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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 March 2007, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
A (fairly) simple guide to voting
Guto Thomas
By Guto Thomas
Political correspondent

Voters in a polling booth
Everyone has two votes - although you don't have to use both
Do not believe any predictions about the likely result of the Welsh assembly election on 3 May.

Why? Because due to the complexity of the electoral system, it's far too difficult for anyone to work out all the permutations of what could happen once all the votes have been cast.

But the good news is that you should not let that put you off, because what voters actually need to know is extremely straightforward. So here it is...

There are 40 local constituencies and another 20 seats, split equally between five large regional constituencies.

Everyone has two votes - one to elect a constituency member and one vote to elect a regional member.

The contest in the constituencies is quite simple - a list of local candidates, each competing against each other, just as in a local council or UK general election.

Each individual votes for their favourite candidate, and whoever gets the most votes - even if it's only with a majority of one - wins.

Every elector gets two votes
One vote is for a candidate in the constituency, and the other is for a party on a regional list
Voters can use one vote or two. If they use two, they can vote twice for the same party, or for different ones
There are 40 constituencies which elect one AM each, and five regions return four AMs each
Unlike the last two assembly elections, no candidate can now stand in a constituency and on a regional list

This first-past-the-post system is the traditional way in which elections have been won and lost in UK elections.

Common misperception

Where assembly elections differ is that with the second vote, electors cast their ballots for a political party, rather than an individual.

The choice of different parties on this voting paper will be much greater than on the first vote, reflecting the fact that smaller parties can do better by pooling their votes across a region, rather than trying to beat the major parties in the smaller constituencies.

During the first two assembly elections in 1999 and 2003, some party activists claimed to have identified a common misperception about this system - that if someone voted Labour with their first vote for example, then they thought they had to cast their second vote in a different way.

In fact, people are completely free to use both votes in any way, in any combination, and without any restrictions. They can also choose to use either one of the two votes - or, of course, not to vote at all.

Ballot box
The system may be different... but ballot boxes remain the same

The reason for this hybrid electoral system in Wales is to avoid the dominance of Welsh politics by any single party. It was introduced to make sure all parties received a "fair" representation in the final political make-up of the assembly.

Smaller parties

North Wales, for instance, includes nine constituency seats - six won by Labour, two Plaid, one independent and none for Conservatives nor Liberal Democrats.

This is despite the fact that in 2003 over 20% in the region voted Tory in 2003, and 10% Lib Dem.

So it's via the second vote that the smaller parties get a greater (although not a completely proportional) share of the seats.

But some key elements of the system have changed in 2007, compared to previous elections.

One controversial aspects of the new Government of Wales Act was to abolish what became known as the "Clwyd West Question."

Sunset over Clwyd West
A Clwyd West 'losers-become-winners' result cannot be repeated

In 2003, Labour won Clwyd West by just 436 votes - but the Plaid, Conservative and Lib Dem candidates who had all lost in the constituency were nevertheless elected to the assembly, because in each case they were top of their party's regional list.

This scenario where "losers become winners" was described as an "abuse" of the democratic system by Labour, which introduced a new rule which bans any individual from standing as a candidate in both a constituency and on the regional list.

The implications of the way people vote are difficult, if not impossible to foresee.

But we do know that because two-thirds of the seats are constituency seats, and because it is constituency gains and losses that will determine whether there is a Labour majority, then the most important contests will be in key marginal constituencies.

The regional list votes will shape the party balance in the assembly, but the constituency outcomes are the key battlefields for securing power.

Indeed, because the electoral system for the assembly makes it extremely difficult for any one party to win an overall majority, then every vote really does count.

This takes on an increased level of importance, in the event of an election with low turnout, where the ability of each party to mobilise its core vote will be crucial.

All this means the vote on 3 May could have a much more significant outcome than in the past.

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