There’s been a lot of talk on Twitter and Facebook of irregularities at the referendum counts, leading to accusations that the referendum was somehow fixed, culminating in a petition to have the procedures investigated, or even the referendum re-run. As with most conspiracy theories, this is largely down to people not understanding what they’re seeing, as the videos flying around the internet showing bits of the count have been removed from their context.
For example, there’s a video showing a counting table with a No sign on it with a pile of ballot papers, with the top paper showing a cross beside Yes. To the uninformed observer, this looks like Yes votes have been dumped on a table of No votes; but in reality, the pile of votes were still waiting to be split up into Yes and No at this point, and if the person making the video had bothered to check, they’d have found this out.
So here’s a quick guide to how the count worked, as observed by one of this website’s own official monitoring agents (specifically me).
In the days running up to the 18th, there were daily postal vote opening sessions, where ballot boxes containing postal votes were opened and the contents verified. This began by counting the number of envelopes (envelope ‘B’), which were then opened to reveal the postal voting statement and a second envelope (envelope ‘A’) containing the actual ballot paper. The postal voting statements were then checked against the list of postal voters, the information checked for completeness and correctness, and then packaging them up into sealed packets.
After this, the ballot papers were removed from their ‘A’ envelopes, kept face down so no one could see the vote, the number on the ballot paper checked against the number on the envelope to make sure they matched, and then placed into the ballot box. Some final verification checks were made, then the ballot box was sealed, ready to go to the final count.
The part about the postal votes being PLACED into the ballot box is important, as one of the most popular pieces of “evidence” circulating shows a ballot box being opened with the contents being “suspiciously” neatly stacked. Well yes, that’s because they weren’t posted through the top like the ballots in polling stations. (We know these were postal ballots because the “counting under way” caption suggests this was at the beginning of the count, not halfway through – see next section.)
So, at 10pm on the 18th September, the count began. Obviously ballot boxes were still at their polling stations at 10pm, so the count began with the ballot boxes containing postal votes, as these were already at the counting venues, ready to be counted. The first stage was counting the total number of ballots. This was done by putting the ballots into piles of 100, under the watchful gaze of counting agents from both sides (at the Aberdeen count there were so many counting agents for Yes that it was possible for people to take turns).
This was when counting agents were able to “sample” the votes, by taking tallies of the number of Yes and No votes being put into the piles (this is how people at election counts always seem to know the result long before it’s actually announced). These piles were then rubber-banded and given a slip of paper identifying the box they came from. Again, this explains one of the popular pieces of “evidence”, that claims to show a counter writing on a ballot paper. No, they were writing on one of these slips of paper.
The next stage was splitting the votes, when the piles of votes were actually put into piles of Yes and No (as well as a pile for ballots that hadn’t been completed properly). When a Yes or No basket was looking a bit full, their contents would be transferred to one of the applicable Yes or No counting tables to be counted. Counting officers would also check the pile of improperly completed ballots to put those where the intent was obvious into the Yes or No pile, and remove those that required further adjudication.
At several intervals throughout the count, the referendum agents would be gathered to witness the adjudication of improperly completed ballots, and argue the case for them to be included or rejected, according to which side they appeared to favour (and to despair at the number of people who find it so difficult to simply put a cross in a box).
Papers were double-counted, with counters working in pairs to double-check each other’s results. Every stage was scrutinised by counting agents, who had the power to step in at any point if they felt something was wrong. Occasionally a counter would put a ballot into the wrong Yes or No pile simply through human error, but this would be picked up, either straight away by the counting agent or the counter themselves, or by their colleague when the papers were recounted.
There are too many eyes watching for anything dodgy to happen, and trying to fix the count would require pretty much every single member of the counting staff to be in on the scam – and these are council workers known to both sides of the political divide.
Yes lost because we started off from somewhere between 25% and 30%, and had to face the full wrath of the British state, the media and corporate interests, not to mention people’s natural resistance to change – no matter how ridiculous Gordon Brown’s devolution timetable was, or the unionists’ recent track record of enhanced devolution, it was clearly enough to convince wavering No voters to give the union another chance. Pain can make critical faculties go out the window.
However, we certainly didn’t lose because of shenanigans at the counts, and perpetuating such stories only hinders the attempts that are currently being made to move on from the result and onto the second phase of this wide-ranging and thriving independence movement (Women For Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign are already planning their next conferences in the coming weeks).
As an official referendum agent for Wings Over Scotland who witnessed the counting procedures first-hand, I hope these words might carry at least a bit of weight amongst online activists. Believe me, if anything dodgy had been happening, this vile cybernat would have been screaming it from the rafters.