The Holyrood Voting Mechanism Explained

By Helen Woodsford-Dean (Co-Convener of Orkney Scottish Green Party)

The elections for the Scottish Parliament in May 2021 will use the Additional Member System. This is a mixture of Westminster’s First Past the Post system and Party Lists. It is also used in Germany and New Zealand where it is called Mixed Member Proportional. Voters will be issued with two ballot papers.

On the first (purple) ballot paper will be a list of candidates who want to be the local (i.e. Orkney) Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP). Just like the Westminster elections, the voter chooses ONE preferred candidate and marks the ballot paper with a cross.

On the second ballot paper (orange) is a list of political parties who want seats in parliament. Each party will publish a list of candidates in advance. The voter chooses ONE PARTY and marks the ballot paper with a cross. A vote for a party on this ballot paper is a vote to make more of that party’s candidates into MSPs.

In Scotland, voters elect 73 MSPs from the first ballot paper (purple) and 56 MSPs from the second ballot paper (orange). The Westminster-style ballot papers for the local MSPs are counted first. The candidate with the most votes wins, even if the majority of people didn’t vote for them.

Next, the second ballot papers are counted. Taking into account how many seats a party won on the first ballot paper, ‘additional members’ are added from the party lists to make parliament more representative of how the Scottish region voted as a whole. For example, if a party has 5 MSPs elected from the constituencies, but its fair share is 8 MSPs, then the first 3 candidates from its list become MSPs. 

The goal is to provide a proportional parliament but to also keep a single local MSP.

The Additional Member System has become popular as some see it as a compromise to First Past the Post.

Whilst it is an improvement over the First Past the Post system, parties still have a lot of control over who gets elected. It also doesn’t solve the problem of ‘safe seats’ that rarely change hands.

It has also been argued that the Additional Member System creates two classes of MSPs, with constituency MSPs receiving local casework, whilst the party list MSPs do not.

However, the list MSPs provide an additional layer of representation should the voter feel their MSP does not represent them. The list MSPs also ensure that every party can potentially win seats in every area. This prevents the Scottish government from being able to ignore particular areas of Scotland.

The Scottish Green Party is not standing a candidate to be the local candidate for Orkney but we are asking for your second vote to be Green so that we get as many of our list candidates elected as possible. Due to Scottish Green Party gender-balancing policies, half of our list is formed by female candidates and our top candidate had to be a woman. Local candidates are at fourth and fifth place on the full list of Highlands and Islands regional candidates for the Scottish Green Party, which is shown below.

SGP Highlands and Islands Regional List candidates #1 Ariane Burgess, centre (Moray), #2 Anne Thomas left (Black Isle); and #4 Councillor Steve Sankey right (Orkney ).


  • Anne Thomas (Black Isle)
  • Fabio Villani (Moray)
  • Steve Sankey (Orkney)
  • Debra Nicolson Shetland)
  • Sand Owsnett (Caithness)
  • Topher Dawson (Ullapool)
  • Lisa Jane Mead (Moray)
  • Chris Ballance (Highland)
  • Isabella Sumsion (A&B)
  • Phyl Meyer (A&B)
  • Russell Deacon (Highland)

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2 replies »

  1. How clever of the Greens to lend their support to Labour/Tory/Lobs by standing in 60 constituencies eds where they cannot possibly win, thus splitting the home rule vote.

  2. Hi Helen! Am reading your articles here with great interest! Best wishes and regards!

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