The Scottish Referendum - how are the votes counted?

16 September 2014

When the polls close at 10pm, the sealed ballot boxes and any postal votes given to the polling places are all transported to the local count venue. All 32 local authority areas will conduct an overnight count.

At each of the 32 local authority area counts, the ballot papers and postal votes will be verified. Many postal votes previously submitted will have been already opened and verified, then put in sealed ballot boxes and available to be added to the counting process once the counting begins.

Other postal votes will still require to be verified. Postal votes can be handed in at polling stations up until the close of poll and some will therefore be delivered at the same time as the ballot boxes. Also, Royal Mail will sweep the main sorting offices for undelivered postal votes and deliver them before the start of the local count.

The opening of postal votes will therefore continue throughout the verification period, until all the postal votes have been processed. After that, they can be included in the counting process.

There are two main counts that will be taking place in each of the 32 local authority areas.

Therefore, there will be two different sets of 32 separate local announcements. One announcement for each area’s first count, and a later announcement for each area’s second count.

The first count - verifying the turnout

The first count is to confirm the turnout. The “Yes/No” count will come later.

The number of used ballot papers from each ballot box is counted, to tie in with the number of total papers that were recorded as given out at the polling stations.

The number of unused ballot papers from the polling stations is also counted, to ensure the right amount of unused papers are left over and accounted for.

The total number of used, unused and spoilt (if any) ballot papers should match the total number of ballot papers issued to each polling station.

Once all that ties up, the number of ballot papers that were actually used is the “turnout” figure.

The turnout is expected to be a record high.

The local Counting Officer (CO) for each particular local authority area will then inform the Chief Counting Officer (CCO) of the number of ballot papers used in their local area.

The CCO will then authorise the CO to announce the local turnout figure for their area. The CO will announce the total number of votes cast allowing us to know the percentage poll.

This is the first count, and simply involves numbers. It is the turnout figure for each area and thus the total number of papers to be counted in the “Yes/No” count.

There will be 32 such announcements at various times throughout the night – one for each of the 32 local authority areas where counts will be taking place.

The second count – numbers of “Yes” and “No”

The second count involves counting the actual "Yes" and "No" votes on the used ballot papers.

If a local area uses the “mini-count” method, i.e. splitting their area into definable small bundles that can be re-checked if necessary, they may in fact have started on this second count before the first count for the turnout has been declared. This helps speed up the process even more, especially in rural areas where there may be quite some time lag between the arrival of the first and the last ballot boxes.

The ballot paper asks the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” There are two choices, one marked "Yes" and one marked "No". 

The voter should have put a cross in the box beside their choice. It sounds simple, and the CCO has emphasised the need to follow those simple instructions so that each vote is clearly made.

However, there is scope for a vote being “doubtful” or “rejected”, with no simple cross in the “Yes” or “No” box. See  The Scottish Referendum - doubtful votes for what happens to the doubtful and rejected votes and how that may slow the final count.

Once the local count of “Yes” and “No” has taken place, the figures are sent by the local CO to the CCO in Edinburgh. The local total will not be broken down into ward or constituency areas - there is only one local total for each local authority area.

The CCO will check that the area's total numbers of "Yes", "No" and "Rejected" matches that area's first count of total papers to be counted.

If need be, the CCO may ask that the figures are checked and re-reported by the CO to the CCO. The CCO may even request a recount.

Once the CCO has verified the local total as valid, the CO will then be authorised to declare the local total.

That is, at various times throughout the night, and possibly into early on Friday morning, each of the 32 local authority areas will make their own declaration of their own local total.

Each local area will make only one such declaration of their “Yes/No” count. It will include details of the number of ballot papers counted in the local authority area, the number of votes cast in the area in favour of each answer to the Referendum question, and the number of rejected ballot papers. (The totals should be written out in word form to avoid any mistakes when reading it out at the local declaration).

The timings of these 32 local declarations cannot be predicted in advance.

As those local declarations are made, the CCO may also announce each local total, but each local count result should be announced locally before it is announced nationally.

Those local totals will allow the CCO to compile and verify the national result.

The national result will only be officially announced after all 32 local counts have been declared.

It will be a tense moment if the totals are evenly matched as the local counts are announced.

However, there may be a point when, as the local declarations are made, the remaining local declarations could not change the final outcome.
In that event, there will be a “tipping point” reached and the outcome of the Referendum will be known even before the national result is declared by the CCO.

Not everything in life is predictable. If you need advice in times of uncertainty in your family or if you have an unexpected dispute, contact Gus Macaulay on 0141 229 0880 or send Gus an email.

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