So here we go, another conspiracy theory to add to the hundreds already floating around on the internet. There’s been any number of academic treatises written about how and why people latch onto conspiracy theories; there’s at least one website examining the psychology of conspiracy theories. So I’m not going to go into that here; this article is just debunking the wilder claims.
A No victory in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum was announced at 6.08am on September 19th; the first rigging claims cam less than 24 hours later. In no time at all, videos, photos and claims were being circulated on Facebook.
Dodginess at the Polling Station
Looking at these claims, it’s obvious that most come from people with no experience or knowledge of the polling and counting process. Now me, I’ve never taken part in any polling or vote-counting activities but I’ve voted in all but four or five local and national elections since 1969. So I’m very familiar with how it all goes.
You walk into the polling station, give your name and address to the staff, watch as they cross you off their Big List of registered voters, you take a ballot paper, go into the booth, make a cross, fold your ballot paper into two or four so that it can’t be read by anybody nearby and pop it into the ballot box.
But the Referendum was different from all other elections, in that hundreds of thousands of people who had never voted, never taken much interest in the voting process, got to vote for the first time in their lives. To these people, things that would be obvious to somebody like me were not at all obvious.
One example of that was learning that they would be using a pencil to make their mark on the ballot paper. For them, pencils are only used when you want to make temporary marks that then get rubbed out; so, with no experience of polling booths equipped with the type of fat, heavy pencils that make an indelible wax mark, they were immediately suspicious.
Dodginess on the Counting Floor
With a national election, you can sit up late watching the results come in on TV. There are always live cameras in several of the counting places (they were in every one of the counting places in the case of the Referendum) and you can see that there are a considerable number of people – including all the candidates – walking around amongst the tables, having a good look at the voting slips being sorted and counted. You can also see members of the public, up in the galleries or outside the ropes, watching the counting. Even knowing nothing about the counting process, you can see for yourself that there’s zero chance of anybody on the counting floor deliberately doing any funny stuff with the papers without it getting noticed by somebody. But of course, many Referendum voters were unfamiliar with the quite complex procedures of counting votes (if you’re interested, here’s a detailed explanation by somebody who officiated at a count); it probably didn’t occur to quite a few of these newbie voters that every one of those millions of voting slips had to be checked and counted multiple times, by multiple people, to eliminate the possibly of human error. Hence the outrage at the video of Yes votes apparently dumped into a pile of No votes (in reality, they were all unsorted votes that had been counted into bundles at the beginning of the count; if the people were actually cheating, would they really leave the bundles face up so that anybody could see the Yes and No marks?) and the video of a young man apparently writing on ballot papers (he was simply marking numbers on bundles of counted papers).
Another video shows a counter sorting votes into Yes and No trays and stopping to switch two or three of them from the Yes tray into the No tray. The actual clip is only a few seconds long but looped over and over so as to stretch to about a minute and you can’t see what’s written on the ballots. She’s only just started filling the trays, so the most likely explanation is that she made a sorting mistake with the first few votes she handled and is correcting it. In any case, this video doesn’t look like anything from the Referendum count – nobody’s wearing identifying tabards, it takes place in a small meeting room with no space for scrutineers to walk behind the tables, and none of the Scottish counts had that setup of Yes/No trays in front of each counter. I’ve not managed to positively identify where it came from, but my trawls of Youtube have convinced me that it’s one of the small-town US “Proposition” referendums.
These videos are the only bits of photographic evidence for vote-rigging that have so far been produced. Considering the numbers of votes that would have to have been tampered with (384,000 – the winning margin – would have taken an average of about 12,000 falsified votes per count) plus the numbers of cameras at every counting venue – why the heck aren’t there many more photos and videos?
There’s also allegations of skullduggery concerning the ballot boxes – claims that they were switched, or stuffed with fake votes. This probably originates from shots of neat bundles of votes being shaken out of boxes onto sorting tables. There are two explanations for this. Firstly, they could have been postal votes, which are opened and counted into bundles – but not sorted into Yes/No – before the main vote; this opening and sorting of postal votes took place under the close eye of scrutineers from sides. Secondly, they could have been counted – but again, not sorted – votes bundled and returned to their boxes to be taken for sorting; this blog comment explains it:
“The basic unit in counting votes is the polling district. There are about three in each councillor’s ward, and each one has issued a ballot box, a set of papers and a register, which is marked up as people are issued with a ballot paper and vote.
