Ballot Box Briefing #2 – Scandinavian Style Proportional Representation

Initially published April 2020, updated September 2021.


Folk who’ve been following Ballot Box Scotland’s output for a while will have noticed the regular appearance of a hypothetical “Scandinavian Style Electoral System”, most commonly as a projection for Scottish Parliament polls. Although the basics of how the system works are explained in the graphic and I’ve made a few attempts over the years to describe the workings via posts, there is quite a lot to it, both in terms of the mechanics and why it’s preferable to Scotland’s current electoral systems. Giving it the depth of explanation it deserves seemed an obvious topic for the second Ballot Box Briefing.

As the name implies, this system is modelled on how (parliamentary) elections work in the Scandinavian countries. Each of those countries (plus Iceland) has a unique implementation, but they all follow the same basic principles. Unlike other forms of PR which rely either entirely on subdivisions of the whole area (which negatively impacts proportionality) or give the national vote primacy over local votes (which negatively impacts local representation), the general Scandinavian model combines the direct election of most MPs within local districts with a top-up allocation of MPs to those districts via the national vote. This delivers a highly proportional result whilst still preserving something of a local connection.


The briefing looks at Scotland’s current electoral systems in order to emphasise why adopting a Scandinavian model might be better, whilst acknowledging there is no such thing as the perfect electoral system. It ranks each system (both existing and proposed) according to four criteria;

  • Proportionality
    • How accurately does it reflect the political diversity of the electorate?
  • Locality
    • How local is the electoral geography relative to the electorate?
  • Utility
    • How many votes count towards electing a representative?
  • Specificity
    • How much choice do voters have between candidates and parties?

For each of these criteria, the systems are scored from “Very Poor” to “Poor”, “Fair”, “Good” or “Very Good”, in a way that is definitely completely objective and won’t be hotly contested by fans of one system or another. Apart from one system on one of the criteria, none of the three systems Scotland currently uses (First Past the Post, the Additional Member System, and Single Transferable Vote) rank better than “fair” on any of these criteria.

The thrust of the briefing then focuses on applying a Scandinavian model to Scottish Parliament elections. The proposed system would see Scotland divided into 13 PR Districts, compared to the 73 FPTP constituencies in 8 PR Regions we currently have under AMS. These districts largely follow council and/or historic county boundaries, and would elect a variable number of MSPs each, from 5 in the smallest to 14 in the largest. Most seats in each district are elected based on the votes there, with one or two held back to be allocated based on the national vote for all parties winning at least 3%. These nationally determined MSPs are then allocated to the best fit district for their party at that stage in the process. A final count of personal votes for candidates within parties would then identify which specific candidates from each party take up the seats won.

In Practice

If we apply these principles to the 2021 election, we’d see a result much more closely aligned with the overall number of votes for each of the major parties. Rather than the SNP coming up one seat short of a majority, they instead fall 10 short. With 11 Green seats, there would still be a majority for the cooperative government formed after the election, but the constitutional balance of the chamber would be a tight 66:63, rather than the overinflated 72:57.

Further examples of adapting the system to UK Parliament and Local Council elections are also included, in recognition of the fact that using a different system for every election is confusing for voters and makes it harder to engage. Overall, this system would be more proportional, make more votes count, and allow greater voter choice than any of Scotland’s existing systems. Only on the criteria of locality does a Scandinavian style system fare worse than any of the existing systems, being substantially less local than FPTP and marginally less than STV.

Of course, it’s unlikely that this kind of reform would actually be pursued. There isn’t the consensus for it at Holyrood (which controls both its own and local council electoral systems), and the majority at Westminster remains resolutely opposed to bringing that institution into the mid-20th Century, never mind into 2020. But it’s an interesting topic to take a look at! This briefing is quite lengthy, so I’d normally say it’s definitely one just for the most hardcore electoral system nerds. But since we’re in the midst of a lockdown, you never know who might be prepared to lose themselves in a detailed description of a voting system!

You can read the full Scandinavian Style Proportional Representation briefing here.