A short and simple guide to the Scottish local election STV system | Autonomy Scotland

A short and simple guide to the Scottish local election STV system

Single Transferable Vote(STV) is the voting system used for the Scottish local elections.

From the point of view of the voter it is pretty simple but behind the scenes it is slightly more complicated than the system used for the UK General Election. While working out who won isn’t simple, statistics show that since we ditched First Past the Post for local elections we have seen some democratic improvements.


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  • Choice has improved as the average number of candidates standing has doubled.
  • The number of uncontested seats fell from 61 to 0 when the change from FPTP to STV was made.
  • The number of voters whose first preference went to a successful candidate rose by over 20 percent after we adopted STV.

So how does it work?

Your local region is divided up into Wards. In each ward there will be three or four council seats up for grabs. Your voting sheet will contain a list of the people who are standing for these seats. You can see what the ballot paper will look like below.

  • All you need to do is rank the candidates in order of preference. You put the number 1 in the box beside the one you like most and 2 beside your next preference. You can do this for the whole list if you want but you don’t have to. You are at liberty to stop when you begin to feel nauseous. That’s it.

Scottish Local Government Elections Card

The more complicated part is how the winners are calculated. There is a two minute video at the bottom which does a good job of explaining it if you want to skip this section.

  • To be elected, a candidate needs to have enough votes to hit a quota.
  • The quota is equal to one more than the figure obtained when the number of votes cast is divided by the number of seats to be filled plus one.
  • So if there were 10000 votes in a ward and 4 seats up for grabs. The quota would be [10000/(4 +1)] + 1.
  • In our example the quota would be 2001 votes.
  • To start off everyone’s first preference votes are counted and either one of two things will have occurred. Either at least one candidate will have equalled or exceeded the quota or none will have equalled or exceeded the quota.

When a candidate reaches the quota.

  • In our example if any candidate gets 2001 votes or more they are elected to one of the seats.
  • The elected candidate’s lower preference votes still count.
  • Any votes the elected candidate gets above the 2001 quota are divided among the other candidates based on the second preferences on the ballot paper.
  • So, if our winner in round one got 2251 votes, 250 of their lower preference votes would be divided between the other candidates. (To be honest the true way this is done is more complex, as just selecting 250 votes at random would give a flawed picture of second preference votes. Read this article by Dr Craig Dalzell if you want a more detailed explanation).

If no candidate reaches the quota.

  • In the situation where, after counting, no candidate meets our quota of 2001 votes then the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is eliminated. All of their second preference votes are divided amongst the remaining candidates.
  • In these examples where the eliminated/winning candidate’s lower votes are shared, if the second preference candidate has already been eliminated/won the lower preference votes go to third preference. If the third preference has been eliminated/won the vote goes to the fourth preference and so on.


  • This process of counting, eliminating and sharing of lower preference votes continues until the required number of candidates meet the quota.
  • The winners in each ward make up the members of your local council.

Check out the video below for a 2 minute recap of the above.

In the run-up to the Holyrood elections I wrote a voting guide as well as some info on tactical voting based on getting a pro-indy majority.

I don’t think there is much point tactical voting in these elections as not only are they not about independence* but the system is pretty difficult to predict.

*I say they are not about independence but the Tories are trying so hard to make them about independence that they might just be so. A good performance by them will be seen as a blow to independence as all their flyers are about preventing indyref2. So, in that respect it’s probably more accurate to say these elections shouldn’t be about independence.

Saying that I would advise to just do what the system wants and rank the parties you like the most more favourably.

Unlike in 2015 when there was a massive debate about whether to give your second vote to Green/Rise or not. This time if you do like the policies of smaller parties but prefer a bigger one, then it is a no brainer to give those smaller parties your second and third preferences ect.

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autonomyscotlandSámur Sámuelson Recent comment authors

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Sámur Sámuelson

Quite simple explanation… BUT.. if you decide to give your preference votes to only those you support… and do not vote for ANY other candidate … then surely the voting authorities can not attribute votes to the other candidates as you have not marked your choice????… acknowledging that any extra over votes from the winning candidate are then divided up between those who you may or may not have voted for… is this correct???


If I understand you correctly then I think you a right. I have read people who know more about the system than I say you should put a preference next to all candidates.

However, in most cases you might not have the knowledge to judge all candidates.

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