At the count, the number of valid ballots issued is determined from the book(s) of ballot papers and, if necessary, the marked register. Each box is then opened and the number of ballots in each box counted to ensure it is the same as the number of ballots issued. Note that at this point there is no attempt to determine the result. The ballots are bundled up in 100s, with the “odds” having a slip of paper giving the number in that bundle……
….After the boxes have been verified, the bu[n]dles are jumbled up-this is so that you can’t identify the voting patterns in any area, put back in the boxes to keep the uncounted ballots separate, and then they are separated into Yes, No and Doubtful.”
For the next referendum, it might be a good idea to educate newbie voters about election and counting procedures. Just a suggestion.
Those Darn Blank Ballots
Then there’s the fuss over some ballot papers apparently being blank on the back, while others were barcoded on the back. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the back of any of my voting slips; I’ve always known that they each carried a unique ID number somewhere, but I’ve never been bothered enough to check for it. If any of these ‘blank ballot’ claims are true, then they do need investigation; Schedule 1 of the Scottish Independence Referendum Act specifies that an identifying number and a council area name has to be printed on the back. However, is it of any great importance? Since only the marks on the front of the voting slip matter when it comes to counting, just how could this have contributed to cheating?
Yes, Virginia, Electoral Fraud Does Exist
In any election there will be small amounts of electoral fraud. As of writing (September 2014), police are investigating 10 cases of voting fraud – they all concern personation (somebody turning up at a polling station and falsely voting using somebody else’s name and address) and all took place in different areas of Glasgow; claims of personation have come from other areas, but they don’t appear to be under investigation. In a UK election, any large-scale fraud is going to be attempted with the postal votes, as there’s no sensible way to check before the vote that every postal voter actually lives at the address they are registered at. With the Scottish vote, the high number of holiday and second homes makes postal vote fraud even more likely. Some 600,000 postal votes were returned; I can’t find a breakdown of Yes/No PVs, but with a No majority of 384,000, it’s entirely possible that PVs won it for No.
One rumour (apparently originating from a single FB post by a woman claiming that she had heard it from her postie!) alleged that all Referendum postal votes were being taken to London to be opened and counted (and, naturally, falsified). Total nonsense of course, but it’s hard to convince some people of that; for them, a single Facebook rumour will trump any amount of facts and common-sense.
Part of the fuel for the vote-rigging rumours was that on election night, it was clear from the party leaders’ behaviour that both sides had some knowledge of what the result was likely to be before any results were in. This was almost certainly because, having had experienced observers at the opening and sorting of the PVs, enough of the marked ballots had been glimpsed to make an educated guess at the percentage of No votes.
In any case, it had been predicted almost from the start that the majority of postal voters would vote No, so there wouldn’t have been much point in trying any large-scale fiddle there.
Agitators of the Fecal Matter
Outsiders – Russians and Americans – are sticking their oars in. There were Russian observers at the Edinburgh count who claimed that the counting hall – an aircraft hanger – was too big for scrutineers to properly oversee everything. They didn’t actually see anything dodgy, they just thought there might be something dodgy going on. Of course, reporting vote-rigging in a Western country would be a way of getting back at Western reports of vote-rigging in the Crimea. Meanwhile, the US conspiraloons and rightwing nutjobs are happily leaping upon it as more evidence for their America-centred worldview and belief that secret elites are controlling the world.
Home-grown hoaxers are also doing their bit. For instance, there’s the chap who received an anonymous phone call directing him to a specific rubbish bin in a layby; he went there and found a carrier bag full of – guess what? – dumped Yes votes. Don’t laugh, there’s a Youtube video to prove it, so it must be true!
There are others (not necessarily hoaxers) who are claiming that they have witnessed serious irregularities:
On Friday evening we were put in touch with a counting officer from Kilmarnock in East Ayrshire. She had been campaigning for Yes Scotland and had contacted us in an agitated state. Over the course of a lengthy telephone conversation she recounted what she had witnessed. She was not allowed to ensure the closure of the ballots boxes over which she had responsibility, they were moved and left unattended, eventually being transported in a van without security to the central counting station and she was not permitted to be present at their arrival to verify that these were indeed her boxes. Other election officers had contacted her to inform her of open bribery of caretakers and other security personnel at polling stations…..
