With everyone discussing the practicalities of Scotland breaking away from the United Kingdom, it’s time to ask some practical questions about the vote itself.
When will we find out the result?
It’s most likely to be between 6.30am and 7.30am the morning following the referendum, Friday 19 September, although this is an unofficial estimate. I spoke to the Chief Counting Officer Mary Pitcaithly, and she said “breakfast time” was most likely, but doesn’t want to be more specific than that. It’s unlikely to be in the early hours, what with the volume of ballots, particularly postal votes, and what Scotland’s Electoral Management Board vaguely describes as “current processes”. There will be an overnight count, which will begin immediately following the close of polls at 10pm on Thursday 18 September. The number of people registered to vote is 4,285,323, the largest electorate ever in Scotland for an election or referendum.
Update: We are now expecting the first counts, such as the Western Isles and Orkney Isles, to declare any time after 2am onwards. But don’t expect the full result until at least 4.30am, with several big cities – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen – declaring last. See George’s blog for the full list of declaration times – and which counts to look out for (Glasgow, the key swing city, comes in at 5am).
Why isn’t there a specific time?
All sorts of factors mean it’s difficult to give a precise estimate. These include turnout, volume of postal votes and logistical factors dependent on geography and the weather. The latter is a big factor, as many of the boxes of ballot papers will have to be transported by boat or by aircraft. A document released by the the Electoral Management Board for Scotland warns, “whatever logistical and transport plans and contingencies are put in place, weather or road conditions may delay the receipt of ballot boxes at a count. This would delay that count and, as a consequence, the overall national result”. One example is Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles council, which has planned the use of a helicopter to transport its boxes.
Will the result come in in dribs and drabs?
The referendum will be delivered locally by 32 Counting Officers, so there will be 32 local totals that make up the overall result. The result of the referendum will only be officially declared when all 32 local totals have been provided to the Chief Counting Officer and she has accepted them as valid. However, as counts are completed in each of the 32 areas, their totals will be announced, and so there may be a point when the remaining totals yet to be received won’t change the overall outcome – so, in effect, the outcome could be known before the national declaration.
Will it take a longer time for the totals to come in from certain areas?
It could. Scotland ranges from urban areas with good transport links to large rural territories with more challenging conditions for transporting ballot boxes. So the mainland communities could well be quicker than the island authorities, which will be relying on boats and aircraft. However, there’s only one local authority that doesn’t usually count overnight. It’s called Argyll and Bute. It usually does its count the day following a poll. However, for the referendum, it has confirmed that it has a system in place to carry out an overnight count.
Is there the possibility of a recount?
There is no provision for a national recount. The election authorities have warned that there will not be a recount – even if the independence question is decided by just one or two votes. Pitcaithly explains to me that this is because legislation doesn’t allow for a national recount, as once the result has been declared, the votes are sealed up in their boxes and you “cannot open them up again, even if it ends up being very, very close”. However, that only applies to the overall result. There could be recounts for the local totals. When each local Counting Officer has completed their count, and given the provisional total to the Chief Counting Officer, they will then be authorised to consult with referendum agents. This is when they can request a recount, if they feel it’s necessary. According to Pitcaithly, this would normally be “if somebody has raised an issue about the process that has been used to count the papers”. Local recounts would delay the national result.