Will the "missing million" vote Yes or No in the Scottish referendum?

With 97 per cent of the Scottish population registered to vote, a record turnout could swing the pendulum in favour of the Yes or No camp.

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With a record turnout expected at the Scottish Independence referendum, today looks set to be the busiest day in the electoral history of Scotland. A total of 97 per cent of the Scottish adult populace have registered to vote, making this the most sizeable electorate to be remembered. What’s more, over 120,000 voters have registered in the last month alone. Salmond says he expects a turnout of 80 per cent, which is radically higher than the 64 per cent turnout in Scotland in the 2010 Westminster election or the 50 per cent turnout in the Scottish parliament election the year before. With unprecedented numbers of citizens queuing up to place their vote, it is even harder than usual to predict how today will pan out.

It is unclear whether the huge increase in new voters or those who haven’t voted in a very long time will benefit the Yes camp or No camp. These new voters have been dubbed the "missing million" - a phrase which refers to those who are not registered to vote yet but are eligible, those who don’t generally vote, and those who are newly on the register. Many of these are 16 and 17- year-olds who will be exercising their right to vote for the first time in history. As the stakes have risen throughout this lengthy and momentous campaign, the "missing million" could swing the referendum result in either direction. As a result, both sides of the campaign have focused their final weeks of frenzied campaigning on newly-registered voters. To complicate matters further, the transient nature of this particular cohort means it can be difficult to assess their voting patterns. They are often omitted from polls because they are hard to track down.

Throughout the campaign, the Yes camp has placed its confidence in the "missing million". In its view, the fight for independence has sparked the attention of Scots who previously felt disillusioned with party politics but are now keen to see radical change. What's more, Yes campaigners argue that the polls fail to accurately represent newly registered voters because this part of the populace are less accessible by the phone and less likely to respond to online surveys or social media. In addition to this, they may be less inclined to take part in a political survey. Polls analyse previous voting patterns in order to fine-tune their predictions, but if the "missing million" haven’t voted before, it can be difficult to forecast accurately how they will vote today.

Jonathon Shafi, the co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign says: “the opinion polls can’t possibly account for all those people who are voting for the first time and aren’t on the polling books”. The Radical Independence Campaign has focused its grassroots efforts on this so-called "missing million". “We’ve put lots of work into areas with low voter turnout. As we’ve campaigned all the way from Easterhouse to Castlemilk, Seaton and Aberdeen, we’ve come across thousands of people who will be voting for the first time in a long while”. Shafi says he has “absolute faith” in these newly registered voters to vote Yes: “these people are not apathetic, they are alienated by a Westminster politics which simply ignores them.”

Despite this, there are a number of political commentators and analysts who believe that while non-voters might be less likely to be represented in the polls, they are in fact unlikely to vote Yes. Polling expert Professor John Curtice’s comprehensive analysis of the "missing million" found that newly registered voters were in fact more likely to vote No today. Curtis argues that although “some polls may have too few of the ‘missing million’ in their sample, the effect may be to lead them to over rather than under-estimate Yes support”. If the pro-Yes tendency is over-exaggerated, those voters who the pollsters haven’t been able to reach will not necessarily be voting Yes today.

To sum up, support for the Yes vote is stronger in poorer, deprived areas of Scotland where voter turnout is far lower to begin with. Nevertheless, the "missing million" is a loose term which doesn’t refer to an ideologically homogenous group, therefore it is speculative to assume that newly registered voters will definitely be voting Yes. What is clear is that large numbers of formerly disenfranchised and newly registered voters will be voting today. With democracy looking healthier than it has for a long time, the unprecedented voter registration and lively debates will hopefully continue in future elections. As Scots rush to the ballot boxes to make the most significant political decision of their lifetime, it seems that the "missing million" may be the wildcard in today’s referendum.

 


More referendum coverage:

“Should Scotland be an independent country?” Referendum voting is under way
Scotland: What do the final polls suggest?
How will women, men, the young and old vote today?