…Every hour the list of witnesses is growing. It has now been arranged for each of these competent witnesses to meet with a legal team outside of Scotland and the United Kingdom to have all of these reports recorded as sworn statements. All of these statements will be posted first to the Butterfly Rebellion page before being sent to the Scottish government and all other relevant friendly authorities. We have made the decision to by-pass the police at the present time.
Er, why are these people not being encouraged to report these facts to Scottish police- oh right, because the police are in on The Conspiracy, as are hundreds of civil servants along with thousands of electoral workers and volunteers from all political parties involved. So naturally, it is imperative that these brave witnesses get taken to a place of safety where they can make sworn statements without The Men In Black coming for them.
(ETA: As of August 2015, there is still no update on this “investigation”. )
But exactly what use will those sworn statements be? A “sworn statement” sounds quite impressive to anybody outside the legal profession but it’s exactly what it says it is – you go to a qualified legal person and make your statement to them, furnish proof that you are who you say you are, and swear that it is indeed your own words; the qualified legal person then swears that you furnished proof of your identity and that you did indeed make that statement. (In some jurisdictions – I’m not sure about Scotland – a sworn statement can be entered into a court case as a witness statement and the person making it is subject to perjury laws.) And that’s all – it proves nothing about the truth or otherwise of the statement; that’s for investigators and courts to decide. I could go to a lawyer and make a sworn statement that I saw Alex Salmond running naked down Buchanan Street waving the severed head of Johann Lamont, and it would still be complete bollocks.
Seeing Is Not Always Believing
At least one report of fraud does seem genuine on first reading. This is from a count volunteer who is happy to identify himself (but I’m not naming him as he’s probably getting enough grief already) and makes very specific accusations:
“I would like to offer the following observation.
I was an enumerator at the referendum vote count on behalf of Renfrewshire Council. The Returning Officer was David Martin, Chief Executive of Renfrewshire Council.
The vote counting was finished at 2.30am. What then happened appeared to be a mystery to me. Mr. Martin and his assistants in suits seemed to be in a flap. This consisted of staring at laptops in front of those who were responsible for collating results and strong words were obviously exchanged. As time marched on Mr. Martin paced around the hall rather nervously.
Then there were more meetings, up a corridor, out of view.
There was one lady with a laptop who, it appeared, was responsible for collating all the votes, but something wasn’t going well. She was taken away by one of Mr. Martin’s assistants, out of view of the public, only to return and disconnect her laptop and leave the hall with it under her arm. Mr. Martin still paced the floor looking uneasy, talking to what looked like aides. As time passed from 2.30am until declaration time (4.52am), there were visible signs that those in charge weren’t happy with something.
During this process there were observers watching everything that the enumerators were doing but not what was being carried out by those recording [numbers] on the laptops.
Well now, this does sound suspicious. What was happening with the laptops? Why was the woman sent away? But, here’s a possible explanation:
I can’t figure out what’s sinister or even significant about that [redacted] story.
If it were simply a question of falsifying results on laptops, that could be done very quietly and in plain sight, without anyone noticing.
The only way (imho) this unexplained activity could be perceived as sinister is if the votes were being counted electronically (as has been trialled in some local elections, with none-too-spectacular results) and the laptoppers were engaged in manipulating the data. But checking Renfrewshire Council’s website, it appears the votes were counted manually.
The laptoppers were probably volunteers managing to produce discordant results or logging things in the wrong columns or whatever other errors one might produce and the woman in particular proved so unfit for purpose/unfamiliar with Excel spreadsheets that she was sent home early. Or perhaps her laptop was playing up. Who knows? Either way, Mr —- seems to have witnessed something the complete opposite of organisation, and that is perfectly usual for an election count!
All I can say is that in my experience, election night counts are very prone to technical mishaps and bureaucratic confusion and people get tired and tempers get frayed, and yes, there are often completely inexplicable delays. (I was once an observer at an election where things got so complicated the count took nearly 24 hours).
I could go on but I think this is enough. I did say that I wouldn’t be looking at the psychology of this, but it does remind me of The Great Disappointment, an earlier example of people investing everything in a life-changing event that didn’t come to pass, and unable to accept the truth. Maybe the next Yes campaign should take heed…..