilst it took time to form a government following the 2005 elections this was because the two major parties received very similar shares of the vote and a number of possible coalitions were considered before the 'Grand Coalition', including the two main parties, was formed. Italy, despite frequent changes to government before it switched to AMS in 1994, was ruled mainly by Christian Democrat- led coalitions and by the Socialists for a period in the 1980s. So there can be continuity through coalition government. More detail on the experiences of Germany and Italy can be found in Chapter 7.
Coalition government in many European countries is expected and the norm.
The 'pure' PR system of the Netherlands, for example, is designed to prevent single parties or leaders becoming too dominant. However, new parties can emerge and gain a share of power, as the party of Pim Fortuyn did briefly in 2002 resulting in another election in 2003. With up to ten parties being represented in the Netherlands, the chance of instability may be greater. Overall, coalition government has been stable for the most part in the Netherlands since the early 1970s, with elections every 3-4 years but the year following the 2002 election saw a coalition break-down, resulting in an early election in 2006. In Sweden, coalition governments have usually featured the Social Democrats, with the proportional list system allowing the support from six other parties to ebb and flow as political circumstances change. Whilst the General election held in Sweden on 17 September 2006 saw the ruling Social Democrats and their left-wing allies narrowly defeated by the centre- right alliance, the defeated Prime Minister had previously held that position for 10 years. In the Republic of Ireland, there have been coalition or minority governments since 1989, during which time the Irish economy has undergone a highly successful economic transformation. A more detailed analysis of the experience of these three countries can be found in Chapter 7.


Several academics have gone some way to investigating the link between electoral systems and the style or effectiveness of the resulting government. Arend Lijphart, in his testimony before the California State Legislature in 1995, gave an overview of his study into the effectiveness of policy-making under PR and plurality voting systems. He conducted a comparative study of 13 democracies with parliamentary systems over a roughly 30 year time span, between 1960 to the late 1980s, and analysed the relative success of the different countries with regard to:
  • maintaining public order and peace
  • management of the economy
  • stimulating economic growth
  • combating inflation and unemployment.
Liphart declared that he had "found no significant differences except on unemployment and, in this one respect, it is the PR countries that actually have the better records. The important conclusion that we can draw is that there is no trade-off between democratic quality and effectiveness."109
Further studies by Lijphart in 1999 found that non-PR systems helped promote government duration (one potential indicator of stability) but the study also showed that it was possible for PR systems also to deliver the same result (Farrell 2001 p195-196). Farrell (2001) finds that the argument that PR produces instability is tenuous and that PR has had largely positive effects on democracy according to a range of measures.

The experience of the devolved jurisdictions in the UK

In Scotland the 1999 and 2003 elections saw Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrat coalitions. The 2007 election marked a change for Scotland, with the SNP forming a minority government with the support of two Green MSPs. Although there were occasional strains on the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalitions, the only instability at this time was due to other reasons such as the death of the first First Minister and the resignation of the second First Minister.110 Following the 2007 elections, with a very close contest between Labour and SNP, it was not initially clear who could form a government, although this was resolved in a matter of weeks.
In Wales, there has been more change. After the 1999 elections, Labour initially formed a minority administration. After the First Secretary lost a vote of no confidence in February 2000, a coalition was eventually formed with the Liberal Democrats, in October 2000. The coalition agreement made the subsequent Labour-Liberal Democrat government more stable and it lasted until the election in 2003. A small over-all majority in 2003 enabled Labour to form a single party government until 2005 (when Peter Law resigned) and Labour continued in minority government until 2007. Labour did not achieve an absolute majority in the 2007 elections but after a month of negotiations, struck a deal with Plaid Cymru. Initially Labour was unable to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and an alternative coalition option of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru failed to come to fruition.
It is beyond the scope of this review to comment on the specific policies that have been implemented by the elected governments of devolved jurisdictions, but the Independent Commission on Proportional Representation (ICPR 2003) reaches the following conclusions about the effect of electoral system change:
"The presence of the Liberal Democrats led to rather more policy innovation than would have happened under Labour governing alone. And the evidence suggests that coalition can produce just as effective and efficient policy-making and implementation as single party government."
"PR has also led to a different relationship between government and parliament. Coalition governments have to negotiate more to win consent for their policies: with narrow majorities they cannot take the support of the assembly for granted. The Scottish Parliament has developed subject committees, which expose the Executive to more powerful scrutiny than their counterparts at Westminster. The weekly business is planned with all the parties, not just the major parties."
"These details of the political process may go unnoticed by the general public. But public attitude surveys in Scotland and Wales in 1999 and 2003 show little evidence of adverse reaction, and if anything the reverse: in Scotland and in Wales, people have warmed slightly to coalition government in the light of experience. They would prefer the parties to indicate their preferred coalition partners in advance; but they do not believe that the new voting system gives too much power to small parties, and they do not believe it leads to unstable government."
In Northern Ireland, PR, and specifically STV, has been essential for delivering an accommodative regime for both Nationalist and Unionists, as it guarantees the representation of significant minorities and fosters power-sharing coalitions. Proportionality is essential for ensuring no significant groups are neglected by the electoral system and 84 percent people surveyed after the 2003 Northern Ireland elections supported power-sharing between communities.111 However there have been a number of difficulties in how the voting system has operated within the context of the peace process and, because STV closely reflects voter behaviour, it has returned polarised parties, making government formations inherently difficult. Compared to 2003 the 2007 election saw the largest proportion of votes shift from the two largely centre-based parties to concentrate between the two more polarised parties (DUP and Sinn Fein, with the DUP having an eight-seat 'majority').
However, it is not the existence of STV in Northern Ireland that gives rise to a coalition government there. Rather, it was a fundamental principle of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement that there should be inclusive power-sharing within the Executive. Therefore, by law, Ministerial portfolios are allocated using the d'Hondt formula, which allocates seats on the Executive according to party strength within the Assembly. In addition, the largest party in each of the unionist and nationalist designations are able to nominate the First and Deputy First Ministers.
The experience in the UK has not shown a pattern of instability or ineffective government to date under the new voting systems. AMS had produced a mix of minority and coalition governments that were relatively stable, though with initial period of uncertainty, but have required greater policy-making by negotiation.
Therefore it is difficult to draw conclusions and one's views will be dependent on the interpretation of 'stable' and 'effective', most likely influenced by one's perspective on coalitions.

