Scottish referendum

What happens if there’s a riot, and six other referendum scenarios

Today’s referendum in Scotland is an unprecedented event – just the kind the polling organisations, local councils and electoral commissions don’t like.

It is unique in modern political history and therefore comes brimming with ambiguities and uncertainties. It’s not even clear precisely when the final result will be known.

What the authorities can do is make allowances for every conceivable eventuality. Here are seven of them.

1. There is a disturbance at a polling station

The Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013 addresses this very possibility. It states that where proceedings at any polling station are “interrupted by riot or open violence” they will be adjourned until the following day. So if a protest becomes a fistfight or a voter gets tired and emotional, the entire referendum result could be delayed by up to 24 hours.

2. People are still waiting to vote when the polls close

In this instance there is a precedent to follow, one most recently followed in May’s local and EU elections. Come 10pm, it is now standard practice for a member of the polling station staff to mark the end of any remaining queue. All those waiting will be able to cast their vote, but for anyone arriving beyond this point it will be too late.

3. Some ballot papers appear not to have been counted

In this scenario, a recount can be requested. Representatives from the Yes and No campaigns have the right to ask for one recount at each of the 32 regional counts. But a recount can be requested only if there is some doubt over the process. It can not be asked for on the basis of a close result. No recounts can take place once a result has been declared.

4. Bad weather means some votes can’t be collected

The authorities have done their best to minimise the chances of disruption affecting the delivery of votes in some of Scotland’s more remote areas. Helicopters will be used to fly ballot boxes from islands in Argyll and Bute to the counting centre at Lochgilphead. In Orkney there will be no polling stations whatsoever. Instead voters have been encouraged to apply for a postal vote, or travel to the mainland to vote. There’s always the chance of geography or climate holding things up tonight, but the weather forecast suggests Scotland’s current dry spell is set to last at least until the weekend.

5. Polling stations run out of ballot papers

Because nobody knows precisely what kind of turnout to expect, the electoral commission has had to overestimate the number of people who will vote. To this end, 120% of the ballots required for the vote have been printed. Chief counting officer Mary Pitcaithly has said her team have been “modelling everything on a 70 to 90% turnout”.

6. The winning side triumphs by a handful of votes

This one is easy. There will be no recount. The final result stands, regardless of how narrow the margin of victory. The only way a result could be challenged, either at one of the regional counts or the central count in Edinburgh, would be retrospectively and through the courts.

7. There’s a tie

The BBC’s Chris Mason cites a precedent for this eventuality: an election for a seat on West Lindsey council in Lincolnshire in 2007, which ended with both candidates polling precisely 781 votes. The winner was chosen on the toss of a coin. A dead heat in the referendum might seem utterly unlikely, but anything is possible.


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