The Scottish Independence Referendum Act requires the Electoral Commission to lay a report before the Scottish Parliament “on the conduct of the referendum”. This report was laid with the Parliament today. The Act is vague about what the report should contain. The Electoral Commission have managed to write an expansive report of 149 pages, but it takes till page 141 to get to the revelation that the police investigation into postal vote sampling is still ongoing.
Voters raising concerns about the conduct of the election were invited to submit their concerns and complaints to the Electoral Commission for inclusion in this report. I had raised my concerns about the counting of postal votes, as implied by Ruth Davidson on tv, and, as I posted earlier this week, I know that the police investigation into this is still ongoing, so I was interested in how this significant remaining doubt about the referendum’s integrity would be discussed in the report. Having just read the report from beginning to end, I think the answer is “badly”.
On page 78-79 of the Electoral Commission report there is a section:
“Concerns raised by public
4.74 In the days following 18 September, the Commission, the CCO, COs, EROs, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government all received numerous enquiries and complaints from the public regarding various aspects of the electoral administrative process.
4.75 Many of these concerns arose from images appearing on TV screens and across social media which were understandably misunderstood by those members of the general public who have little understanding of the detailed processes in place for the verification and counting of votes. Accordingly, the Commission and others need to consider how we make the public more aware of counting procedures in the future, including using social media to ensure that information is shared widely.
4.76 The level of complaints led the CCO to issue a statement indicating that she was aware of the content being shared on social media and speculation regarding the conduct of the count process. She indicated that all counts throughout Scotland had been scrutinised by thousands of people, including hundreds of independent observers and hundreds of counting agents
representing campaigners on both sides of the referendum debate.
4.77 Every count in Scotland provided access for print, broadcast and online media. In addition, officers from Police Scotland were present at every count centre. As such, the count centres received an unprecedented level of observation and scrutiny and the CCO was content that, had any instances of perceived wrongdoing occurred, these would have been reported by those in
attendance at the time. The CCO was not aware of any complaints having been raised by any observer or agent and none was made to her during the verification, counting and adjudication stages. The CCO concluded that she was satisfied that all counts were conducted properly.
4.78 The Commission also had representatives in many of the count centres throughout Scotland and had requested at our briefing of observers that they share with us their experiences of the poll and count. From the evidence we have seen and the experiences others have shared with us we have seen nothing which would lead us to disagree with the view of the CCO. We are satisfied that all counts were properly conducted.”
So no evidence here that any of the “complaints from the public” had any validity. If I was worried about any potential malpractice I might decide that reaching the declaration “We are satisfied that all counts were properly conducted” is enough and do something more useful with my time. The report then moves on to discuss the regulation of the campaigns in a section of anaesthetising tedium (pages 82 – 118). However the reader interested in “Concerns raised by public” should plough on…
Section 6 is titled “Was the referendum wellrun? “ This continues in mind-numbing prolixity. My absolute favourite section here is:
“A pen or pencil when marking a ballot paper
6.62 A number of electors queried whether they were required to mark their ballot paper using either a pen or a pencil. These queries came both from voters who had received their postal ballot packs and from those due to vote in person at their polling station on polling day. Concerns which were raised ranged from the possibility of votes marked in pen being rejected during the counting of votes, to a small number of people who were concerned that their vote could be altered at a later stage if written in pencil. There is no stipulation under electoral law which requires an elector to use either a pen or a pencil and both Commission staff and local administrators were able to reassure voters that they could use either to mark their ballot paper.”
This can be shortened to”You can vote with pen or pencil”. It doesn’t say anything to reassure voters concerned that pencilled votes might come in contact with a rubber . Either someone is being paid by the word or this is some curious in-joke.
But we need to plough on; there might be gold amongst this dross.
Bingo! On page 138 we hit a section called “Electoral Integrity”: “Here we discuss some administrative matters arising in relation to electoral integrity…” Two pages later it gets to a discussion of someone trying to sell their vote online, and then on page 141 we reach…
“Requirement for secrecy at postal vote opening sessions
6.93 Significant media coverage was given to allegations that postal voting agents had “sampled” votes at postal vote opening sessions around the country in the days before polling day. The suggestion was that the agents, who were nominated by the registered campaign groups and permitted to attend the sessions to ensure the process was conducted appropriately, had been able to see the outcome for which votes had been cast. A significant number of people reported this matter to the Electoral Commission and/or the police at the time of the media/social media coverage of the issue.
6.94 The Commission is unaware of any such allegation having been made by any person who was present at a postal vote opening session and, in fact, this issue came to light as a result of comments made during media coverage, by individuals affiliated to campaign groups.
6.95 Schedule 7, Paragraph 7 of SIRA makes it an offence for a person attending a postal ballot opening session to attempt to ascertain the referendum outcome for which any vote is given in any particular ballot paper, or to communicate any such information which they have obtained during the session. At the referendum, as at all electoral events in the UK, it is a legal requirement for those attending a postal vote opening session to be provided with a copy of the requirements of secrecy in relation to the ballot.”
And then… at last…
“6.96 This matter is still under investigation by the police at time of writing and, therefore, it would not be appropriate for the Commission to comment further. “
So the revelation that three months after the referendum the investigation into the large-scale sampling of postal votes implied by Davidson and Yousaf is still grinding towards possible prosecutions is expressed in a fifth of the words used to explain that you can use pen or pencil to vote and is buried away on page 141 of 149.
That the investigation has continued for three months implies that the police have found some evidence of malpractice. The press release for the report is titled: “Scottish referendum well run and provides lessons for future referendums in UK”. I think whatever transpires, the second part of the title will be proved accurate, but on the first the jury is still out, almost literally.