The Euro Files 2: What happens to my vote?

In my previous post, I detailed what the European Parliament’s place in the grand scheme of European legislature. This time around I’ll be talking about how your vote is counted.

It’s a bit more complicated than this…

Each country is free to choose how to appoint its members of the Parliament- some allocate theirs on a nationwide basis, and some on regional.

For example, Germany elects its 96 members on a country-wide basis. The plan was to take all those parties that got over 5% of the vote and divide up the 96 seats according to the proportion of votes they received. However, this was found to be unconstitutional, so this was lowered to 3%. Alas, this too was unconstitutional, so the quorum to get a seat is defaulted about 0.5%.

The United Kingdom is divided up into several constituencies (as is Ireland). Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are their own constituencies (with 3, 6, and 4 seats respectively), while England is divided into 9, ranging from 3 seats in North East England to 10 in the South East. As a shiny added bonus, this is the only UK-wide election in which people in Gibraltar get a vote (by virtue of being EU citizens but electing its own Parliament for domestic matters), and they take part in the South-West England vote.

There are two counting systems in place. Not content with just being excluded from decent car insurance deals, Northern Ireland is the odd man out, using a method known as Single Transferable Vote (STV) while the Great Britain constituencies go for the d’Hondt method of Proportional Representation (PR). The reason NI doesn’t go for the same method is complex, but it’s largely to do with the fact that STV is more suited to the demands of NI’s political scene (and would be worth a blog post in itself), though in the last election, both methods would have achieved the same result. Ireland, too, uses STV.

The d’Hondt method

In Great Britain, we have the d’Hondt method of PR, invented by a Belgian mathematician (made in the EU, of course). In this method, you vote only once for a party (as opposed to an individual as you do in a General Election or a Scottish Parliament Election) or an independent candidate, and the number of votes is then counted. The seats are allocated as follows, and I will use the figures from the Scottish constituency from last time to illustrate.

SNP 321,007

Labour 229,853

Conservative 185,794

Lib Dem 127,038

Green 80,442

UKIP 57,788

BNP 27,174

This is not the full list, but you can check out all the weird and wonderful parties on the Wikipedia page.

The method works as follows:

1) Give the party with the most votes the first seat.
2) Divide the original number of votes parties have received by the number of seats they have already won, plus 1.
3) Go back to 1 and continue until all seats are filled.

By this method, the SNP gets the first seat, and then its number of votes is halved, as it has 1 seat, plus one.

Labour becomes the new leader, and gets the second seat, its votes being halved.

The Conservatives come next, with their votes again being halved.

The SNP will then get its second seat, and its (original) number of votes divided by 3.

The Lib Dems get a seat, and their votes halved.

Finally, Labour gets its second seat, and all seats are then filled.

For “fun” you could do an exercise and tell me how many seats would be needed for Scotland to elect a Green Party, UKIP, or BNP candidate.

It is up to the parties to decide the order in which candidates get seats. Most parties will field six candidates, though most will know (especially for those at 4 and below) that they have no chance. To get all six seats, you need to have six times the number of votes (plus one more) than the second-placed party. While that might be possible in some UK parliament constituencies, the regions are diverse enough to avoid this- the highest total in any constituency was four seats out of 10 for the Tories in South-East England.

What happens if an independent candidate gets enough votes for multiple seats is not entirely clear, but it’s never come up in the UK (and nor is it likely to- I would hazard a guess that it would simply be a case of moving on to the next party down).

No system is perfect, but this as a decent stab at proportionality- if you get a sixth of the votes, you will in all probability get one of the 6 seats. The main disadvantage is that you have to commit yourself to one party, while you might not mind so much if one other party got one of the other seats.

An added bonus of this method is that, along with half of the Scottish parliament election, it’s the only poll where you vote for parties and not individuals representing a party (as in a general election), which means that it’s a good indicator as to how the parties compare at this moment. Or it would be, if the turnout wasn’t so low, meaning that parties (naming no names…) who have strong views on Europe tend to do disproportionately better than they would in other polls.

Single Transferable Vote

If you thought d’Hondt was complicated, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Deep breath…

In the STV system, voters rank candidates-in this system you can vote for individuals representing parties rather than parties themselves (though in practice in NI there is only one individual representing each party)- in order of preference (1,2,3.. etc, though they need only number as many as they want). When the number of valid votes is counted, a quota is assigned, calculated as below.

Votes needed for a seat= (votes cast/ (number of seats+1))+1

In Northern Ireland there are 3 seats, so in order to win a seat, you need more than a quarter of the votes.

If a candidate receives more than this number of first preference votes, they are elected. Failing that, the candidate with the fewest votes is knocked out and their second preference votes are re-allocated. This continues until either the number of candidates left is the same as the number of seats needed or a candidate is elected.

When this happens, a candidate may have surplus votes, i.e. more votes than they actually needed to win the seat. When this happens, these extra votes are re-assigned proportionally to the second choices of those who voted for them.

For example, if candidate A gets 150 votes when the quota is 100, and 90 voters expressed a second preference for candidate B and 60 for candidate C, then Candidate B gets an extra 30 votes, and candidate C 20.

And so it continues until all seats are filled. When you get down to third, fourth preferences etc., it becomes fiendishly complicated. While it is more proportional, and means that the number of “wasted” votes is reduced (voting for a safe candidate can still be influential and voting for a no-hoper isn’t just throwing your vote away) it has the disadvantage of not being obvious what’s going on.

Hopefully all that was helpful!


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