Views on coalitions

The advantage of government formed by coalitions is that a greater number of voters are represented by the government and policies are determined by consensus between governing coalition parties. As set out above, there is no clear evidence that suggests coalitions are unstable, and in some cases coalition governments are very stable because they achieve broad consensus. They can better represent changing voter preferences and a multi-cultural and plural society, particularly as they give voters the greater range of choices over candidates and parties.
Under PR multi-party governments can be formed either through coalitions, which requires power sharing, or other arrangements, such as individual agreements for supply and confidence. The General elections of New Zealand in 2005 under AMS (called Mixed Member Proportional) provides an interesting example. The New Zealand Labour party only obtained two more seats than the second largest party, the National party. Labour formed a minority government in coalition with its historical ally the Progressive Party (with one member), and with a confidence-and-supply agreement with the New Zealand First party (that had seven seats) and the United Future party (three seats). This arrangement including awarding both these party leaders' ministerial positions outside of the Cabinet, including the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs. Labour did not give the Green Party any Cabinet positions despite the Green's support of Labour prior to the elections, although several concessions on energy and transport policies were made. While historically relationships between these parties existed, this outcome was innovative and unexpected, particularly by Green voters as the Green Party was considered the natural coalition partner for Labour. Despite being complex and sometimes unpredictable, this has not resulted in any instability to date.
The disadvantage of government formation by coalition is that the patterns of coalition formation can be considered undemocratic. This is because rather than elections determining the result (as PR is less likely to provide a party with a 'surplus' to make a majority, and the UK experience has resulted in two parties getting roughly equally large shares of the votes), governments are formed based on who can strike the best deal. While voters may be well aware that coalitions will be formed after the election, the potential coalition partnerships may not be clear and political parties have little incentive to make clear 'deals' before an election. There can also be a period of uncertainty following the election as parties scramble to make coalitions or other agreements. Since voters have no influence on the deals that get struck, people may feel their choices have been diluted.
In theory, FPTP is said to encourage political parties to be 'broad churches', reflecting many different societal groups, and exclude extremist parties from representation in the legislature. The major political parties have been criticised for moving to the 'middle' to improve their chances of being elected, contributing to disengagement by some voters. Despite the lack of differentiation perceived by some, this has enabled parties to field a diverse array of candidates for election — e.g. the Labour Party fielding high levels of female candidates. Extremist minority parties are unlikely to win seats under FPTP unless they have strong geographically concentrated support. By contrast, under List PR system with a single national-level district and a large number of seats, representation can be achieved through as little as 1 percent of the vote,112 and in some circumstances, such small parties can hold the balance of power in coalition formations.
FPTP generally has given rise to single-party governments as it awards 'seat bonuses' for the largest party. Coalitions are the exception rather than the rule and this allows cabinets with few restraints in terms of having to bargain with a minority coalition partner.113 It also allows the ruling party to implement its policy agenda without too many compromises as required in coalitions. A benefit of a strong single-party government is that the opposition is also given enough seats to perform a critical checking role and present themselves as realistic alternative to the government, and gives rise to a coherent opposition in the legislature. This may be considered a more beneficial political environment to one under coalitions because agreements cannot be made 'behind closed doors' and in ways unintended by voters. This maybe considered as an advantage for Westminster because of this governing body's power and influence across the UK. The influence of very small parties could have a disproportionate influence on the formation of government and policy development.
Often Duverger's claim that FPTP tends to produce a two-party system is assumed to be a rule.114 However, consideration has been given to how FPTP will continue to perform in an environment of the major parties. ERS analysis shows that the tendency to produce overall majorities under FPTP is largely a contingent rather than a necessary feature of the system that comes about largely due to the rise of a strong third party and the decline of marginal seats. The ERS believes that given the trends from 1979 to 2005, large pluralities where a party attracts as much as 40 percent of the vote is unlikely to be a regular occurrence in the future and a stable majority government is not guaranteed under FPTP in the future. 'Dead-heat' type elections such as those fought between two major parties with the emergence of a significant third party and declining marginal seats can result in the need for coalitions or the risk of a hung parliament. If that is the case, it is not clear that FPTP will continue to operate as it always has.

Public opinion and perception of government

Research on public opinions and support for continuing FPTP following the disproportional result of the 2005 General election did not show less support for the FPTP system. In fact, relatively few people have firm and consistent attitudes about different electoral systems.115 Results also tend to be highly sensitive to the wording of questions put to respondents. The British Election Study that surveyed attitudes towards PR from 1992-2005 finds that people do not have strong views about PR. 116 Although more people agreed than disagreed that Britain should have PR 'so that the number of MPs in the House of Commons matches more closely the number votes each party gets', one in three 'neither agreed nor disagreed' or said they 'don't know'. There was also no change in the popularity of PR found in the survey after the 2005 election relative to earlier years, suggesting that the outcome of the election did not impact on public opinion.
When asked if more specifically 'change the voting system for General elections to the UK House of Commons to allow smaller political parties to get a fairer share of MPs [or] keep the voting system for the House of Commons as it is to produce effective government which comes closer to your view change or keep as it is?' around three in five said they wanted to keep the current electoral system (p130). This study finds that when the questions emphasize the fact that the small parties might be the principal beneficiaries of PR and that it might be at the expense of 'effective government', opinion sways against PR. This study does not find any change in public opinion since the 2005 election in one direction or another and demonstrates a tension in public attitudes between proportionality and the influence of small parties.

Determining the government

One advantage of FPTP is that the winner is usually easily identified and largely undisputed. Under some PR systems that have preferential voting, such as STV, the outcome of an election could have been different if a different electoral system were in use to aggregate the ballots and determine the overall result. A potential source of an anomalous result under preferential voting concerns the issue of 'monotonicity', in which a candidate's chances of being elected could possibly be harmed by an increase in their share of the vote (refer to Farrell 2001 p148-149 for an example). While the circumstances in which this could happen are expected to be very rare, under systems such as STV there is greater complexity in determining the winner than under FPTP.


Both PR and FPTP are associated with stable and effective governments. FPTP in the UK has tended to produce a clear majority winner with governments serving full term, although with the current relatively strong third party, a hung parliament, and a coalition/minority government is more likely in the future than previously. PR increases the chances of coalition government and with a greater number of parties involved, can increase the chance of instability and more frequent elections or changes of government, although there are many examples of stable and effective coalition governments. However, the debate also centres on the nature of governments. FPTP often produces an undisputed winner and can award the winning party with a surplus of seats to govern without necessarily being dependent on a coalition. Governments under PR are often determined by parties who can strike the best deal and enter coalitions or other kinds of arrangements in order to govern, with voters having little influence on these negotiations. There is a tension in public attitudes between agreeing with the merits of greater proportionality but being cautious about increasing the number of parties represented in Parliament. However there has been no shift in public opinion towards PR as a result of the last FPTP elections of 2005.

D Impact on the voter — effective choices, ease of voting and connection with representatives

