Scottish voting system explained: who can vote in Scottish Parliament election 2021 - and how it works

Each voter in Scotland will be given two votes in the May election
The chamber of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh (Getty Images)The chamber of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh (Getty Images)
The chamber of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh (Getty Images)

The Scottish Parliament election is upon us, with voters across the country heading to the polls on 6 May.

A total of 129 MSPs will be elected to Holyrood to debate and pass laws on devolved issues in the country.

The SNP has won every Scottish Parliament election since 2007, although in 2016 the party, led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, lost its overall majority and formed a minority government.

This year’s election will be unlike any other due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with certain social distancing measures put in place to ensure polls are safe as people cast their vote.

It is also likely to be dominated by one issue - a second Scottish independence referendum.

Here is everything you need to know about the election.

When is the election?

Voters in Scotland are heading to cast their ballots on Thursday 6 May.

Polling stations are open from 7am to 10pm.

However, this year there is no overnight count due to coronavirus restrictions – and, significantly, no exit poll.

Instead, counting will begin at 9am the next day on Friday 7 May, and although it is not clear how long this will take due to social distancing precautions, it is expected that counting will cease by 6pm.

Then, on Saturday 8 May, some areas will conduct their regional list counts and announce how many regional seats have been allocated to each party.

The results for all constituencies and regions should have been announced by the afternoon or evening on the 8th.

What is the voting system in Scotland?

A Scottish Parliament election is held every five years. The one in May is the sixth in its history.

The Parliament is determined by a process known as the Additional Member System (AMS) and the d’Hondt method of counting is used.

This system was introduced when the Scottish Parliament was unveiled in 1999, to make it more likely that a coalition would run the country.

Despite the system, the SNP was the first party to win an overall majority in the history of the Parliament in May 2011.

The AMS comprises two elements - a constituency vote and a regional vote - and each voter in Scotland is given two votes.

Through the constituency vote, you choose your preferred candidate for your local constituency.

There are 73 constituency MSPs, elected by a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system - the same used in Westminster elections - where the person with the highest number of votes wins and all other votes count for nothing.

The regional vote is the second ballot, which is used to elect an “additional” member.

Scotland is divided into eight electoral regions, from South Scotland to the Highlands and Islands, with each area having seven “list” or regional MSPs.

In the regional ballot, you vote for a political party instead of a named individual.

Parties compile a list of preferred candidates in order. These parties are then allocated a number of MSPs based on how many votes they receive - so the first seat won goes to the first candidate and so on.

A candidate can stand for election on both the constituency and regional lists, but if they win their constituency vote they are removed from the regional vote to ensure no one is elected twice.

Why is this voting system used?

The AMS voting system means the overall result is more proportional, and every voter in Scotland is represented by eight MSPs - one who represents their constituency and seven who represent their region.

The government states: “The regional vote is intended to make representation in the Parliament more proportional in relation to share of the vote, taking into account the size of the regional vote for each party (or independent candidate) and the number of constituency seats won by each party (or independent candidate) in that region.”

It also means smaller parties - such as the Scottish Greens - are more likely to achieve political representation, as their smaller support base is often not reflected well through the FPTP voting system.

The party that holds the most seats in the Parliament forms the Scottish Government, or a coalition of more than one party if none wins a majority.

Who can vote in the May election?

Anyone over the age of 16 who lives in Scotland and is registered to vote is eligible to go to the polls on election day.

People who are not permitted to vote are those younger than that age, along with those who have been legally excluded from voting - for example, if they are serving a prison sentence of more than 12 months.

You must be a British or Irish citizen to vote, or a citizen of another country living in Scotland who has permission to enter or stay in the UK, or does not need permission.

How can I register to vote?

In Scotland, there are three ways for people to cast their vote - but all the deadlines have passed.

It can be done in person at your local polling station, which is often at a community centre or school.

If you can’t get to your polling place, you can send your vote by post.

You can also nominate someone to vote for you, known as a proxy vote.

Registering to vote online is simple and can be done in about five minutes via the government website.

The deadline to register to vote was Monday 19 April, while the last date to register for a postal vote was 6 April. Those wishing to register for a proxy vote had to do so by 27 April.

What happened in 2016?

In the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, the SNP won the vote as the largest party in Holyrood with 63 seats (59 out of 73 constituency seats and four regional list seats).

But that result meant a loss of the previous overall majority and six seats less for Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

The Scottish Conservatives, led by Ruth Davidson at the time, more than doubled its number of seats from 15 to 31.

That meant the Tories overtook Scottish Labour to become the main opposition party in the parliament, as Labour lost 13 seats and ended up with 24.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Greens went up from two to six seats, and the Liberal Democrats plateaued on five.