European Parliament Elections – The UK Voting Systems


This is factual article on voting systems. Later posts will examine the make up of the European Parliament, the 2014 election and the UK parties and their manifestos and tactical voting principles, which from a progressive and pro-EU perspective will depend massively on the stance taken by Labour.

The UK Voting Systems

Two systems are used in the UK: the D’Hondt in Britain and the Single Transferable Vote System (STV) in Northern Ireland (NI). The systems will be explained using the example of the North East of England (NE) and NI. The NE has been chosen, both because like NI it is a three seater constituency and it is also the constituency where I live.

The D’Hondt System

The D’Hondt system is party based. Registered parties who choose to fight a constituency put forward a list of candidates in order of preference. In the NE for example, the top two Labour party candidates in 2014 were Judith Kirton-Darling and Paul Brannen, both of whom were elected.

The D’Hondt system is a considerable advancement on the First Past the Post system (FPTP), used for General Elections in the UK and works reasonably well for constituencies  with a large number of seats, such as London and the South East with 8 and 10 respectively. It works less well for smaller constituencies.

Fig. 1 shows an example of the D’Hondt system in action. It runs for a series of rounds until all the seats are allocated.

Fig. 1 The D’Hondt System


The steps are as follows:

  1. The leading candidate wins a seat.
  2. The leading candidate’s vote is divided by two.
  3. The next candidate in the lead wins a seat.
  4. The votes of the next candidate is divided by two (unless point 5 applies).
  5. Should a party win two or more seats, the original vote for the candidate is divided by the the number of seats won plus one.
  6. This continues until all seats are allocated.

Table 1 shows the results for the NE in the 2014 EP election. The steps followed are listed below.

  1. Labour is the leading party with 221,988 votes and Jude Kirton-Darling, their first candidate, is elected.
  2. The number of Labour votes is divided by two (110,994).
  3. The UKIP candidate is now in the lead with 177,660 votes and is elected.
  4. The number of UKIP votes is divided by two (88,830).
  5. The second labour candidate Paul Brannen is elected as the 110,994 Labour votes is greater than that of the Conservative candidate now in in second place (107,733).
  6. The count ends as all seats have been allocated.
Table 1. North East EP Election 2014.


The system is quite brutal to small parties. Even though the Tories achieved 17.7% of the vote it was left without a seat. The margins are very tight with the Tories loosing out by only 3,261 votes. Turnout is key!  Labour won two of the three seats,  but slight shifts in voting patterns could change that and it could easily have gone one each of Labour, Tory and UKIP. Tactical voting will be complicated in the NE.

The Single Transferable Vote System (STV)

Northern Ireland uses the STV system and is an extremely good case study as the electorate is highly polarised. There are (as Karen Bradley recently found out) two communities, who vote for Unionist or Nationalist candidates with almost no transfer of votes in between. Unionists formed a majority of the electorate in 2014, so it was always likely two Unionist candidates and one Nationalist candidate would be elected. The total number of first preferences for Unionist candidates (DUP+UUP+TUV) was 290,407 and Nationalist candidates (SF+SDLP) 241,407.

The Unionist parties contesting the NI election were the DUP, UUP,  TUV and NI21, though NI21 attempted to be more cross community. The Nationalist parties are Sinn Féin and the SDLP. There are two cross community parties: Alliance and the Greens. The NI Conservatives and UKIP will both be Unionist leaning.

There is often no great love lost between the parties even of the same community and transfers are by no means guaranteed.

In the STV system the candidates are ranked by the elector in numerical order from first to last preference. One can vote for a single candidate by placing 1 in the box or a number of candidates in decreasing order of preference by placing 2, 3 etc in their respective boxes.

Step 1. The quota is set by the following formula:

This is rounded up to the nearest integer.  In the case of the 3 seater NI constituency the total valid poll in 2014 was 626,125. After dividing by four (the number of seats +1)  adding one and rounding up this gives a quota of 156,532.

Step 2. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and the next preference assigned to the remaining candidates.

Step 3. If a candidate reaches the quota, the candidate is elected and the surplus votes are transferred to the next preference.  The actual procedure is fairly complex and explained in detail here, and the decision as whether to implement step 2 or step 3 first depends on the particular circumstances of the election.

In the NI election the SF surplus was insufficient to move the last candidate from the last position as he was 6,009 votes short. He was eliminated in the 2nd count and the SF surplus redistributed in the 3rd count.

These steps continue till the requisite number of candidates are elected.

The process if more complicated that the D’Hondt system and best illustrated by an actual example, the NI 2014 EP election. The result is shown in Table 2.

Table 2. 2014 EP Election NI.


The NI election ran to 8 counts and the count details are explained below:

First Count: Martina Anderson (SF) reached the quota, but only marginally: 3,281 over the quota.   The SF surplus was insufficient to move the last candidate (NI conservative) from the last position as he was over 6,009 votes short of the NI21 candidate: he was eliminated and his votes redistributed.

Second Count: The NI Conservative candidate’s votes are redistributed, potentially 4,144 votes.  However only 3691 votes were allocated meaning that about 11% of the votes were first preference only. All parties gained votes, with the UUP being the main beneficiary.

Third Count: The SF surplus of 3,281 votes are redistributed  with the majority going to the SDLP (2,055 votes) with Alliance and the Green’s picking up a reasonable umber of  votes (314 and 115 respectively), with very few for Unionist candidates. As both the NI21 and Green candidate have insufficient transfers to affect the result, both are eliminated and their votes redistributed.

Fourth Count: The 21,900 votes of the NI21 and Green candidate are redistributed, with Alliance being the main beneficiaries (8661 votes) but both the SDLP and UUP (the more moderate Nationalist and Unionist parties) picking up a reasonable number (3,183 and 2,246 respectively).  The UKIP candidate is eliminated.

Fifth Count: the 26,017 UKIP votes are redistributed with the Unionist parties being the main beneficiaries   6326 DUP, 5629 UUP  and 7373 TUV. The Alliance candidate is eliminated.

Sixth Count: The 55,347 Alliance votes are redistributed with the SDLP being the main beneficiary picking up 24,672 votes with the UPP next with 6,959 votes. The TUV candidate is eliminated.

Seventh Count: The 86,020 TUV votes are redistributed with the votes splitting almost equally between the DUP and UUP with 36,293 and 36,733 votes respectively. The DUP candidate has now reached the quota and the 22,770 surplus is now redistributed.

Eight Count: The DUP surplus is redistributed with  nearly all the votes going to the UUP (22,219 votes). The UUP candidate reaches the quota and the election ends.

In practice the D’Hondt system would have produced the same result in this instance, but by a much smaller margin.

Comparison of Voting Systems

The STV system requires more effort than the D’Hondt party list system, however it has many advantages.

As a voter one can vote for a candidate rather than a party. This incentives better candidates to stand and more participation by the electorate. The NI turnout at c 50% was better than Britain at c 35%.

As a voter even if your first preference is unsuccessful, your second or third preference is likely to succeed. For Unionist voters in NI there was the opportunity to vote for the charismatic Jim Allister of the TUV in the full knowledge that even if he were unlikely to win, your vote would not be wasted as it would be transferred to another Unionist candidate. This makes tactical voting far easier. If the STV system were used in the NE it would be easy to vote for example  Labour, Green or Liberal Democrat as 1,2 and 3 (in which ever order you chose) knowing that your vote will count, even if it were your second or third preference. With the D’Hondt system a vote for  parties with less than 15% or so of the total is ignored completely by the electoral process.  The D’Hondt system, like FPTP, favours large monolithic parties.

The STV system provides a wealth of data. One particular aspect in NI is that whereas the centrist Alliance Party was definitely Unionist leaning when it was founded, it is now more Nationalist leading, with the SDLP gaining over three times as many votes as the DUP.

The STV system is far more theatrically and strategically engrossing. It is the system I am familiar with. As a Dubliner it is used in General Elections – the level of voter engagement and tactical voting is vastly higher than the UK. Tactical voting is in the blood. There are no safe constituencies. My GE Hexham constituency in the UK is such a safe Tory seat that no amount of tactical voting will make any difference.

The only advantage of the D’Hondt party system is that from a large party point of view it puts the power in your hands. However as the Tories found out in the 2014 election, complacency can lead to disaster and the rise of UKIP almost certainly led to the Referendum and the current melt down in UK politics.


  1. Peter May -

    Basically it looks as though the D’Hondt system was a stitch up by the big British parties to keep big parties in power.
    What rather surprises me is that as someone supposed to interested in these things, and to my shame, I had no idea of the actual voting system used to elect MEP’s beyond that it was a sort of proportional representation. A very poor sort, it turns out. I see the EU website calls it a regional closed list. The key is probably in the ‘closed’…. We changed to it under a certain Mr Blair and the treaty of Amsterdam…

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks Graham

      The Electoral Reform Society has long championed STV as the best overall system, but as Peter says the big parties like to keep control.

  2. Peter May -

    Thanks for the link.
    I like the Borda count – which is used for – Eurovision!
    But, alas, the D’Hondt system doesn’t seem to be mentioned…

    1. Graham -

      I think it’s under the Additional Member System which is used in the Scottish Parliament elections, where 70-odd members are elected by FPTP and 50-odd by D’Hondt – it’s a kind of hybrid.

  3. Donald Manchester -

    I wonder how the SF surplus is redistributed – you can’t just look at the first 3281 ballots off the top and redistribute those as they wouldn’t be random.
    Surely you have to physically look at all 150,000 second preferences ( or however many there were ) and redistribute them all with an apportionment ratio of 3281/150000. It’s time consuming for sure, hence why some constituencies in the Republic take 2+ days to do the count.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      It is a good question. Early in the procedure it is normal for all the 2nd preferences to be counted and distributed in proportion to the surplus. This can become very difficult in later counts as a candidates votes may be a mixture of 1st, 2nd and 3rd preferences etc. a subset is used:

      The detailed guidance

      “Where, however, the ballot papers of the elected candidate whose surplus is to be transferred consist of ballot papers with first preferences votes AND transferred votes (second of subsequent preferences) for that candidate, OR they consist of transferred votes only, it is ONLY the ballot papers in the last parcel received by that candidate that are examined to ascertain the next available” preferences.”

      There is a detailed explanation on the various methods on this link: – there are many different techniques.

      Agreed counting does take a long time.

  4. Donald Manchester -

    No matter what system is optimal, we should not make the good sub-optimal options the enemy of the perfect.
    Consider the analysis in this paper at page 23
    It shows that countries with weak elected governments outperform those with strong ones, and yet so many in politics say that they prefer strong government whichever hue that may take. Even on Brexit the loudest voices want to be all in or all out, when on aggregate the UK, to within a handful of percentage points, wants to be half in and half out.
    Democracy should have two key features in my view:
    1. We can get rid of you
    2. We prefer weak government and strong institutions compared to the corollary.
    The finessing of optimal outcomes from the D’Hondt, the French system, and the STV system is of academic interest. Imv, of course.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I agree with a lot of this. I has assumed that the UK would end up with a Norway like solution if it voted to leave the EU.

      My main objections to May’s approach is her prioritisation of Freedom of Movement above anything else and a deep worry that there are very dark forces at work – Carole Cadwalladr and Peter Geoghegan have just scratched the surface on this.

      I also think a Norway style solution will be unstable and agree with Chris Kendal and Ateve Bullock’s analysis on Cakewatch

  5. Pingback: The European Elections: Tactical Voting Principles – Progressive Pulse
  6. Eric Walker -

    Am just back from Poland. Much more visibility of the EU elections. Street posters and on TV etc. I don’t know if this is because STV system seems to be being used or because Poland is a more politically conscious country.

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