(i) Effective choices

Different voting systems give voters different choices about a candidate. David Farrell provides a useful typology that characterises the degree of choice voting systems provide in relation to the extent of choice and the nature of choice provided by the ballot:
In this typology FPTP provides only one choice but voters can make this choice in terms of the candidate they select in their constituency, fostering a strong constituency-representative link. STV provides a greater extent of choice between candidates as voters can rank them according to their preferences. AV would sit between FPTP and STV in this typology as it provides voters with the ability to indicate their preferences between candidates but only elect one final candidate. AMS is a mixed system, and therefore provides a categorical choice of a candidate and a party (two votes).
One of the main arguments advanced in favour of some form of PR is that it will make everyone's vote count in some way, giving voters better choices and therefore giving more people an incentive to vote. The cause and effect is complex, as the section on turn-out shows, but there is considerable concern amongst commentators about the effectiveness of people's choices and votes under FPTP.
Effective choices can be viewed in a number of ways. The ERS report on the 2005 General election118 calculates that 68 percent of people's votes were 'wasted', in the sense that they were either cast for losing candidates (50 percent of total votes) or were surplus to requirements in individual constituencies (a further 18 percent).
Patrick Dunleavy and Helen Margetts, in Britain Votes 2005,119 look at the effectiveness of people's choices by calculating whether voters were successful — in the sense that their chosen party came out on top — at one or more of three levels: constituency, regional and national. The only triple winners were some Labour voters, with just over 20 percent falling into the category. Triple losers accounted for 37 percent of voters. But overall, 63 percent of voters in Great Britain got something they wanted, in that their party was successful at least at one of the three levels. The question here will be how many people think about the regional level, given that the two main outcomes are electing a constituency MP and a national government.
Another perspective on choice and influence is provided by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), through its 'Index of Democratic Power' (IDP).120 For each parliamentary constituency, this takes into account the likelihood of the seat changing hands and the number of electors per seat. A score of 100 is said to give all electors in the constituency their 'full fair share' of democratic power. A constituency of average size with a previous marginal result would fit the bill. Cheadle, in Greater Manchester, is said to be the closest to the ideal, with a score of 100.2. The highest score of all is Na-h-Eileanan at 131. On the other end of the scale, the electors of Bootle face an IDP score of 0.07. The average IDP score is 19.4, which means, according to the NEF, that 80 percent of democratic power in General elections is not exercised. This is rooted in the fact that since 1955, there have been 13 General elections, resulting in five changes of government in Westminster — yet only 11 percent of seats have actually changed hands.
Around the UK there are also many constituencies which are regarded as 'safe' for one particular party. It seems likely, therefore, that potential voters in many areas of the UK may feel their vote will not influence the outcome. There is no firm proof that this leads to disengagement, but it is reasonable to suppose that it is a contributory factor for some.
Other electoral systems, either through some form of proportional list system or the distribution of second preference votes, might allow voters to feel that they have an influence on the choice of representatives, even if it may seem indirect, particularly when representatives are chosen from a closed list system, as is the case in the European Parliamentary elections and for the regional elements of the Scottish, Welsh and London Assemblies. For example, in Northern Ireland under STV small parties have a greater chance of getting seats if they gain around one percent of votes at the national level and around 10 percent of the votes at the individual constituency level.121
The ICPR looked at ways in which voters are able to exercise choice under PR systems.122 Under AMS, significant numbers of voters have 'split the ticket', voting for one party for the constituent seat and another for the regional list. In the elections in Scotland, Wales and London, between 1999-2003, between 17 percent and 28 percent of voters split their tickets. Ticket-splitting could be, for example, a pragmatic vote for a large party candidate in the constituency and then a smaller party for the regional list. Or it could be confusion, as some observers have suggested that some voters think that the regional list vote is a second preference vote, as was noted earlier. The ICPR takes the view that in Scotland in 2003, for example, voters were exercising deliberate choices. Split-ticket voting was particularly prevalent amongst supporters of the Greens and Scottish Socialists, who knew that their candidates stood little chance of gaining constituency seats, but could win seats through the list systems. Consequently the Greens won seven seats and the Scottish Socialists six seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2003.
Under an SV system (as used for the London and other Mayoral elections) a voter can vote for a desired representative of a smaller party as first preference and still cast a second vote for a larger party candidate who may be more likely to win. Voter choice can be considered to be limited under SV because the only way a vote can affect the final result is if the voter votes for the most likely candidates to go through to the second round. Because the system assumes that the contest is likely to be between two established parties, it does not reflect the environment for Mayoral elections where independents and other parties also achieve a broad level of support. If a voter wants to ensure their vote helps elect someone, they need to know and have a preference for at least one of the top two candidates.
Under STV, voters can vote for as many candidates as they wish, in order of preference, allowing choice of party and individuals. They can rank all or as many candidates as they like. Because small parties have a greater chance of being elected, they field candidates in more constituencies, which also gives voters a greater range of choice.
Choice is more restricted in the European Parliamentary closed list system, but the proportionality of the system does at least give the voter the chance to vote for a smaller party and see a candidate from that party elected. The most striking example of this in 2004 was the election of 12 UKIP MEPs.
Different systems can provide different opportunities for parties, therefore affecting the formation of parties and campaigning strategies. Duverger (mentioned in the Section A on proportionality) claimed that PR would tend to lead to multiple parties over time and that FPTP would tend to produce a two- party system, although this was is not an iron-caste rule.123 Research measuring the number of 'effective parliamentary parties' under different systems has shown that there is a tendency for more parties under PR than under FPTP.124 'Effective' parties are identified by weighting each party by its size, determined by share of its vote or seats won. The ICPR found that under PR in the UK, elections have produced between three and four 'effective' parliamentary parties with STV in Northern Ireland the only system providing more than four 'effective' parties.125 This is not just because PR systems allocate more seats to small parties but also because more people vote for small parties when PR is in place. This is a typical increase of one to two more parties by comparison to Westminster. However, while Westminster followed the Duverger rule of having two main parties for many years, there are currently three effective parliamentary parties under FTPT and it is no longer a two party system (the Liberal Democrats creating a significant third party along with Labour and the Conservatives).126


FPTP provides categorical choice across candidates and parties but only gives voters one chance to influence the outcome and many voters may not have this opportunity in reality. STV provides ordinal choices and greater scope for voters to select between candidates and parties, with greater potential to choose the winner, and fewer 'wasted' votes. Choice is also enhanced under AMS because voters can choose a consituency and list candidate through two votes. Closed party lists offer the least choice but, like STV a greater chance of seeing the elected candidate win.

(ii) Ease of voting and understanding the implications

The previous section showed that under the newer electoral systems in the UK, voters are able to exercise a greater degree of choice and have more chance of their vote being effective in the election of a party or candidate. However, with choice comes the potential for confusion, both about how to vote and about the effect of one's choices. One of the virtues of the FPTP system is its simplicity. In General elections the voter simply chooses one candidate and the one with the most votes wins the seat.

How to vote

In 1998, before the introduction of a new voting system for the European Parliamentary elections, Patrick Dunleavy and colleagues conducted trials of mock ballot papers distinguishing between open and closed list systems. They established that most people could complete the ballot papers without difficulty and had a marginal preference for the more complex open list system. In 2003, the ICPR and National Centre for Social Research surveyed Welsh and Scottish voters after the 2003 elections127. They found that while some voters found it difficult to understand how the votes translated into seats, only 11 percent of voters found the ballot papers difficult to fill in.
One way of measuring how difficult voters find the new voting systems is to look at the number of invalid votes cast, comparing them where possible with FPTP equivalents. However, it is important to acknowledge the complexities and limitations of using invalid vote rates.
There are several different categories of invalid (spoiled or rejected) votes. The main categories of invalid votes are when a voter makes 'more votes than entitled' or leaves the ballot 'uncertain or blank'. 'More votes than entitled' can be assumed to show failure of voters to understand the process, but 'uncertain or blank' votes are more difficult to assess as they may have been deliberate or in error. While overall invalid votes may increase or decrease, the composition of invalid categories may differ by category. Also it is difficult to make conclusions about causality, as voter confusion is likely to be affected by multiple aspects such as the rules of the new system, having a combined election, the design of ballot paper and other factors such as the literacy of the voter.
Analysing invalid voting rates also is difficult because the data is not consistent and comparable across constituencies and elections, and there are varying administrative practices and local standards of what is considered acceptable by returning officers. Whilst we cannot control for all the factors that impact on spoiled votes, our analysis differentiates between combined and non- combined elections to try and observe the difference in spoiled ballots for different systems.
The following figure sets out invalid voting rates by elections, differentiating between combined and non-combined elections.
Overall there are more invalid votes in the new electoral systems with combined elections compared to un-combined General elections. With the exception of Scotland in 1999, all combined elections have relatively high invalid vote rates.
The problem of high invalid votes seems to have been most acute in the London Assembly and Mayoral elections. In 2004 a combined total of 570,328 votes across both elections were invalid (although categories of invalid votes vary, as discussed further below).129 This amounted to 7.2 percent of the total votes cast in both elections (about 7.7 million).
The 2007 Scottish Parliamentary elections also saw a striking increase in the number of invalid votes where the Parliamentary and local government elections were combined. Although the 1999 combined election in Scotland had very low rates of invalid votes, the 2007 election saw a very high number of invalid votes where the local government election changed from FPTP to STV, a combined rate of 3.47 percent. The local government elections had a total of 38,352 or 1.83 percent invalid ballots, compared with 0.64 percent in the 2003 local government election under FPTP. The Scottish Parliamentary elections saw a total of 146,099 ballot papers rejected.130 Of these, 60,455 or 2.88 percent were regional ballots and 85,644 or 4.1 percent were constituency ballots.
There was a notable decrease in the number of spoiled ballots in Northern Ireland non-combined elections, down to just under one percent in 2007 compared with 1.5 percent in 2003. Wales followed a similar pattern, with invalid vote numbers decreasing between 2003 and 2007.
General elections have had the lowest percentage of invalid votes. In 2005 where the General election was combined with other elections (i.e. with multi- member FPTP voting in local elections in England and STV in local elections in Northern Ireland) the rate of invalid votes increased, though it remained under 1 percent.
We can see that generally, when there are combined elections held on the same day there is a greater likelihood of increased invalid votes. However, the factor contributing to invalid voting rates may not necessarily be the combining of elections themselves, as discussed in the cases below.
The design of the ballot paper (constituency and list candidates appeared on the same ballot) may have contributed to voter confusion and invalid votes in the London elections. The London 2004 Elections Review Committee (ERC) report on the Greater London Authority Elections, 131 put forward a number of reasons for the number of invalid votes cast, mainly relating to the design of the ballot papers and inadequate voter instructions. Their analysis for the 2004 London Mayor elections found a large number of the invalid votes (271,117) could have been due to voters legitimately choosing not to exercise their second preference. However the ERC also noted that the numbers not indicating their first preferences (24,534 first preference Mayoral votes that were unmarked / uncertain and 56,243 Mayoral second preference votes with no valid first choice) suggested voter confusion arising from poor ballot paper design and inadequate instructions. On the Assembly votes under the AMS system, the largest categories of invalid votes for the constituency and list (regional) votes was 'uncertain or blank', 113,442 and 33,309 respectively. There was also a pattern of more invalid votes in socially deprived areas with high numbers of people with low levels of education.
The 2007 Scottish Elections Review (SER) did not find sufficient evidence to suggest that the simultaneous local government elections using STV contributed substantially to the invalid vote rates, despite the Arbuthnott Commission's recommendation to de-couple these elections.132 Rather, the SER point to voter confusion due to the combined Scottish Parliamentary ballot paper that included both the regional and constituency votes on one ballot sheet, with the regional ballot on the left column and the constituency ballot on a column on the right. The Arbuthnott Commission had suggested exploring a new design, such as combined ballot papers as used in other countries such as New Zealand. The SER analysis of invalid votes found that in the parliamentary elections, four percent of voters had one or both parts of their ballot paper rejected. Of these, 75 percent of voters (or three percent of all voters) left one side unmarked, while marking the other side correctly (the valid votes were accepted and the blanks rejected).133
The most plausible explanation found was that some voters did not know or understand that they had two votes in the AMS system based on the way the ballot paper was designed. Voters who did not read or understand the instructions may have drifted naturally to the left, and the constituency side on the right may have looked like a continuation of the regional list to some voters. This may have particularly been the case in Glasgow and Lothians where the lists were longer and last minute changes to ballot papers resulted in abbreviated instructions. Rejected ballot papers were markedly higher in these regions, where social deprivation is also greater than other regions.
The SER point out that in combined elections where separate ballot papers were used for the AMS election (as in Wales in 1999, 2003 and 2007 and in Scotland in 1999 and 2003), the ballot paper rejection rates ranged from 0.36 percent and 1.39 percent. This is significantly lower than the examples of combined elections in London and Scotland where the AMS election used a single ballot paper for both votes discussed above.
The experience in these elections suggests that ballot paper design and information to voters is critical. We have not found analysis that points to particular combinations of elections causing greater invalid voting, although the ERS have argued that there is a causal relationship between having more than one election on the same day and invalid votes, even if the same system is used.134


There does not appear to be conclusive evidence that any one particular voting system is more confusing for the voter, in terms of casting their votes correctly, than any other system. Overall FPTP has the least number of invalid votes but what can be seen is that generally in combined elections, there is an increased level of invalid votes. However, the causes are not necessarily that elections are combined with different voting systems in operation. The cases of the combined elections in London in 2004 and Scotland in 2007 show that ballot paper design and the information provided to voters are critical factors contributing to invalid votes. Social deprivation and demographic characteristics of constituencies may also have a part to play in invalid voting rates. Given the limitations in the data on invalid voting it is difficult to assess reliably the nature of relationships between different combined systems and if some are better than others.

Understanding the outcome of the vote

The ICPR found no evidence from 1999 surveys that not understanding how the voting system worked dissuaded people from voting. It points out that this finding is borne out in other countries, such as Germany, which have AMS: 'Many German voters do not understand the purpose or significance of their second vote, but despite this, the German system is popular with its electorate.'
The ICPR surveys of voters in the 2003 elections in Scotland and Wales found that less than half of all respondents felt that they understood AMS, with about the same proportion saying that they did not understand it (with 'not sure's making up the difference). Recent elections saw a marked improvement in understanding of the new systems. In Wales, compared with 2003, the 2007 election saw a notable improvement in voter knowledge, where 53 percent felt they knew a great deal or a fair amount about the voting system, compared with 40 percent previously. In Wales a substantial minority of 37 percent felt they knew 'not very much' and 10 percent nothing at all in 2007, compared with 58 percent saying they knew 'not very much' or 'nothing at all' in 2003.
In the London Mayor and London Assembly elections, the Electoral Commission's opinion survey found that 57 percent were satisfied with the amount of information they were provided on the Mayoral candidates but only 34 percent were satisfied with the information about the London Assembly elections. This may have potentially contributed to the high invalid voting rate in the AMS system in 2004, as discussed in the section on ease of voting and understanding the implications above. Conclusion
Whilst there is evidence that voters do not need to understand how the outcome of the election is determined to vote effectively, voter knowledge may still impact on successful voting and on whether people vote at all, as set out in Section B on voter participation.

(iii) Connection with representatives

Another of the merits of FPTP put forward by its proponents is that constituency representatives have close ties to their electorate and other citizens locally. They are accountable to all their constituents, not just those who voted for them, and have strong incentives to take up issues on their behalf, given that they will face re-election at some point. In the UK, constituencies on average have around 70,000 registered electors, which is a relatively small number by international standards, so the quality of contact between MP and constituents could be relatively high.
Many MPs do indeed undertake a great deal of valuable constituency work, as well as fulfilling other important functions, such as scrutinising parliamentary legislation and representing the interests of their constituency and party in the House of Commons. The current debate on democratic engagement does, however, suggest that more could be done to connect MPs and local parties with their constituents. For example, a survey of Internet users after the 2005 General election revealed that 93 percent of people did not expect to be contacted by their MP until the next General election campaign.137 The Electoral Commission and Hansard Society have conducted audits of political engagement for the past three years.138 The surveys have consistently shown that engagement at local level remains low, despite the incentives provided by the FPTP system. Only 44 percent of those surveyed in 2006 knew their MP's name, whilst over the three years of the survey 13-17 percent of people said they had contacted their local MP over the previous two or three years.139
The existence of a large number of 'safe' seats may also weaken the accountability argument advanced in favour of the FPTP system. In an article on compulsory voter turn-out published in the Hansard Society's Democracy Series, Chris Ballinger observes that: 'In the 2005 UK General election, the battle was fought not in 646 constituencies, but in about 100 key target seats. The electorate responded to this targeting Electors, it seemed, felt unmotivated to vote for safely incumbent Government MPs. They were more motivated to vote in those seats in which the opportunity to influence the result was most marked — which were also the seats in which the parties conducted their most active campaigning.'140
The ICPR looked at the degree of constituency involvement by representatives under the newer electoral systems. It found that under AMS in Scotland and Wales, the role of the constituency representative is much the same as under the Westminster system. The role of regional list representatives was somewhat less constituency based, although many of those representatives may hold ambitions to become constituency representatives and do, of course, require a profile to be well placed on future regional lists. So they do take an interest in constituents' issues and have had some conflicts with constituency representatives.
As we have seen in Chapter 5 on the experience of the devolved jurisdictions, the tension between constituency and list representatives in Scotland and in Wales has been perhaps the biggest single concern about the effect of AMS. The Government of Wales Act 2006 banned dual candidacy to address the tensions arising between the two classes of elected members under AMS. The 2007 Welsh Assembly elections were the first time candidates were obliged to choose to contest either a constituency or in a regional list and could not stand on both as was previously the case, and is the norm under AMS in most other countries.
The continued focus on constituency work may be a reflection that AMS is new to the UK, and representatives' behaviour still mirrors that under the FPTP system, even though it has been in place for three terms. The ICPR142 also looked at New Zealand and Germany, which have AMS. In Germany there is less of a tradition of constituency service and relatively little difference between the roles of constituency and list representatives. In New Zealand, where AMS has been in place since 1996, list members have developed a strategic role, but they are also assigned geographical responsibilities by their parties. Some list members have previously been constituency representatives and are therefore keen to maintain constituency contacts. Because the constituencies are larger than they used to be under FPTP, constituency MPs now have larger caseloads than before.
STV systems are specifically designed to maintain contact between representatives and their constituents, while delivering proportional outcomes. The ICPR143 suggests that in the Republic of Ireland, because candidates need to distinguish themselves from fellow party candidates as well as other parties, there has been an increased emphasis on local or single issues, particularly in rural areas. Proponents of STV argue that the connection between constituents and their elected representative is stronger as voters have greater choice between MPs representing their constituency and can approach several different MPs based on their preference for a party or individual.
The closed list system for the European Parliamentary elections, based on large regions, is not conducive to constituency casework, although a survey of 61 MEPs carried out by David Farrell and Roger Scully between 2001-3144 found that British MEPs feel that they do more casework than their counterparts in other EU countries. The large size of the regions they represent does, however, make it difficult to make a strong connection with individual communities. If there is a trend since 1999, it is away from casework to an ambassadorial role for the region.


