Two people placing their ballots into a ballot box.

Two people placing their ballots into a ballot box.

Senedd Committee expresses “significant reservations” about proposed electoral system

Published 25/01/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

How Members of the Senedd are elected has been a topic of debate for over 20 years. Following the recommendations of the Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform in 2022, the Welsh Government proposed a closed list electoral system, which could be used for the 2026 election onwards. But is this the right one?

The Senedd is debating the general principles of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill on Tuesday 30 January. Ahead of that, this article looks at the evidence taken by the Reform Bill Committee on the merits of the electoral system proposed in the Bill and the recommendations in its report.

What does the Bill propose?

The Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill provides that Members of the Senedd should be elected using a closed list proportional representation system.

In the system proposed by the Bill, political parties put forward an ordered list of up to eight candidates for each constituency. Independent candidates can also stand in the constituency.

Voters choose one political party or one independent candidate to vote for. The candidates for each party are elected in the order they are placed on their list.

Seats are allocated using the D’Hondt formula, in a similar way to how regional list seats are allocated in the Senedd’s current electoral system.

What has the Reform Bill Committee said about the system?

The Reform Bill Committee expressed “significant reservations about whether a Bill that implements closed lists necessarily represents a positive step forward for democracy in Wales”. The Committee recommended that:

The Member in charge [the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution] should work with all political parties represented in the Senedd to reach agreement on how the Bill could be amended at Stage 2 to ensure the electoral system provides greater voter choice and improved accountability for future Members to their electorates.

In evidence to the Committee, witnesses, including Professor Alan Renwick and Professor Laura McAllister, acknowledged the closed list system could provide a more proportional outcome than the current system. The Committee also heard that the system is easy to understand and is familiar to voters and electoral administrators. However, the majority of the evidence received by the Committee expressed “reservations and concerns” about the system proposed in the Bill.

Witnesses, including Professor Alistair Clark, highlighted that the closed list system limits the choice of voters and puts too much power in the hands of political parties to choose the order of their candidates.

Under the closed list system, political parties would be able to choose the order of the candidates on their list. Professor Clark’s evidence to the Committee said this would seem to place the power over which candidates are eventually elected “firmly in the hands of political parties”.

Voters would only be able to choose between political parties, rather than being able to give a preference to a particular candidate. Professor Alan Renwick told the Committee that forcing voters to think only in party terms and denying them choice over individuals would be “harmful to democracy and to public confidence in the Senedd”.

What are the alternatives?

The two main alternatives proposed in evidence to the Committee were the ‘Single Transferable Vote’ and ‘Flexible List’. These were also the two systems recommended by the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform in 2017. The Expert Panel rejected the closed list system because of the lack of voter choice and accountability for individual Members directly to voters.

Flexible List

A Flexible List allows voters to choose between lists of candidates proposed by political parties in a similar way to the closed list system proposed in the Bill. However, mechanisms are included so that voters can influence the order in which candidates take up seats won by the party.

Single Transferable Vote

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) is a proportional electoral system where voters number (one or more) candidates in order of preference in multi-member constituencies. Each voter has one vote. If a voter’s first choice has enough votes to win a seat, or if their first choice has no clear chance of winning, the voter’s second choice will be given their vote. Any votes in excess of the quota for the winning candidate will move to the voter’s second choice. This continues until every seat in the constituency is filled.

An improvement on current arrangements?

The Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, Mick Antoniw MS, disagreed with the comments made by contributors about the disadvantages of closed lists. He says the system proposed in the Bill “improves on the existing system”.

Discussing the democratic benefits of closed lists, the Counsel General told the Committee that, as the system was an extension of the one already in place, there was an existing understanding of how it works. He also said the system is “proportional, so it brings about a much fairer representation of politics within Wales”.

The Counsel General told the Committee that he was taking the recommendations that had come from the Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform and converting them into legislation.

What next for the Bill?

The Reform Bill Committee recommended, by majority, that the Senedd should agree to the Bill’s general principles and agreed that there is a “clear rationale” for increasing the number of Members of the Senedd. Darren Millar MS did not agree that the Senedd should support the general principles of the Bill or that there should be any increase in the size of the Senedd.

The Committee made 50 recommendations, including calling for:

  • changes to the mechanism for further increases to the size of the Welsh Government;
  • strengthening the accountability of the renamed Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru; and
  • amendments to the procedure for Senedd constituency boundary reviews.

The Bill has also been considered by the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and the Finance Committee.

The Stage 1 debate will take place on Tuesday 30 January, with a vote taking place on whether the Senedd agrees with the Bill’s general principles. The Bill will need the support of a simple majority in this vote and a vote authorising its financial implications in order to progress to its next stage.

If the Bill progresses, Stage 2 will be the first opportunity for Members of the Senedd to table amendments to the Bill. The Senedd will be asked to agree on whether the Bill’s Stage 2 proceedings should be undertaken by a Committee of the Whole Senedd rather than a specific committee.

Article by Josh Hayman, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament