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How to make your Bristol mayoral vote count

It’s time for your occasional dose of electoral democracy. If you take it up, make sure you do it right!

Edition 7

On May 5th, the power to decide who will head up the city council for the next four years will be turned over to the people of Bristol. With the election set to be a tightly contested battle, understanding the voting system is crucial.

The voting system used is known as the Supplementary Vote. It was championed by Labour in the early 90s as an alternative to the First-Past-the-Post system currently used to elect central Government. The system was eventually introduced for the election of the London Mayor in 2000 and has since been adopted by all eleven English cities where a Mayor is voted in, as well as this year’s Police Crime Commissioner election also happening on the 5th of May. So how does it work?


Tyranny of the majority?

The Supplementary Vote is a type of ‘majoritarian’ voting system. Put simply, this is any system in which all the power goes to whoever wins the largest share of the vote, with all others losing out. An alternative to this is Proportional Representation, in which power is distributed according to the share of the vote that each candidate receives. In the Mayoral system there is only one position on offer, so only a majoritarian system can work.

The winner takes all

The outcome of the Supplementary Vote (SV) is therefore similar to the First-Past-the-Post system: the winner takes it all. SV has the advantage of allowing you to express a second preference. This provides an incentive for the candidates to try and appeal to the interests of more voters; even if they expect you to vote for another candidate as your first choice, it is still important to get you on side.

As only the top two candidates go through to the second round of counting, it’s important make a judgement on who is most likely to remain in the contest if you don’t want your vote to go to waste. In the last Mayoral election, over half of all second votes cast were for candidates already eliminated and had no bearing on the result.

The SV doesn’t require an absolute majority (over 50% of the vote) for a candidate to win. In 2012 George Ferguson was elected on 35% of the first choice vote and 32% of all the votes cast (including first and second choices).

This is different to, for example, the Alternative Vote. In AV, voters rank all candidates in order of preference. The preferences are gradually brought into play until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote.

Remember: If you vote, use your second vote! In the 2012 election only one third of people made use of their second vote. Your second vote has the power to change the result.


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  • It doesn’t totally discourage tactical voting, but it does encourage a better use of it.

    Suppose your heart says candidate A, but your head says B or C will actually win. You can vote for A as your first vote, safe in the knowledge that you can vote for B to keep C out (or the other way round).

    To avoid party political bickering on the subject of likely results, let’s take an example from across the political divide. Suppose you’re an unreconstructed Tory, who likes having a businessman in charge of the city (I have no idea why anyone would like this) but doesn’t like 20mph or RPZ. You can vote for Charles Lucas, the Tory candidate, then you can give Ferguson your second vote to keep out the alternative.

    If you do it the other way round, though, your second vote goes to Lucas, a candidate who (as I think we can all agree) isn’t going to finish in the top two, and disappears into the ether. This means the system only works if people understand it. Thanks, then, for writing this and helping that process along.

    Jon Eccles
    (Green Party councillor candidate, Lawrence Hill ward)


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