In conclusion, FPTP has the simplest direct relationship between representative and constituent. STV also allows for a direct relationship, but there are a number of potentially competitive representatives and greater choice for the electorate. AMS allows for the direct relationship, but has the complication of party list representatives being seen as competitors and somehow second order, by constituency representatives. However, choice is enhanced under AMS because a member of the electorate can either approach one constituency member or any of the regional list members. The closed party list establishes the least connection. Whether the connection between constituents and representatives is stronger under FPTP and STV (both candidate based systems) depends on one's perspective about whether there should be single or multi-member constituencies and representatives.

E Social representativeness

This analysis of social representation focuses on gender and ethnic minority representation. Other categories such as age or socio-economic status are not examined due to limited research on these topics.
In the 2005 General election, 126 women were elected to the House of Commons — an historic high. This is almost 20 percent of the total MPs, a figure which is still relatively low by standards elsewhere in Europe and well below the proportion of women in the population (50.9 percent in mid 2005).145 For example, women comprise 47.3 percent of the total MPs in Sweden, 36.7 percent in the Netherlands, and 42 percent in Finland.146 Whilst these countries have more proportional voting systems, other countries with PR do not share such high levels of representation of women, with Italy at 17.3 percent and Ireland at 13.3 percent. The position in devolved jurisdictions is better than the House of Commons. The proportion of women in the Scottish Parliament is 33 percent (43 women) and in Wales 47 percent (28 women). The Welsh Assembly was the first legislative body in the world to achieve parity between numbers of men and women elected in 2003 (50 percent). In 2006 following a by- election, there were two more female representatives than males, although the proportion of women dropped to 47 percent in 2007.
Around three-quarters of female MPs for the House of Commons were from the Labour Party, which has adopted all-women shortlists for some safe seats. All new female Labour MPs elected in 2005 were selected from all-women shortlists. No other party adopted this approach, although the Conservatives have sought to improve their selection processes and the Liberal Democrats have sought to give support to women candidates, through mentoring, training and financial support. The current level of women's representation in the Commons is potentially dependant on Labour's majority, due to Labour's policy of positive action in the mid-1990s and the use of all-women shortlists after 2002. The impact of these policies has been significant, with the 1997 elections seeing the number of female MPs double, from 60 in 1992 to 120 in 1997, of which 101 were Labour MPs.147
In the 2005 General election, 15 MPs from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background were elected, marginally up from 13 in 2001. The first ethnic minority member of the Welsh Assembly was elected on the regional ballot representing Plaid Cymru in 2007, and for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the first Chinese politician was also elected in 2007. As the Electoral Reform Society points out, if the representation of BME groups in the House of Commons reflected the make up of the population (7.9 percent BME), there would be 51 BME MPs.148 When young people from BME groups are surveyed about why many of them feel disengaged from the political process, many cite the fact that they cannot relate to their representatives, so few of whom seem to speak directly for them.
In its 2002 research report on voter engagement among BME communities, The Electoral Commission states that 'It is an oversimplification to assume that the presence of BME representatives ensures representation of BME concerns and interests... However the importance of the presence of BME representatives in elected office is clear in terms of giving messages about the openness of the system and encouraging the participation of BME communities'.149 We have not found specific research on different voting systems and their impact on BME voters in the UK.
The introduction of party list systems, both for the European Parliamentary elections and the regional lists for Scotland, Wales and London, can provide an opportunity for political parties to address the gender and ethnic imbalances amongst their candidates, then flowing into electoral outcomes.
As far as gender is concerned, the composition of the Scottish, Welsh and London Assemblies suggest that significant progress has been made, although in the most recent elections the number of women dropped in both Scotland and Wales, and remained unchanged in Northern Ireland. Following respective elections, 36 percent of the London Assembly, 46.7 percent of the National Assembly for Wales, and 33.3 percent of the Scottish Parliament representatives are women.150 However, contrary to what one might expect, the percentages are higher in Scotland and Wales for constituency than list representatives, although when compared internationally, the pattern in Scotland and Wales has been an exception rather than the norm. This is largely attributed to the Labour Party's 'twinning' arrangement for female and male constituency candidates to ensure balance in Scotland and Wales in the 1990s. In Wales, Plaid Cymru is the only party that has more women representatives through the lists rather than constituencies (in 2001, five from the list and two from constituencies), due to their policy of placing a female candidate at the top of each list. Northern Ireland has a poor record of women's representation (16.7 percent in 2007, unchanged from 2003). However, in the London Assembly there are almost equal numbers of constituency and list members who are women.
Surprisingly perhaps, given that the closed list is theoretically the easiest for parties to control, women's representation is relatively low amongst UK Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) at almost 26 percent (20 female).151 This was partly influenced by the fact that in the most recent election none of UKIP's 12 elected MEPs was a woman, and Labour, which tends to have more female candidates than other large parties, lost seats. In comparison, 38 percent of Irish MEPs were female in 2004.152 As put by Julie Ballington of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (2007), political parties can, regardless of the voting system, remain 'gatekeepers to the advancement of women in politics'.153
For BME groups, the London Assembly (8 percent) and UK members of the European Parliament (4.6 percent)154 have higher representation than the House of Commons (2 percent). Improvements could be made across all voting systems in terms of the participation of BME groups although in this area it is not clear if a change to the voting system would have a significant impact. Positive action is likely to have a significant impact but can be difficult and controversial to implement.
The devolved jurisdictions have shown how progress can be made in improving gender representativeness, if the parties select a better balance of candidates in the first place. The ICPR also suggests that this is not so much because of PR, but because these were new Assemblies, with no incumbents blocking winnable seats.155 However, in theory PR is described as facilitating the encouragement of the selection and election of more women but does not guarantee it. Since generally under PR multiple seats can be won per district, the turnover of incumbents is likely to be greater. In combination with some parties taking positive action, there has been improved gender representativeness in the UK. On this point however, the Arbuthnott Commission, when considering STV for Scotland, considered that STV would make positive action policies more difficult for parties to implement to promote more gender and ethnic minority representations. Whilst the electoral system is not the only determining factor, international experience suggests that those countries with some form of proportional representation have better women's representation.156


In the UK, the devolved jurisdictions have achieved better women's representation compared to Westminster but significant contributions have also been made by positive action policies. A much higher proportion of women have been elected to the Scottish, Welsh and London Assemblies than is the case for the House of Commons (or in Europe and Northern Ireland). List systems may help, but the driving factor has probably been the Labour Party's 'twinning' arrangement for male and female candidates in constituency seats in those Assemblies.
All systems in the United Kingdom need improvement in terms of representation of BME groups.

