Scotland politics

Q&A: Scottish council elections

Image caption Are you ready for the 1,2,3,4.... election ballot paper?

On 3 May, people across Scotland will be taking part in the country's first stand-alone local council elections since 1995.

Here, we answer some of the main questions on the poll.

What is happening?

On Thursday 3 May, voters will be playing their part in electing councillors for all of Scotland's 32 local authorities.

The elections were due to be held last May, on the same day as the Holyrood poll, but the date was moved, partly in response to the 2007 voting fiasco (more on that later)

How are councillors elected?

Since 2007, Scottish council elections have used the single transferable vote (STV), a form of PR voting, which sees three or four councillors being elected to serve any one ward.

Under STV, voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference.

Each voter gets one vote which can be transferred from their first to second preference (and further down the list if necessary) if the first has no chance of winning.

Unlike the more well-known first-past-the-post system, candidates don't need a majority or more votes than their competitors to be elected, just a known or share, or "quota", as it's officially called.

The votes are counted in stages. First time round, only first preferences are counted and anyone who reaches the quota is elected.

Leftover votes are then transferred to the second preference, and if not enough candidates hit the quota, the one with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and all their votes are passed to the next preference on the ballot papers.

The process is repeated until three or four candidates have been elected.

While STV makes things more complicated, its backers say it produces results which are a lot fairer.

How do I actually vote?

Firstly, you must be registered to vote. The deadline for that has passed, so if you aren't on the electoral register, you'll need to wait until next time!

Many people will be voting on Thursday at their local polling station - which could be a school, community or church hall, or sports centre - between the hours of 07:00 and 22:00.

As it happens, the law has been changed, in the wake of problems at the 2010 UK election so that anyone still queuing outside a polling station in Scotland when it closes will get the chance to vote.

It it not anticipated this facility will need to be widely used for the 2012 Scottish council elections.

Some people also vote by post, while others, like soldiers serving overseas, vote by proxy.

The ballot paper lists the name of each candidate, along with their party name and logo. There are also independent candidates standing for election.

You need to rank candidates based on how much you like them, so you put a 1 next to your first choice, a 2 next to your second choice, a 3 next to your third choice and so on.

You can rank as few or as many candidates as you like and, if you make a mistake, you can ask the polling staff to give you another ballot paper.

Basically, the trick is to avoid the advice initially given out by North Lanarkshire Council, which sent 26,000 postal vote packs to voters containing an illustration showing an X in a box .

If you mark the paper in another way, it is likely the ballot will be rejected as spoiled.

The Electoral Commission has more information on voting .

How are the votes being counted?

This year sees the return of electronic counting (cue a sharp intake of breath) for the first time since the 2007 voting fiasco.

On that occasion, about 140,000 ballots were rejected as supposedly spoiled or blank and the BBC later revealed most of those were ruled void automatically by the machines - no human was ever been involved in the process.

Powers to run local authority elections are devolved, and the Scottish government says there's been extensive testing of the software and local authorities, technical specialists and election experts were all brought in to make sure everything works.

It's also being described as "hacker proof", because it operates on a closed network, while access to it is granted through smart cards.

IT consultants Logica is running the system, working with election services company opt2vote, which has seen the introduction of new counting machines and software.

The software has undergone testing for pretty much the last two years and has been examined and certified by independent organisation LaQuSo, which specialises in IT quality control.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the system has already been used for real, in several council by-elections.

Why use electronic counting at all?

If an election by STV was collated by hand, it's estimated the poor counters would be working for two or three days before the result was known.

As well as the inherent risk of severe tennis elbow and the like, it would also be more expensive, because more staff would be needed and count venues would need to operate for longer.

Scottish ministers say e-counting can produce results in a few hours and is more transparent.

As a bonus, it also provides more post-election information for political parties - although some might not want to know how badly they've done.

How does electronic counting work?

The first bit will be familiar to all fans of election TV specials, as ballot boxes arrive at the count centre from polling stations.

Then, the number of ballot papers in each box is entered into the system before being scanned and verified against the number of papers that have been registered.

Any papers which are marked unclear are looked at by the returning officer or his or her staff.

After that, the software does the STV sums using a special algorithm and - hey presto - a result is produced.

Is it expensive?

Reasonably - but, then again, they say you can't put a price on democracy.

For the 2012 election, it is costing £5.2m, compared with £8.5m for the 2007 election (although the cost last time was shared with the UK government, which retains responsibility for running the Scottish Parliament election).

When are the results coming in?

Votes in the Scottish council elections are not being counted overnight. The Scottish government estimates results will probably start being announced from about Friday lunchtime, but we could see some coming in a bit earlier.

Returning officers in each local authority area have the final say on managing counts and declaration times.

How can I find out the results?

On the BBC Scotland News Website, of course!

We will be providing comprehensive results live, as they happen , along with news coverage and other analysis.