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Politicians warn against voter disengagement in proposed Senedd election system

Plans to reform future Senedd elections are sub-optimal and a step back on Wales’ current system, a committee heard.

The reform bill committee continued taking evidence on the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) bill which proposes changes to the electoral system and an increase in the number of politicians from 60 to 96.

Under the plans, the 32 constituencies that will be used in the next general election will be paired to create 16 for the 2026 Senedd poll – with each returning six members.

Alistair Clark, a professor of political science at Newcastle University, cautioned that voters could be confused about which representative to approach with constituency problems.

d’Hondt

Prof Clark also warned that the d’Hondt method, which is currently used to translate votes into the number of seats allocated in the Senedd, prioritises the bigger parties.

In 2017, an expert panel recommended the Sainte-Laguë method – which reduces this bias – but the bill proposes keeping d’Hondt.

Jac Larner, a lecturer in politics at Cardiff University, said the rationale for using the d’Hondt method is that people are already familiar with it but “from the evidence we have that’s not the case at all”.

He explained that the minimum threshold to be elected under d’Hondt in almost every constituency would be 12-13% of the vote.

Dr Larner said he is not aware of any other parliament that sets such a high bar.

“That’s quite high for the smaller parties to hit – very high,” he told MSs.

“The vast, vast majority of seats would go to the big three parties…. If you were to choose Sainte-Laguë, smaller parties would be in with a better chance.”

‘Sub-optimal’

Witnesses also raised concerns about the proposed “closed-list” proportional electoral system, which will see people vote for parties rather than individual candidates.

Prof Clark told the MSs there is no ideal electoral system, saying: “Ultimately, they all represent some form of compromise between different aims and objectives.”

However, he warned that the closed-list system tends to downplay geographical links and prioritise the interests of political parties over those of voters.

Prof Clark said: “My general assessment is that this is probably a sub-optimal system – it probably represents a step back from the additional member system.”

He said the single transferable vote – which was recommended in the expert panel’s report – provides for proportionality, a degree of localism and a greater choice for voters.

Dr Larner added that the closed-list system is out of step with the general trend in developed democracies where there has been a shift to giving voters more choice, not less.

He said the first-past-the-post system that’s used for Westminster elections has proved popular with the public.

Voter choice

Jess Blair, director of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru, said: “We do have some serious concerns about the closed-list system proposed … primarily around the lack of voter choice that’s associated with it.”

She raised the risk that the public will disengage or feel disenfranchised, saying one election under a closed-list system is too many.

She told MSs: “I think it is extremely concerning that a small number of party members could potentially decide … who gets elected – there’s a massive issue with that.”

Dr Larner told the meeting on Thursday November 9: “The idea that there is an ability to choose individuals is highly valued by people in all kinds of public attitudes research.

“And so, the proposal of a closed-list system, I agree, is potentially a step back from the system we have now where there is that element where people can pick their own individual in the constituency ballot.”

Alberto Smith, of Make Votes Matter, called for a flexible list system, saying: “Voter choice is very important for building trust and accountability within the system.”

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Politicians warn against voter disengagement in proposed Senedd election system

the senedd in cardiff bay
The Senedd Credit: Senedd Cymru / Welsh Parliament