F Impact on political campaigning

One of the criticisms levelled at the FPTP systems, especially with ever more sophisticated use of media by political parties, is that it encourages parties to concentrate campaigning on marginal seats at the time of an election. For example the ERS point out that in campaigning for the 2005 General election the major parties were estimated to have focused on only 800,000 electors who were considered to be swing voters in marginal constituencies.157
The Jenkins' Commission pointed out how FPTP 'narrows the terrain over which the political battle is fought' meaning that political parties focused their efforts on 'about a hundred or at most 150 swingable constituencies' [in 1997].158
The Power Inquiry was also critical of the current style of political campaigning in Britain. It argued that the main political parties concentrate 'electoral energy on the marginal seats which are subject to swing votes' whilst appeasing the core vote with a 'handful of policies.'159
Under FPTP outside these targeted seats, there may be relatively little campaigning, especially by senior politicians from the major parties. This situation may have been exacerbated by the financial constraints faced by all the parties. The risk inherent in this focus on marginals is that most of the public conclude that the political parties are not interested in them. This is one factor which may contribute to political disengagement, although Curtice et al did not find any evidence of this when comparing FPTP with other voting systems. In their study of legislative elections held in recent years under various voting systems, in those elections using FPTP, 39 percent said a candidate or someone from a political party has been in contact with them during the campaign whereas in countries with other systems only 21 percent of respondents said this was the case. Yet the critique of FPTP around the focus on marginal seats remains. So, are campaigning strategies and tactics different under other voting systems?
Under AMS, the ICPR observes that we might expect at least three effects.
First, parties might have an incentive to campaign everywhere because there are regional list votes to be won. There may also be a difference in constituency and list campaigning, the latter being more focused on regional issues, although this may be less likely if candidates are standing for both constituency and list seats. Second, parties may be encouraged to adopt more distinctive ideological positions in order to capture niche electoral markets. Third, despite more ideological stances, they might be expected to refrain from outright attacks on parties that they might be in coalition with after the elections.
In the experience of the devolved jurisdictions it is not clear yet if AMS has reduced the tendency for parties to concentrate on marginal seats in campaigns. The larger parties, including the SNP and Plaid Cymru have continued to target marginal seats and this was important in both the 2003 and 2007 elections.161 For Plaid Cymru, the ICPR observes that they deliberately concentrated on constituency seats because they did not want to be perceived as having limited opportunities to win in constituency seats. This suggested that list seats were being considered 'lower priority' seats. This is despite Plaid Cymru being one of the major beneficiaries of the list system. In 2007 Plaid Cymru increased their vote share by two constituency seats and one more list seat. The focus on marginal seats has boosted SNP dominance in the Scottish Assembly and Plaid Cymru's in the Welsh Assembly, largely due to the relative paucity of list seats.162 The Electoral Commission's reports of 2003 on the elections in Scotland163 and Wales164 reinforce the ICPR's findings that the focus is on winning key constituencies.
In terms of campaigning for the list seats, only a few small parties took advantage of the new system to good effect. In Scotland, the small parties such as the Greens and Scottish Socialists specifically targeted list votes in 2003 with some measure of success. These small parties focused their campaigns on winning list votes because they had little hope of winning constituency seats. For example the Green Party also did not have any candidates in the constituency contests and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland encouraged Labour voters to split their ticket on the grounds that their second vote for Labour would not help get anyone from Labour elected.165 The large increase in the number of parties campaigning for the list vote in Wales in 2007 suggest a change in campaigning behaviour to take advantage of list opportunities. However, the four major parties have dominated all the seats in Wales (Labour, Plaid Cymru, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) and no smaller party has won a list seat since the introduction of AMS in Wales.
The campaigns in the 2003 elections were of low intensity, especially in Wales, where the Electoral Commission was particularly concerned about the lack of profile and information the public received about the elections. Some of this lack of intensity was the result of the fact that the elections are still seen as second order by many people in comparison with the General election. However the situation improved in the 2007 elections. The Electoral Commission found significant improvements in the 2007 Wales elections in terms of turn-out as well as greater public knowledge about the Welsh Assembly and greater publicity of elections.
Voting systems also impact on the manner of political campaigning. FPTP, described as 'the winner takes all' system, is said to lead to adversarial campaigning and an emphasis on defeating opponents, largely due to the 'seat surplus' awarded to winning parties. Some argue that this contributes to voter disengagement.166 Advocates of PR (and particularly STV) argue that PR encourages political parties to differentiate themselves from other parties (rather than all competing for the middle ground) widening the choices presented to electors as well as reducing adversarial politics.167 Parties who may need to find coalition partners after an election are unlikely to engage in 'dirty politics' beforehand to ensure they have the support to form a government.
Under AMS there seems to be a continued adversarial approach in the campaign for constituency seats, particularly with the focus on marginal seats and small majorities in Scotland and Wales. Additionally there seems to be adversarial relations between different kinds of candidates in-between elections, such as in Wales before 2007, after which dual candidacy was abolished. Under STV, the ERS argue that in Northern Ireland parties of the extremes have themselves moved closer to the centre, although they point out that voters continue to be reluctant to cross the community divide by transferring their votes to other parties.168 This suggests that adversarial relations between parties can continue regardless of the voting system, although in the case of Northern Ireland some of this may be due to the specific socio-political history and context. Because STV provides high levels of intra-party choice between candidates, this can create a tendency for decentralised campaigning and emphasising individual candidates, resulting in the potential for faction-fighting between candidates of the same party.
Campaigning for the European Parliamentary elections presents another set of challenges, with the closed list system meaning that candidates are little known by electors. Votes will therefore be geared towards the parties. There is only limited transnational campaigning. Interest in the European Parliament remains low, despite the importance of the legislation it passes. And while the major parties had quite distinct positions on the European Union, their own campaigns in 2004 focused on a wider range of issues than Europe, including, in the Liberal Democrats case, Iraq. The campaign was galvanised, however, by the anti-European messages of UKIP, which won 12 seats at the election. Other factors, such as the controversy surrounding all-postal voting, may also have heightened interest in the elections. A study by ICM and Professor John Curtice also found that traditional activities such as personal canvassing and providing people with the right amount and sort of information helped turn-out169. As a result of all these factors, turn-out at the European Parliamentary elections was higher than ever before, at 38 percent.


The broad conclusion to be drawn thus far about campaigning under the new electoral systems is that there has been relatively little change in the focus of campaigns. Although some small parties have been able to take advantage of strategic campaigning for the list seats under AMS, wider national issues and traditional constituency-based tactics tend to predominate. The role of UKIP in the 2004 European Parliamentary elections, and the Greens and Scottish Socialists in the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections, are exceptions. It may be that lessons learned from these experiences may lead to more distinctive approaches from the larger parties in time.

G Impact on administration of elections

The administration of elections can have a significant impact on the integrity in elections and public confidence in the democratic process. The Electoral Commission is tasked with setting standards for running elections and reporting on how well elections are run.
Chapter 5 outlined the Electoral Commission's analysis of the elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and for the European Parliament since 1997. This chapter also outlined the findings of the GLA Elections Review Committee for the London elections of 2004. As well as the common theme of low turn-out, all of these reviews reflected on the increasing challenges faced by electoral administrators and returning officers in running successful elections and in playing their part in providing effective information to the electorate where new systems have introduced. Most recommendations for improvement concerned improving information available to voters, addressing inconsistent practice in regions in terms of ballot paper design, count practices, promotion of postal voting and candidate nominations procedures. Also, invalid votes were a concern in the London Assembly and London Mayor elections in 2004 and Scotland in 2007.
It is difficult to distinguish between the effect of particular voting systems and that of other reforms on the administration of elections. The difficulties faced by electoral officers in recent years have been the result of many factors, but in particular, the demands of increased postal voting, the challenges presented by the combination of different elections and changes to electoral legislation, some of which was not delivered early enough to give administrators the certainty they need to plan well ahead. Other challenges include efforts to modernise electoral administration, such as introducing electronic counting of votes and e-voting.
New electoral systems have simply been a part of the challenge, and electoral officers have in the main responded well. All elections have taken place as planned and electoral petitions after the event have been few in number. Nonetheless, the representative bodies of electoral officers (the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) and the Electoral Matters Panel of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE)) have warned about the increasing pressures on their members. Any further changes to voting systems in the UK will, therefore, need to take account of how the demands created by new voting systems combine with other demands.

