The Scottish Referendum - factors delaying the outcome

16 September 2014

The Chief Counting Officer has already made it clear that various factors are beyond the control of the CCO and the various Counting Officers in each of the 32 areas conducting their local count.

Factors include the anticipated huge turnout, possible adverse weather, travel conditions, geographical factors, and the availability of resources for the whole count process.

Processes are in place to minimise the duration of the count as much as possible, but with 4,285,323 registered voters and a turnout involving potentially 3 to 4 million voters, there are a lot of ballot papers to be verified and then counted.

Due to the various factors involved, nobody can predict with certainty when the local totals and the national result will be made known.

This is especially so given that the CCO wishes the result to be trusted as accurate. It is more important that the count has integrity and accuracy, rather than mere speed. 

The 32 local counts will be efficient, but they must also be consistent. Each local count must be accurate with a clear audit trail.

Many people will be anxious to learn the national result, and the media will want to know when the announcements will be made for their scheduling.

All that can be said is that the final result will be announced "as soon as possible", with no definite time being given in advance.

See The Scottish Referendum - doubtful votes for how the adjudication of “doubtful” votes may slow things down.

What other factors will affect the speed of the count?

The first is the CCO's intention that the count is accurate and can be trusted, rather than it being quick. It will be efficient, but it must also be correct.

Beyond that, various factors will affect the speed of the count.

Geography is a major factor. Contexts and settings vary widely across the country. There is a big difference between a densely-populated city area with ballot boxes being moved on motorways or good road networks, and a remote or island setting dependent on single-track roads and boats or aircraft to transport boxes.

One local authority in a largely island setting does not always do overnight counts to avoid moving boxes from islands in the dark. However, like other local authority areas, it has made special arrangements for an overnight count to take place for the Scottish Referendum.

More than one local authority is planning on using helicopters to get boxes to their count to overcome geographical factors which may delay the count taking place.

The weather may also be a factor. This may affect transport by road, sea or air, depending on possible severity. For example, if a helicopter cannot fly, and roads or sea have to be used, then an overnight count may not be possible. At the time of writing, the weather looks as if it will remain good for the Referendum, but nobody can accurately predict all of Scotland’s weather.

Even the turnout may affect the timing. Although the COs will estimate the number of papers to be counted and make the necessary arrangements by way of human resources and physical space for the count, a very high turnout may delay the overall process. Large venues and sufficient staffing may not be possible in some local areas, and a record turnout is expected all over the country.

Another factor is the volume of postal votes to be verified. The total of 4,285,323 people registered to vote is the largest ever electorate in Scotland for an election or referendum. This includes 789,024 people who have applied for a postal vote, which is itself the largest ever volume of registration for postal votes in Scotland.
Postal votes will require to be verified against their Absent Vote Identifiers (AVIs). Those identifiers are to prevent postal vote fraud and require to be checked. It is only once those checks have been made that the postal votes can be added into the count. If the postal votes are received prior to the polling day itself, then they may well have been checked and verified to make them available for the count. Postal votes handed in on the day may be uplifted throughout the day and verified in batches.

Past experience has seen large numbers of postal votes arriving on the day of the vote itself. This creates a bottleneck in the process as they are checked and verified against the AVIs and this could cause delay of the count.

It may be that arrangements will be made to collect postal votes from polling stations throughout the day of the poll itself to streamline the process and verify them prior to 10pm. This would then allow votes cast on the day to be collected after 10pm and added to the postal votes already checked.

Nevertheless, if postal votes still require to be verified after 10pm, then it is only once that has taken place that they can be added to the other ballots cast on the day, to satisfy the first count of total votes cast and the turnout. It is after that, that the "Yes", "No" and "Doubtful" count can begin.

Dealing with the adjudication of “doubtful” votes could also delay the count process, as could a recount.

Of course, civil disruption, industrial action, terrorism, fire, fuel shortages or other major incidents could delay a count taking place. Hopefully, no such eventualities will arise.

Given the various factors involved, the counts will take place “as soon as reasonably practicable”, but the precise timing remains to be seen.

Due to those various possible factors, despite all 32 local areas making arrangements for an overnight count, it may not be during the night when the national result is announced.

Before each local area announcement, and before the national final result declaration, observers and the media should be advised that an announcement or declaration is imminent. This will allow them to prepare for that, and arrange appropriate television and radio coverage.

In 2010, the UK Parliamentary elections saw final Scottish declarations made at about 6:30am, and in 2011 the Scottish Parliamentary elections saw a timing of about 7:30am.

Therefore, despite all the factors and variables involved, and the lack of certainty when the national result will be declared, it may well be that we will know early on Friday morning.

Life is full of unknown factors. For all kinds of dispute and litigation advice, contact Gus Macaulay on 0141 229 0880 or send Gus an email.

Bookmark and Share



blog comments powered by Disqus