Holyrood election result may take days as overnight vote counting ruled out

Election count
Election count (PA Archive)
11:09am, Fri 19 Feb 2021
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Full results from the upcoming Scottish Parliament election may take days to be announced after a decision was made not to count votes overnight.

The counting of ballots usually begins when polls close at 10pm, with this year’s vote set to take place on Thursday May 6 – subject to any coronavirus restrictions which may be in place at the time.

But local authority areas will not begin the process of counting until between 9am and 10am the next day, following a decision from Malcolm Burr, convener of the Electoral Management Board (EMB) for Scotland

The direction was issued by Mr Burr, also chief executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), earlier this month to returning officers and electoral registration officers.

Following the direction, a spokesman for the West Lothian returning officer said the counting process may now “continue into the following day or days”.

In the direction, Mr Burr states: “Returning officers must ensure that the first ballot boxes are opened no earlier than 9am and no later than 10am on Friday 7 May 2021, to allow the verification and counting of constituency and regional ballots in their constituencies.

Scottish Local Elections 2017 (PA Archive)

“For the avoidance of doubt, there is to be no overnight counting of votes.

“For local government elections in Scotland, a ‘next day count’ is well-accepted procedure and is acknowledged to allow a greater level of resilience within election teams.

“The direction formalises the position that there will be no overnight count, but ensures there will be no undue delay, with all counts under way by 10am.”

Mr Burr said reasons for the decision include expectation that the counting process “will take significantly longer than in previous Scottish Parliament elections”, with venues “subject to enhanced hygiene and capacity limits… most appropriately managed during daytime hours”.

It is also hoped the move “will significantly reduce the mingling of count and polling staff”, Mr Burr said.

When contacted by the PA news agency, nearly half of Scotland’s local authorities confirmed plans to start counts on Friday morning, including Argyll and Bute, East Lothian, Highland, Falkirk, Midlothian, Moray, North Ayrshire, Orkney, Renfrewshire, Scottish Borders, South Ayrshire, West Lothian and the Western Isles.

Polling place (PA Archive)

A spokeswoman for East Lothian said their count time is still to be agreed but it will follow the EMB direction, with early indications that postal votes may account for around 40% of the electorate.

A spokesman for West Lothian also highlighted the “direction acknowledges the counting process will take significantly longer than in previous Scottish Parliament elections”, adding: “It may have to continue into the following day or days.”

Numerous other councils are understood to have plans in place or discussions ongoing regarding the Friday morning start time, for what First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already admitted will not be “an election as normal”.

There will be arrangements that have to be made for the safe conduct of voting and counting

At the daily Covid-19 briefing on Thursday, she said: “My view on this, and it has been my view all along, is that if it is at all possible, the election should go ahead.

“Because we live in a democracy and it is right that people – perhaps even more so in a crisis – get the chance to cast their verdict on the government that is running the country.

“I think it is important that democracy happens.

“We’re not all going to be campaigning in the way we normally do, chapping on people’s doors. Maybe in the later stages more of that will be possible, but right now that is not possible.

“There will be arrangements that have to be made for the safe conduct of voting and counting.”

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