(i) Combined elections, complexity and the need for consistency

Combining elections now appears to have become commonplace. There is good reason for this, as it has been seen as good for turn-out, with voters only having to attend the polling station or send their postal vote on one occasion each year rather than twice (or more) over a relatively short period. Low turn-out elections (typically local or European Parliamentary elections) have particularly benefited from combination with either a General election, or National Assembly/Parliamentary election. Combination does mean, however, that electors, parties, candidates and administrators may be faced with more than one voting system. This adds to the complexity of the elections and the logistical demands (for example, printing ballot papers, postal voting packs and counting votes).
Critics of PR and preferential systems often argue that complexities in the ballot paper can confuse voters and inadvertently benefit some candidates over others. For example, in the case of STV, they point to the weakness that voters read down (or up) the list of candidate names and can potentially vote sequentially (alphabetically) rather than by preference. This line of argument suggests that because ballot papers are longer under STV, it is more taxing on voters who have to read through the entire list of candidates and place a '1' next to the first name they recognise, a '2' next to the second and so on, until all are completed. This is said to produce a biased result that favours those candidates whose names start with letters at the beginning or end of the alphabet. There has been evidence of this in Australian and Irish elections170 although there are several different ballot design and management techniques to reduce the chance of this. This issue arose in the Scottish 2007 elections where the SER found attempts by political parties to influence the design of the ballot papers. This led the SER to recommend a more consistent approach to naming political parties and an equitable system for positioning parties on the ballot paper.171
The European Parliamentary, Greater London Assembly and London Mayor elections were combined in 2004. Voters had the opportunity to cast five different votes. The high percentage of invalid votes cast (see discussion and Figure 5 in section D) suggests that significant numbers of voters did not find this easy. The 2004 Elections Committee for London attributes a good deal of the difficulty to inadequate information for voters (notwithstanding the acclaimed booklet on Mayoral candidates), inconsistent approaches to polling cards and poor ballot paper design. It also refers to inconsistent practices in other areas of electoral administration. As a result the Committee proposes stronger directive powers for the Greater London Returning Officer in the run up to and during the 2008 elections.
The SER, when evaluating the administration of the 2007 combined Scottish elections, highlighted problems of fragmented legislation, accountability, policy development, planning and implementation of elections and deficiencies in co-ordination and timely decision-making. Given that the administration of elections is already quite complex, the fact that it was a combined election and additional requirements were necessary to ensure electronic counting, meant that there are multiple and over-lapping issues to be addressed. The SER also recommend that before any further changes to electoral systems or administration are proposed, that better research and user testing be undertaken well before changes are to be implemented. On the case of Scotland, the SER only suggested de-coupling elections as one option (the other was changing the ballot paper design). Most of the recommendations related to reducing complexity and improving co-ordination in the administration of elections rather than to aspects of combining different voting systems.
The need for electoral officers to play a greater role in the provision of information about the elections and the need for greater consistency of practice was echoed in The Electoral Commission's reports on the elections in Scotland172 and Wales.173 The important issue is that in all these elections there is a need for consistent information provision to ensure a level playing field for voters across the region or country, and maintain a focus on what is best for voters.174 While combined elections provide opportunities to improve turn-out, they require better prepared information for voters and run an increased the risk of invalid votes.


Combined elections and the use of different voting systems increase the complexity for voters and bring into play the importance of the consistency of information provided to voters and the design of the ballot papers. This requires electoral officers to play a greater role in ensuring the success of such elections.

(ii) Counting the votes

Another area of elections where there has been concern about inconsistent practices, and which is affected by differing voting systems, is the count. The Electoral Commission's report on Welsh175 elections expressed concern at the different approaches taken to the counting of the regional list votes — the top-up. Some returning officers did not begin verifying the list votes until the constituency count had finished. Others verified the list votes at the same time as counting the constituency votes, so that they could move on swiftly to counting the list votes. This affected the timing of the announcement of the result of the regional member elections, and the final declaration of the results was not until 7.30am the day after the elections. Parties and candidates, as well as the media, were particularly concerned about this and the Commission recommended that public announcements of the timing of counts of future elections should be made as early as possible.176
Counting takes even longer under STV, if conducted manually. In Northern Ireland in 2003, the count began the day after the elections (which is standard practice there for all elections) and took two days. In both 2003 and 2007 there was some criticism of the time taken to count votes but the transfer of votes from one preference to another is a complex business and it is important to get it right.
The greater complexity of counting in most proportional voting systems has led to some use of electronic counting, with the likelihood that it will be increasingly relied upon in the future. It was used successfully in the 2004 London combined elections as well as in Scotland in 2007.
Electronic counting works well, but does have some issues. Some are technical and are likely to be ironed out over time. Others challenge some of the traditional expectations around elections, such as the candidates being able to get a feel of the progress of the count by observing the piles of ballot papers. In the example of Scotland in 2007, the SER did not find evidence that electronic counting contributed to the number of rejected ballot papers in Scotland. The SER pointed out that the lateness of legislative and policy developments created an environment where the technology, as a matter of necessity, began to drive procedure. The SER recommended that electronic counting technology be properly integrated into the electoral process and continue to be used in Scotland for future local government elections.
The arrival of new voting systems requires all the participants in an election to adapt, and since most changes in the UK are recent, some people may not be satisfied and would prefer traditional practices.


The more complicated counting methodologies required for PR elections means that vote counting takes longer than for FPTP. This has increased the need for electronic counting, which has in turn has introduced new technical challenges and changes to the way elections are traditionally run, in particular, a need for greater planning. There is also need for greater consistency in counting methods across elections.

(iii) Planning ahead

All of these practical concerns will need to be addressed seriously if there is ever a decision to change the voting system for the Westminster elections. A change to the voting system could not be viewed in isolation from the rest of the electoral process. Any administrative defects would likely be attributed to the change in the system even if the root causes lay elsewhere, and the credibility of the elections could be affected. The SER advised 'if a different ballot paper design, alternative instructions, new electoral systems or marking systems are considered for future Scottish elections, a comprehensive research and testing programme should be implemented under the guidance of electoral practitioners'.177
All the reports on recent elections in the UK using proportional systems call for planning well in advance, for good project management and procurement (especially for postal voting), and effective working between all stakeholders in an election, including provision of information to the elector. Should the Westminster elections move to a more complex voting system, the Government may have to consider whether fixed term elections, or a longer elections timetable following the announcement of the dissolution of Parliament, are necessary in order to allow for effective preparations.
The administrative experience of the new voting systems introduced in the UK has been varied with some key areas requiring better performance but also with signs of some improvement over time (i.e. in Wales and Northern Ireland). What can be concluded at this point is that combined elections are administratively more challenging than individual elections and, given the complex arrangements in the UK, more can be learned and improved in the area of informing voters, ensuring consistency of administrative practices and ballot paper design in combined elections. This includes undertaking sufficient research and testing of any changes to electoral systems and administration.


Given the range of concerns around the need for consistent information, greater lead-in times, consistent practice in counts and improved ballot paper design, research and testing would be needed for elections to facilitate effective planning if changes were proposed for Westminster. In the current complex environment of multiple jurisdictions and multiple and sometimes combined elections, careful consideration continues to be needed for running elections in the future.

