Referendum 'Vote rigging' conspiracy theories: The facts
Following the Scottish Independence Referendum a number of video clips have been circulated which some believe to show vote-rigging during the official indyref count. People have been signing online petitions calling for investigation, for a recount, or even for the whole referendum to be re-run.
Following enquiries received and references to the claims on forces-related online forums, BAFF's Douglas Young examined the video clips, and reported as follows:
Review of claims of "vote-rigging" during the Scottish Independence Referendum count
The Chief Counting Officer Mary Pitcaithly, who is Chief Executive of Falkirk and head of Elections Scotland, and like everyone involved in the count is not a UK government official, has herself reviewed these matters and has issued a statement that
"The Chief Counting Officer is satisfied that all counts throughout Scotland were properly conducted and scrutinised by thousands of people representing both the Yes Scotland and the Better Together campaigns, as well as international election observers, media and police.
None of these people raised any concerns during the verification, counting and adjudication stages." Full statement here
To my knowledge no-one from the official Yes Scotland campaign or the Scottish National Party, including their representatives at the count, have given any support to the claims which have been circulating.
Claim #1 - "Yes" votes placed on "No" tables
Some viewers of TV news coverage thought they had seen "Yes" votes amongst bundles of "No" votes.
What they failed to understand is that the votes are counted twice. The first count is of the total number of votes cast, without separating them into "Yes", "No", and doubtful votes. The number is cross-checked with the total number of votes issued at the relevant polling station, then the counted bundles are collected together and the totals checked again, still without being allocated to "Yes" or "No".
What viewers saw were the unseparated bundles of counted votes laid on top of a table which had already been marked "No" for the final stages of the count. This sounds confusing and was obviously not designed for TV, but everyone present at that local count would have been perfectly clear about what stage had been reached in the process.
Yes Dundee issued this responsible, correct clarification when the claims started to circulate on Twitter:
Claim #2 - "Yes" votes transferred to the "No" pile
Another clip shows a female official examining and sorting votes at a table. An excited American voiceover concludes that the official is transferring "Yes" votes to "No". It is not clear exactly what is going on in a short clip. According to some sources the video has not been verified as coming from the referendum count, but it looks plausible enough to me. The clip appears to be on a loop, in other words we are seeing the same action twice.
The best guess is that the counter ("enumerator") has simply realised a mistake and corrected it. This might happen at the start of the second count, before staff get used to the process which is different from the first count, or later in the second count when people were getting tired.
Whatever the explanation, a moment's thought should tell us that someone intentionally diverting votes to the wrong pile would not have been acting in the way seen in the clip.
Claim #3 - Election official filling out votes
Another clip shows an election official writing something. A voiceover concludes that the official is filling out blank votes for "No", and that all "No" voters should be ashamed. The accusation is nonsense. Different stages of the count process requires the calculation and filling in of totals on paperwork. In this case what we may be seeing is a team supervisor completing slips to indicate the number of votes in 'Yes' and 'No bundles of less than 50.
One of the many reasons why this claim is implausible is the fact that every ballot paper has to have a serial number, as well as a special mark made at the polling station. The serial number is not only a safeguard at the count, but in cases of alleged "personation" such as has been reported from Glasgow, it is only due to the serial number that an attempted fraudulent ballot paper can be identified and be removed from the count and made available to the police.
There is nothing in any of the clips I have seen so far to justify any of the allegations which have been circulating about "rigging" of the Scottish Independence Referendum count.
Furthermore, if the allegations had been true the conspiracy would have had to involve large numbers of election staff (not to mention counting agents and observers, media and the TV cameras).
For the information of those conspiracy theorists who have commented from overseas, the staff involved are not UK State employees, but for the most part are employees of local authorities which, in Scotland, operate under the devolved (Scottish National Party-administered) Scottish Government.
Volunteer staff carrying out a vital task for the whole community should not have been exposed to the kind of irresponsible unfounded accusations seen in recent days. If they want staff to volunteer to help with future votes, the authorities concerned should take more action to rebut the allegations.
With the next UK General Election now looming on the horizon, the Electoral Commission along with electoral administrators should now be considering urgently what improvements can be made to the marking and layout of counting stations with TV cameras in mind.
Douglas Young was not involved in the Referendum process and has no connection with any of the groups or organisations involved, but had been an election official at many previous votes in Scotland and a military election support planner and international polling supervisor in the Balkans. Young is the author of Silence in the Ranks, An analysis of factors inhibiting electoral participation by HM Forces personnel and their families in the General Election of May 2005, with recommendations on the way forward.
While encouraging awareness of the referendum amongst service voters in or from Scotland, BAFF had no position on how to vote, emphasizing that "A personal decision to vote either way in a lawful, properly authorised constitutional referendum can be neither disloyal , nor unpatriotic." BAFF Ten Point Plan for the Scottish independence referendum.
The above report was last updated on 27.09.2014.
Please feel free to share this page if you find it useful. Alternative short link: goo.gl/HgK6bP
To see more about the different stages of the count process mentioned by Young, please click below:
- At close of polls, sealed ballot boxes and any postal votes handed in to polling places are collected and transported to the Count Venue
Verify Postals & unused papers
- Before the postal ballots can be added to the count all postal votes, including those collected at the close of poll, must be verified
- Counting Officer staff will also check the numbers of unused and spoiled papers returned from polling stations
First Count / Verification
- The number of ballot papers in each ballot box is counted and reconciled with the total that the Counting Officer recorded as handed out at the Polling Station
- When all boxes have been reconciled the Counting Officer will be able to announce the turnout %, once the figure has been submitted to the Chief Counting Officer
Second Count / Sort into Yes, No, Doubtful
- As soon as the total number of papers in the count is confirmed they can be counted into YES, NO and DOUBTFUL
- Some papers which may be doubtful, will need to be adjudicated and possibly rejected
- The total YES + NO + REJECTS should match with the total number of papers found at the previous stage
- Declaration of the local totals can then be completed, once the Chief Counting Officer has authorised the announcement and verified the figures
Armed forces voters / Service voters
- Hits: 2895