The Electoral System for the Scottish Parliament

Elections and the Electoral System

Elections are an important part of democracy - a way in which the people can exercise power. Frequent elections allow the people to participate in the decision making process and ensure that the government is accountable to the people. If the people do not like what a government is doing they have the right to question it and ultimately vote in a different way at the next election.


In 1999 the people of Scotland were given the opportunity to elect a Scottish Parliament for the first time (the Parliament before 1707 was not elected). A decision had to be made about what type of electoral system should be used. Most people wanted to avoid using the 'first past the post' system used in the UK general elections. This system can disadvantage some parties and can allow one party to form a government with an overall majority of seats but at the same time get less than half the votes cast.

Most people were looking to introduce a system which would closely reflect the views of the people of Scotland and produce a fairer match between the way people voted and the number of MSPs each party got elected. In other words, some form of proportional representation.

It was decided to use a system called the Additional Member System (AMS). This system allows people to have a local constituency MSP and also adds other members to make the overall result more proportional. In this way more viewpoints are represented in Parliament.

How the Additional Member System (AMS) works

There are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs)


There are two ways an MSP can be elected.

Each elector (voter) has two votes.

Scotland is divided into 73 constituencies and each constituency elects one MSP. These are known as constituency MSPs and are elected by 'first past the post' in exactly the same way as MPs are elected to Westminster. This is the elector's 'first vote'.

The 'second vote' is used to elect 56 additional members. Scotland is divided into 8 parliamentary Regions and each region elects 7 regional MSPs. In the second vote the voter votes for a party rather than a candidate. The parties are then allocated a number of additional members to make the overall result more proportional. The regional MSPs are selected from lists compiled by the parties. These MSPs are also sometimes referred to as List MSPs.

Features of the Additional Member System

  • Voters get two votes - to elect 1 constituency MSP and 7 regional/ list MSPs
  • Each person living in Scotland has a total of 8 MSPs to represent them.
  • The overall result is fairly proportional.
  • It is unlikely that one party will get an overall majority and therefore coalitions are likely. (For example, see the 1999 election results when Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government - the Scottish Executive)
  • New parties and smaller parties are more likely to get representation than by using 'first past the post'. (e.g Green Party, Scottish Socialist Party)
  • General elections for the Scottish Parliament take place every four years, normally on the first Thursday in May. Unlike Westminster where the Prime Minister has the power to set the date of the next general election, the First Minister cannot call an election before the end of four years. Only in extraordinary circumstances can the date be changed by a two-thirds majority of all MSPs.