Elections Scotland Ungagged Writing

Why People Need to Stop Claiming Indyref Was Rigged

The past few weeks have seen a recurrence on social media of conspiracy theories suggesting the independence referendum was rigged. The fact that these continue to circulate four years after the event is worrying.

In my view some Yes supporters will risk undermining the next independence referendum if they keep spreading false stories about the unreliability of the electoral system. I will set out why in this article but first I want to restate that the indyref really wasn’t rigged.

There is no evidence the administration of the referendum was anything other than proper and it is unfair to the thousands of Yes campaigners who acted as polling and counting agents, as well as to the election officials who managed the process, to suggest otherwise.

Indyref conspiracy theories generally revolve around aspects of the voting and counting process which the conspiracy theorists and their advocates do not understand. What is most concerning, however, is the way some cling to the belief that the referendum process was manipulated even when specific allegations are debunked by those who were there.

Elections and referendums are co-produced by election officials and political volunteers, with the assistance of the police. The system is tested and scrutinised intensely from every angle by polling and counting agents – including agents appointed to scrutinise postal vote openings – to ensure it is a free and fair process. And it is a free and fair process. Of course issues arise and vigilance is required to prevent fraud. But those who administer the system do so fairly and it is wrong to suggest otherwise without a shred of proof.

Yet we still see demands for international monitors to oversee the next referendum. What could external monitors, watching a system that is unfamiliar to them, pick up that thousands of experienced and dedicated Yes activists would miss? There is no aspect of the process which could be scrutinised by external monitors that cannot already be scrutinised by agents appointed by registered campaign groups, many of whom have decades of experience as polling or counting agents under their belts.
Falsely claiming that our electoral system is corrupt is not just reprehensible, it is politically inept and self-defeating.

The 2014 campaign saw an unprecedented level of public engagement in the democratic process, reflected in the incredible turnout. The campaign was described as a festival of democracy and an exemplar of how a referendum should be run – and rightly so. No amount of disappointment in the result should tarnish the campaign or destroy trust in the robust democratic process which underpinned it. That can only benefit our opponents.

After all, why would voters who were crushed by the result in 2014 be motivated to invest their hopes again in a process which Yes supporters claim is secretly controlled by the British State and rigged to ensure that Yes can’t win? What’s the point in voting, when your own side tell you it’s all a fix?

This is the fundamental issue that people like me find so frustrating. These conspiracy theories – if they continue to be a feature of online campaigning – combined with the impact of individual voter registration, could create a recipe to suppress the Yes vote in the next referendum. This is a risk in some areas where Yes won the vote in 2014 and where we are going to have to work extremely hard to get the same level of voter registration and turnout.

Conspiracy theories around postal votes in particular are highly counter-productive. Postal voters are more likely to vote than those who vote in person. It makes no sense therefore to undermine trust in a system which has been strengthened specifically to combat fraud. Rather than dissuading independence supporters from applying for a postal vote we should be trying to get our supporters onto a postal vote to maximise our turnout.
The last Westminster election confirmed that SNP – and by extension Yes – voters are less “sticky” than we would like. This is not surprising given many of them were galvanised by the referendum and may have been fairly disinterested in politics before that. While we can plan to ensure that the next referendum will galvanise them in a similar way, we cannot assume that. This makes it imperative that we do all we can to make sure independence supporters actually vote.

But as well as securing and energising our base, the focus of the Yes campaign, if it is to be successful, has to be about building support. It has to be about reaching out to and persuading undecided and soft No voters to consider independence. And it has to look forwards, not backwards; outwards, not inwards. Sharing conspiracy theories will not help us to do that, it will have the opposite effect.

Having said all this, I do understand why Yes supporters fall into the conspiracy trap. As frustrating as their behaviour is, I share their disappointment and recognise the feeling that things are stacked against us, making winning all the harder. All long-standing members of the SNP will recognise that feeling. But it needs to be shaken off.

The experience of being in the SNP prior to 2007 was mainly about losing. Believing that we could win took a conscious effort of will and a complete reconsideration of how we campaigned. This was more difficult than people might imagine. There is such a thing as a loser’s mindset in politics and you develop it without even noticing. The best way to overcome it is to take a step back, look at where you are and what you need to do to win.

At this point in time we do not have a majority for Yes. In order to get one we need to persuade people who voted Yes in 2014 to commit to doing so again and persuade a significant number of people who voted No to change their minds. That’s our task. Whatever we do should be working towards that end – and that means ditching the comfort blanket of conspiracy theories and going forward with confidence that our case is strong and that we can win.

By Mhairi Hunter

You can read more from the collective here, or listen to a range of left views on our podcast

9 thoughts on “Why People Need to Stop Claiming Indyref Was Rigged

  1. OK, I take the point about ignorance of electoral procedures. However, some peculiarities did happen in 2014. Ruth Davidson’s comments about postal ballots at 2230 on polling day were examined by police but never satisfactorily explained.

    1. That is true, it wasn’t. Due, as I understand it, to insufficient evidence to confirm a breach had occurred. However even if there had been, the issue was that she seemed to suggest she’d been able to see postal votes before she was supposed to. A ‘sneak peek.’ That doesn’t suggest she could have altered them. The system does not make meddling impossible, but it does severely limit the potential scale of any meddling to the point where it could only sway a result if the true margin was (my estimate) 1% or less, without being discovered.

