EU Referendum: counting the vote

This is the first UK-wide referendum to be counted overnight. Neither of the two previous UK-wide referendums provide much in the way of helpful precedent on when we will know whether the UK and Gibraltar electorate have voted to leave or remain part of the EU. It’s a safe assumption that it will be a long night for all involved.

This blog post explains what to expect on the night of the count on the 23/24 June. More detail is available in Library briefing 7588 – EU referendum – the count.

Although much of the counting process will be similar to general election counts there are some parts of the process that will be less familiar, and different terminology like ‘regional counts’, ‘counting areas’ and ‘counting officers’.

The statutory rules that have to be followed when handling ballot papers at polling stations and postal ballots and the processes to be followed at count venues are very similar to general elections. These are designed to ensure the guiding principles of UK elections and referendums are adhered to:

  • ensuring a result is declared swiftly and accurately,
  • the number of ballots received at the count tallies with the number of ballots sent out to polling station,
  • the counting process is legal and impartial, and
  • voter secrecy is maintained.
Previous UK-wide referendums

The last UK-wide referendum was on voting reform on 5 May 2011. That poll was combined with other elections: Parliamentary and Assembly elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and with local elections in Northern Ireland and many parts of England.

The Electoral Commission directed counting officers in the AV referendum count to conclude verification of ballots by 1pm on Friday 6 May 2011 and to start counting ballots at 4pm.

It meant that in many parts of the country returning/counting officers could focus delivering the results of other ballots before counting votes cast in the referendum. The final national result for the AV referendum was declared to a virtually empty national count venue at 2.00 am on Saturday 7 May 2011.

The only other UK-wide referendum was the 1975 referendum on membership of the European Communities. The verification of votes took place at the close of the poll at 10.00 pm but the counting of votes took place the day after the poll from 9.00 am. The final national tally was not known until 14 hours later, at 11.00 pm (Butler and Kitzinger’s book The 1975 Referendum, 1976 and 1996, has more on detail).

In both these referendums the result was not close. The 1975 European referendum was decided by 67.2% to 32.8% and the rejection of voting reform in 2011 was rejected by 67.9% to 32.1%. This means that the result was effectively known long before the Chief Counting Officer was in a position to declare the final national UK-wide results because the winning side had passed 50% of the available votes some time before all the ballots had been counted.

If the opinion polls currently available are accurate this referendum will be much closer. It means a result may not become clear until much later in the counting process. For example, in Wales the referendum on the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales in September 1997 was won by such a narrow margin (50.3% to 49.7%) it all hinged on the last local authority area to declare, Carmarthenshire.

Will it be like a general election?

It will be similar but not exactly the same.

Much of the night will unfold like a general election:

  • presiding officers from polling stations will be responsible for getting their ballot boxes to their local count at the close of the poll at 10.00pm.
  • ballots must be verified before counting the votes for either side can begin
  • agents acting on behalf of the two sides of the referendum will be allowed to watch the verification and counting
  • provisional results in a counting area will be shared with agents before a declaration so recounts can be requested
  • once a result is declared it is final

However, there will be some important differences (the Electoral Commission website has a section dedicated to the EU referendum).

Rules governing counts are set out in election-specific rules. The legislation setting out the basis for the EU referendum in June is based on the regulations that applied for the 2011 referendum on the Parliamentary Voting System, which were in turn based on the rules that apply to other elections in the UK, particularly the UK Parliamentary elections. These rules have their statutory basis in the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended.

General elections are obviously counted by constituency and overseen by a returning or acting returning officer. Local authority electoral staff are responsible for administering general elections but they make arrangements to count by Parliamentary seat, even if that seat crosses local authority boundaries. Referendums are counted by ‘counting area’ and overseen by counting or acting counting officers.

The counting area is designated in the enabling legislation. For the EU referendum the counting areas are local authority areas (unitary authorities and district councils in two tier areas) in Great Britain. Northern Ireland and Gibraltar each count as a single counting area. It means there will be 382 individual counting area declarations which will feed into the final result.

The counting areas in the 2011 voting reform referendum were slightly different. In England the counting areas were council areas, but in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the counting areas were the corresponding Parliamentary/Assembly constituencies because of the combination of polls.

In 1975 ballots were verified at local authority level but the counting of ballots took place at county level in England and Wales and regional level in Scotland. It meant the London count had to contend with over 3 million ballot papers.

Unlike a general election, where there are 650 individual elections with their own result, the referendum has one single national result. The final national result has to be declared by the Chief Counting Officer, who is Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission. This will be done in Manchester at the national count centre.

And unlike the general election there are also regional counts. No ballot papers are counted at the regional counts but regional counting officers have an important role in coordinating the delivery of the referendum in their region. They can act as a check before local results are declared and are able to direct a counting officer to conduct a recount if not satisfied that they are accurate.

Regional counting officers will also collate the totals from all the counting areas in their region before communicating the total to the Chief Counting Officer at the national count in Manchester.

There is no provision for national or regional recounts. Recounting can only occur at local counting area but once a local counting officer has certified and declared their result no recounting is allowed.

What time can we expect a result?

If you are planning to watch events unfold then don’t expect to get any sleep until well into Friday.

In 1975 ITN announced the result of a survey of representative polling stations at the close of the poll which was close to the final result. Broadcasters are not planning exit polls this time around so there will be no early indications at 10.00pm.

As with a general election it may be clear which side has won long before the final UK and Gibraltar result is declared. However, as mentioned above, if the result is close it may be much later into the process before the result is clear.

Other factors will have an impact. If results in an individual counting area are close there may be recounts or even several recounts before a counting area declares its result. Birmingham has an electorate of about 700,000. Multiple recounts there would for example take some time.

If there is bad weather on the evening of Thursday 23 June it may disrupt the journey of ballot boxes to count venues. This is more problematic for large counting areas, like the Highlands Council area in Scotland, or island communities like Shetland and the Isles of Scilly.

And will the result be final?

Once the result at any level has been declared it is final. One vote either way will be enough. The result can only be challenged by judicial review. This must be lodged within six weeks of the declaration being challenged.

The European Referendum Act 2015 does not include provisions to implement the result of the referendum; legally, the Government is not bound by the vote. However, it would be very unlikely for the Government to ignore the outcome of the referendum.

The Cabinet Office published a document in February 2016, <a href=”https://www group task management.gov.uk/government/publications/the-process-for-withdrawing-from-the-european-union”>The process for withdrawing from the European Union which states:

The result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union will be final. The Government would have a democratic duty to give effect to the electorate’s decision. The Prime Minister made clear to the House of Commons that “if the British people vote to leave, there is only one way to bring that about, namely to trigger Article 50 of the Treaties and begin the process of exit, and the British people would rightly expect that to start straight away.

There is no provision in the legislation for what to do in the extremely unlikely event that the vote is tied.

There has been speculation about the consequences of a vote to leave by the UK as a whole but a vote by one constituent part of the UK to remain, in particular Scotland. There have also been questions about the constitutional aftermath of a close result or one which led to an early general election. Such crystal ball gazing is probably best left to another day.

Picture credit: Election Count 2015 by Coventry City CountyCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)