Counting down

Written by on 17 September 2014 in Interviews

Falkirk Council chief executive Mary Pitcaithly is the Scottish independence referendum’s chief counting officer


In just a few days, the eyes of the world will be firmly on Scotland. As Scots head to polling stations on Thursday to cast their vote in the independence referendum, one woman in particular will be hoping the months and years of meticulous planning for this historic event have paid off. As chief counting officer, Mary Pitcaithly and her team will be running the national count collation process, while each of the 32 local authorities across Scotland has its own counting officer who is in charge of the local count.

Pitcaithly, who has been chief executive of Falkirk Council since 1998, is no stranger to elections and counts. She told Holyrood: “For us, an election and a referendum are dealt with in the same way. One of the big differences is obviously, in an election, you have candidates, sometimes a great number of them, while with the referendum, we have campaign groups, but the set-up is similar. A big difference for me is as chief counting officer, I’m not going to be working on our referendum count in Falkirk. My deputy is the counting officer for Falkirk, it didn’t seem reasonable to try and do both. 

“We will be doing the national count collation process on Thursday evening from 10pm at the Royal Highland Show ground. We will have been there or in the offices since before 7am when the polls open, in case there is anything we need to deal with. I fully expect most issues, if not all, to be dealt with at a local level. The 32 counting officers will also have their election offices fully staffed from before 7am. 

“We will work through polling day and then move the team to Ingliston later on. At that point, we will be setting up alongside Sue Bruce, who is deputy chief counting officer and also counting officer for Edinburgh. The hall is mainly City of Edinburgh Council’s count centre and we’ve got part of it. This is great because there’s a lot for people to see and there will be a real sense of being part of an election count, even though my team won’t be counting.”

With a huge media presence expected from all over the world, Pitcaithly and her team are anxious the press can report fairly on proceedings, while not getting in the way of the Edinburgh count process. “The media attention is an aspect that we have had to plan for very carefully. The media come with a lot of demands for what they need logistically but that’s all being handled by people who know what they’re doing and we’ve got a good plan for being able to accommodate everyone,” she said.

When the polls close, each of the 32 councils have to inform Pitcaithly when they’ve added up their votes, including all the unused and uncertain or spoiled ballots.

She said: “This is a process called verification and it’s done locally, that’s before they get into splitting the votes into the Yes and No boxes. The very first stage of verification is counting the unused papers which come back from the polling stations, then counting all the papers that are in the ballot boxes and all the spoiled papers. The whole thing should add up to the total each council started out with. We know how many ballot papers we give to each counting officer in each polling area and at the end of it all, the total should add up to that original figure. 

“In this referendum, people have been worried about the security of the poll and how we ensure we don’t lose papers or add papers in but if they understand the rigour of the process, they wouldn’t have those concerns. We can account for every paper. Sometimes there might be one or two less and that’s because sometimes people go into the polling booth, mark a vote but then change their mind and in a panic, they put it in their pocket instead of asking for another ballot paper. It’s very rare but it does happen and if it’s a busy day then perhaps the staff might not notice. That can sometimes account for a few less but you certainly shouldn’t have more. 

“Once the verification process is complete, the 32 local counting officers have to inform me of their totals and that is the figure we use going forward. Then the 32 will start to separate the papers into Yes and No, almost all counting officers are using what we call the mini count model, which means they will keep all the votes at a particular table so they won’t move around. That way you know how many you’ve got at a table, split them into Yes and No, any rejected or doubtful papers are on one side, you add those three together and that should come back to the first number you started with.”

Each counter has an observer to ensure that the Yes and No papers go into the right boxes. Pitcaithly said all the votes are kept face up, so there’s no issue with the observers not being able to see the votes. 

The final part of that process is adjudicating on the doubtful papers. Pitcaithly said: “Anything which can’t immediately be said to be a good vote goes into the doubtful box. Adjudicating those is a process the counting officer or their depute would do with the counting agents. It is the responsibility of local counting officers to make the call based on what they see and their interpretation of the case law. It is their decision at the end of the day whether something is a good or a bad vote but there is guidance to help them. 

“I’ve been spending a lot of time saying to people, just mark your ballot with a cross because I want every paper to count, that’s the main thing for me. If people take the trouble to get on the register and take the trouble to vote, I would want it to be able to be counted. The safest way for this to happen is just to mark it as instructed. If they put the cross in the box next to the answer they choose then there’s no issue, if you do something else you introduce some risk. I heard recently that people were talking about signing their ballot paper because it was so historic but as soon as you do that there’s the potential you could be identified and if you can be identified we are obliged to discount the paper. It is one of the very firm rules in the legislation and applied not just to the referendum but to every election, if you can identify the voter then the paper should be discounted.”

Pitcaithly said if all goes well, the result will be known by breakfast time on Friday, though this depends on a number of factors, including the weather and the transportation systems for getting ballot boxes to the local counts. There is only one result – the aggregate of all 32 local totals. The regional centres can hold a recount prior to reporting in their total, but once the result is announced, any challenges will have to be made through the courts.

Pitcaithly added: “The single, most important aspect of my role is to deliver a result that is trusted and accepted. The security, integrity and accuracy of the process are vital.” 



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