7 July 2015
Article by Aled McKenzie, National Assembly for Wales Research Service
The electoral system
The National Assembly for Wales is made up of 40 constituency AMs elected by ‘first past the post’, and 20 regional AMs. Regional AMs are elected through a modified closed party list system. Elections to the Scottish Parliament and EU Parliament in the UK (with the exception of Northern Ireland) use a similar system.
A political party can name up to 12 candidates to stand for each of the four available seats on each of the five regional lists. Before the 2011 Assembly elections regional candidates’ names were listed on the ballot paper used for the regional list seats. For the 2011 election the candidates’ names were not included on the ballot paper, which caused several parties to voice their opposition to the move. The Electoral Commission published a Report on this in autumn 2014, which made recommendations to the Secretary of State for Wales (see below). Any change would require amendment to the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007.
In favour of the candidates’ names being listed
Many of the main parties in Wales want to see this changed back. The Conservatives, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP have all spoken in favour of reinstating the names on the paper to the Electoral Commission. A regional Plaid AM told the Electoral Commission: “I am of the opinion that voters should know for whom they are voting.” A regional AM for the Liberal Democrats also pointed out to the Electoral Commission: “it is perfectly possible… for an elector to vote for a candidate for reasons other than their political persuasion. The electoral process should not stifle that possibility.”
The Conservatives have suggested a compromise between the number of potential candidates on the ballot and the length of the ballot, and that is to only list the first four candidates standing in each region. Only four candidates can be elected to the Assembly from the regional list per region so this could appear like a fair option. However, under the Wales Act 2014 it is now again possible for candidates to stand in both a constituency and on the list at the same time, in what is known as “dual candidacy”. The Welsh Liberal Democrats told the Electoral Commission “it has been the case in each Assembly since 1999 that a list member has been replaced by a member further down the list.” The former leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Lord German has suggested going a step further, by cutting the maximum number of candidates from 12 to 6. This would save room on the ballot paper. This was proposed by the Electoral Commission in 2008.
Against the candidates’ names being listed
In Scottish elections the names of regional candidates have never been included on the ballot, instead a list of all regional candidates is on display at every polling station and sent as part of the postal vote pack. It is worth noting that more members are elected via the regional list in Scotland, with seven being elected in each region rather than four. Another stated reason for why the names are not on the paper is people will be voting for a party rather than any particular candidate. The Welsh Labour group in the National Assembly made the same argument as the Electoral Commission. They argued “that to include a list of candidates’ names would risk blurring the important distinction between a vote for an individual candidate on the constituency ballot paper and a vote for a party on the regional ballot paper.”
Labour do not want to see a return to candidates’ names being included on the paper for the regional list. They believe it was confusing for some voters as there were multiple examples of “attempts to rank candidates” as some assumed an open list system was being used rather than closed list.
In 2011 a similar method to the one used in Scotland was adopted on Welsh ballot papers, yet not every postal ballot had a copy of the list of regional candidates and not all polling stations placed a copy in an obvious position. The Electoral Commission claim this was not the norm however and overall the Electoral Commission argued it was a success.
The Electoral Commission’s recommendations
Following the review in September 2014, the Electoral Commission decided to recommend to the Secretary of State that regional candidates’ names remain off the ballot paper but that a list of names should be displayed in polling stations and sent to postal voters. An electoral administrator told the Electoral Commission “reverting back to the ballot paper design used in the 2007 elections would again result in an oversized, highly complex and confusing ballot paper”. The Electoral Commission echoed these concerns, focussing on the length of ballot paper. They argued the ballot paper’s length can inconvenience some voters due to it being unwieldy. It can also slow down vote counting. The Electoral Commission want to see the ballot changed in European elections for the same reasons.
Added to this, it is likely elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) will be held on the same day as the Assembly elections. This would mean each elector would have three different ballots using three different voting systems (PCC elections use supplementary vote). The Electoral Commission argue this will pose significant “risks” and “clear and tailored information” would be required to give clarity to voters.