H Findings and Conclusions

As set out in the introduction, the purpose of this assessment is to contribute to the knowledge base and debate on whether or not changes should be made to the voting system for the House of Commons. It sets out to provide objective information to contribute to this debate, not to make judgements or recommendations that would be inherently political in nature. Attitudes towards different voting systems can be highly influenced by the systems' impact on groups or parties that a person supports or opposes. Opinions, and to some extent the interpretation of research findings, may also reflect the values different people place on certain properties and characteristics of representative democracy as practised in the House of Commons. Voting systems are inherently a political topic and these value-based assumptions are natural and unavoidable.

Outcomes Under Different Scenarios

There has been quite a lot of interest in what the outcomes for Westminster could be under different voting systems. A number of studies have looked at the impact of the different voting systems on offer by calculating what the effect would be if they were used in the General election, given the numbers of votes cast for each party and in which locality. A large number of assumptions have to be made, especially about second preference or list voting, but they can still give a useful indication of the proportionality or otherwise of different systems. The following example is taken from the ERS's report on the 2005 General election.
In Britain Votes 2005,179 Patrick Dunleavy and Helen Margetts run a similar calculation, including assumptions about the effect under AMS with a 25 percent and 50 percent regional list top-up. The latter gives a little less to Labour than C above, but the outcomes are broadly similar. AMS with 25 percent top-up delivers 275 seats for Labour, 203 for the Conservatives and 118 for the Liberal Democrats, 12 for UKIP, eight for the SNP, four for Plaid Cymru, three for the Greens and one for the British National Party (BNP).
All systems other than FPTP and AV (with no top-up) would lead to coalition or minority government following the 2005 election.
The major beneficiaries of new PR systems in 2005, when compared to FPTP outcomes, would have been the Liberal Democrats. Labour would have been the biggest losers; while the Conservatives would on the whole have been affected only marginally by most systems. The worst system for the Conservatives would have been AV, because the ERS analysis assumed that in the 2005 election relatively few voters who principally favoured another party would have put them as second choice.
Small parties, such as the Greens, UKIP and the BNP would have benefited significantly from list-based systems, but once there is a strong constituency basis to the voting system, even under STV, they would have been unlikely to win many, if any, seats.
The Jenkins Commission proposed AV+ because it would increase proportionality but with reasonable impacts on the current parties in Parliament. There would be a moderate negative impact on Labour, a positive impact on the Liberal Democrats, while leaving the Conservative position much the same. It would, however, do little for the small parties who are currently not represented at Westminster.

Concluding contributions to the debate

It is not possible for any one voting system to meet all the criteria set out in this review, and therefore any conclusion drawn about which system is best for Westminster will depend on the value placed on different criteria. We set out below a brief summary of our findings and points of contribution.
In the experience of the UK since 1997, PR systems have produced more proportional results than FPTP. STV (in Northern Ireland) has been the most proportional, followed by the Party List system and AMS. However, while recent General elections under FPTP have produced less proportional results, this has not always been the case. For example, outcomes were more proportional in the 1950s when the two main parties received the vast majority of votes cast. Since the 1970s the number of two-party contests in constituencies has declined sharply. Other factors (other than the voting system) that impact on disproportionality are district magnitude and patterns of voter behaviour. While there is a consensus about the factors contributing to proportionality and disproportionality, there are different interpretations about which contributing factors are problematic (e.g. district magnitude or the voting system?) Some argue that the disproportionality of FPTP is unfair to small parties, in particular for the Liberal Democrats, and call for a change in the voting system. Others argue that the disproportionality is a result of changing patterns of voter support, turn-out and constituency size, with the voting system not being the sole cause of disproportionality per se. These various factors have a significant impact on understanding proportionality, and need to be taken into account in debates about disproportionality in recent UK General elections.
The impact of different voting systems on voter participation and turn-out is perhaps the most complex criterion, about which interest is high but answers are not straightforward. While there are many factors that impact on a person's propensity to vote, recent research shows that sophisticated analysis is required to look at the relationship between different factors. Voter knowledge, interest and lack of perceived differences between parties have emerged as important factors in voter participation, although the precise relationship is not yet clear. One particular trend that has been identified across different studies is the inequalities in turn-out at General elections, with turn-out decreasing most rapidly amongst those being identified as being at greatest risk of disengagement. Interventions to improve participation, particularly amongst the least engaged, should target a range of contributory factors. John Curtice has also suggested that since turn-out is sensitive to perceptions of a close contest, the trend of voter turn-out may be reversed as British elections become more competitive. It is certainly too simplistic to attribute turn-out levels to particular voting systems or to blame the FPTP system specifically for poor turn-out in the last few General elections. Turn-out has been relatively low in most other elections in the UK since 1997 but more recently has been improving across Scotland, Wales, London and for the European Parliamentary elections.
We do not find a difference between PR systems and FPTP in terms of delivering stable and effective governments although, with a greater number of parties involved under PR, the political landscape can be more dynamic. In the experience of the UK, coalition governments can be just as stable as single- party governments. It is clear though that the new voting systems deliver different kinds of government. Greater proportionality impacts on the nature of government formation in that it almost always leads to either a minority government, or necessarily coalition governments with an increased number of small parties in government. There is debate about the appeal of coalition governments (in how the prospect effects parties and voters before and during elections and in how such governments decide on their policy platforms after elections) and the consequential political implications, which are outside the scope of our study and about which opinions vary.
One of the main benefits of PR, and in particular STV, is that voters have a greater degree of choice in elections and a greater chance of their vote counting in terms of who gets elected. The consequence is that more parties become represented in assemblies and parliaments, and in the case of the devolved jurisdictions, this has improved opportunities for local parties and small parties to compete with the large three parties usually represented at Westminster.
We do not find, on balance, any evidence to suggest that voters find one voting system easier or more confusing than another voting system. Recent performance of elections with the new voting systems did show encouraging improvements, though knowledge and understanding of voting systems could improve further. While FPTP is simpler in theory for voters and has less invalid voting rates, ease of voting has not been an overwhelming problem in the new systems when elections are not combined and when taking into account a period for adjustment. Combined elections with different voting systems have caused voter confusion and problems of invalid votes, largely due to the design of ballot papers and information provided to voters, with some evidence of a greater impact in socially deprived areas. While voters can adapt and learn new voting systems, multiple systems operating in the same election increase the importance of ballot paper design and provision of information to reduce the potential for confusion. While some voter confusion may be inevitable in combined elections, it is clear that ballot paper design also has a critical role to play in mitigating voter confusion in combined elections, as well as the quality of information provided to voters.
It is too difficult to draw conclusions on the quality of representation under different voting systems because this is so dependent on individual views and historical traditions. Whether a constituency is better represented by one or several representatives, and whether list/regional representatives are as legitimate as constituency representatives is highly debated in the UK context. The change under PR systems in the nature of representation and the legitimacy of elected representatives is likely to be topical in the debate for Westminster.
On the criteria of social representation, the newly introduced voting systems have improved the situation of women, although Labour's positive action policies have also been an important contributory factor. There has been very little improvement in the representation of BME groups across all voting systems and it is clear that for both ethnic and gender representation, party behaviour in terms of selecting candidates is more critical than the voting system alone.
It is also too difficult to draw conclusions on the impact on the nature of political campaigning, due to the limited amount of research that is available. It is worth noting the findings from Curtice et al that in their comparison, countries with FPTP elections had more people reporting contact with a political party than other countries. It is difficult to draw conclusions from the limited research available about the experience of campaigning in the UK.
Administrative issues such as the provision of information, co-ordination, consistency of practices (e.g. in counting votes), design of ballot papers and innovations in the management of elections (e.g. electronic counting) are increasingly important in determining the confidence people have in electoral processes. Often problems arising from administrative issues are reflected on the voting system, or vice versa, but it is clear that a complex range of factors impact on the success of an election. However, the impact of improved administration should not be underestimated. Much of the progress made in some of the more recent elections in devolved jurisdiction were attributed to improved administration, while there were also examples of administrative challenges resulting in a lack of confidence in some elections.

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