      Where we SHOULD have accepted monitors wasn’t for the vote itself, but for the entire process, including the media coverage. The OSCE offered to provide them around a year out from the vote, and I feel sure if that offer had been taken up they would have concluded a free and fair vote was impossible in an environment where the media was more one-sided than I’ve ever seen in a democracy. Let’s be honest, it was incredible that we got the vote we did, with only one (weekly) newspaper and no TV that wasn’t campaigning for a ‘No’ vote.

  2. To question how the last Indy Ref was carried out does not automatically make one a conspiracy theorist.

    If the Scottish Government ignore the serious concerns that some people have about how secure our vote is – then we will never get independence.

    I understand that publicly they must not talk about it, they must not question it, as they agreed under the section 30 order to respect the result.
    However, behind closed doors they had better be making sure that the next vote will be as secure as it possibly can be.

    Otherwise it doesn’t matter a jot how many people we convert to Yes – if the British state have a corrupt hand in it, we will lose again.

    Now I have worked in the election system, and I can see clearly how it can be manipulated by the British state. And it’s not at the counts, it’s not in the polling stations – it’s much much higher up and in such a way that few people can access the evidence.

    The reports of the postal ballots in Argyll & Bute do NOT give me confidence in the existing system. Such a high turnout of postal ballots has never been seen anywhere in the world, yet we are to believe that is normal?
    And I had no 1st or 2nd hand experience of a ballot paper having no barcode (the official mark) on the back, until I met an SNP councillor who confirmed to me that their ballot paper had no barcode. So they went to the police to report it, and was told to “go away and shut up”.

    The Scottish Government MUST ensure it is a safe vote this time round. Otherwise we are guaranteed to lose again.

    1. That “report” from Argyll & Bute is full of wrong assumptions – the entire premise of it is based on the assumption that the electoral register is only updated once a year – when it’s actually updated monthly, and it’s certainly up-to-date when the election comes around.

      That they got something so fundamental and easy to research wrong speaks volumes for the authors’ sleuthing abilities. And incidentally, they present not one shred of proof for the claim that it was a “world record” turn out – it is pure rhetoric, which has somehow become a “fact”.

  3. On the vote counting in 2014 I watched on TV on different occasions vote counters who had piles of votes set out in different piles one for yes ,one for no and the ones that were destined for the bin and in more than one incident I witnessed counters who had four piles I also witnessed those same counters looking round to see if they were being watched when it looked like they felt safe this mysterious pile was placed into the bin I also saw counters getting up from their table and walk of to a larger bin and once again look round before putting her pile of votes into that bin ? fraud hmm I wonder , what makes that worse is nothing was done about it . As far as postal votes are concerned no-one should be allowed to have sneeky-peeks no one . Food for thought .

    1. Please think through what you’re saying here. You’re saying electoral fraud was beamed live on TV to millions of people, and nobody at the count itself noticed it. Not one of the hugely-experienced Yes campaigners noticed someone committing electoral fraud.

      Do you honestly, truly think this is a reasonable thing to think? Do you not see how insulting this is to the people who were at these counts?

      The first stage of the counting process – where ballot boxes are emptied onto tables and the counters verify that the number of ballot papers in the box is correct – is when the watching activists take tallies of the ballots (called “sampling”), and that’s when we get an idea what the result is going to be. By the time they’re put into piles of Yes and No, they’ve already been through several stages of the process, and piles of Yes votes suddenly disappearing would be flagged up.

      Whatever you saw on TV, it wasn’t what you think it was. It was out of context.

  4. It is disheartening how some folk read an article from a friend, along time activist who is well steeped in electoral process, yet fail to grasp the basic truth she tells. There was no fraud, we lost because we did not get enough votes.
    It is clear from some of the comments that some have no understanding of electoral process
    DAVID SIMPSON _ All votes including postal votes are opened in front of witnesses, any electoral agent has aright to do so. That means you can get to see some of the ballots as they are opened, you stand and tote up the ones you can see. At end returning officer will tell how many ballots there were, from your sample you can extrapolate the whole picture.Now you are not supposed to sample postal votes, but everyone does so (surreptitiously) What Davidson did was shoot her mouth off about it, that was all.
    BABELFISH – see above
    GORDON PARK – you could see on your TV what hundreds of YES activists and agents at the count could not, do you realise how silly that sounds. You sitting at home could see what those at the count could not?

    1. This is a year later, but this is another “but what about…” that keeps cropping up, so it’s maybe worth putting this down here for anyone else who reads this article.

      Exit polls are conducted by polling companies going along to the same few polling stations every election and asking people how they voted. This allows them to build up a picture of how these polling stations compare to the national result, so that when they poll them at the next election, they have an idea how the nation as a whole is likely to have voted based on the changes observed at those polling stations.

      This doesn’t work for one-off referendums. You can’t measure change in a one-off event. You couldn’t say “based on previous results, 56% Yes at this polling station would suggest 45% Yes nationally”, because they had no previous results to compare against. All they could have done is have a stab in the dark. But the other thing to keep in mind is that exit polls are expensive, so the TV networks didn’t see the point in paying for an exit poll that wouldn’t have been a proper exit poll (because it’s the TV networks that pay for exit polls – something that I don’t think people understand when they say “why were there no exit polls?”, as if they’re a fundamental part of our voting processes). All you’d have is the world’s most expensive canvassing session.

      There was no exit poll for the EU referendum, for the same reasons. Stephen Bush explains it in better detail than me here: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/06/brexit-why-isnt-there-eu-referendum-exit-poll

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