Scotland’s Independence Vote: What to Look For, and When

by Henry Olsen

Scotland will vote today on whether to declare independence from the United Kingdom. Polls show that the race is very close, with a slight edge for the “no”s. Since many Americans will be eagerly following this race, I thought I’d post a few details about when the results will be announced and how different regions of Scotland are likely to vote.  

Scotland’s polls will close at 10 p.m. British Summer Time, which corresponds to 5 p.m. Eastern Time. All Scots 16 and older are eligible to vote, and well over 95 percent of those eligible have registered. Virtually all of these people are expected to cast a ballot in what will be the highest-turnout election in Scottish history.

Once the polls are closed, the ballots will be shipped to a central office for each of Scotland’s 32 local government agencies. Since Scots will cast paper ballots, they will be counted by hand. This means the first results won’t be available until many hours after the polls close.

Results will be announced only when all counting in a locality is complete; no precincts to straggle in throughout the night. We should, therefore, expect that results from Scotland’s three largest cities — Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, will not be reported until late on the American East Coast. 

Polls throughout the race have shown a very strong correlation between “yes” votes and support in the last Scottish election for the pro-independence Scottish National Party. Nearly 90 percent of 2011 SNP voters say they will vote yes. This means that we can get a very rough idea of how each of the local-government results is likely to go based on how strong support was for the SNP in the last election. This basic “yes” indicator is modified by two other correlations consistently shown in the polls. First, supporters of the Conservative party will almost unanimously vote “no.” Second, about a quarter of Labor or Liberal Democrat supporters say they will vote “yes.” 

The leftist newspaper the Guardian has given estimates of when each local government is expected to announce its returns. Cross-indexing this with the political data described above can therefore give us a rough idea as the results are announced of whether advocates of independence are likely to succeed.  

The SNP/Pro-Independence Heartland
Support for Scottish independence is strongest in the regions north of the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis, except in the Orkney and Shetland islands. That means returns from Eilean Siar, Aberdeenshire, Perth & Kinross, Moray, Angus, Highlands, Fife, Dundee, Falkirk, Stirling, Clackmannshire, and Argyll and Bute will provide heavy “yes” margins ranging between 10 and 35 points in favor of independence. Since many of these authorities are scheduled to report early, that means “yes” should be leading in the first couple of hours after the results start coming in.

These areas have 33.6 percent of Scotland’s population according to the most recent census.

The Pro-Unionist Bastions
As one might expect, areas bordering England are heavily against independence. The three largest cities are also likely to oppose independence, although by significantly smaller margins. Two Glaswegian suburbs with heavy Tory (East Renfrewshire) or Labor (West Dunbartonshire) sympathies will also strongly oppose independence.

Thus, expect “no” votes from Orkney, Shetland, Scottish Borders, Dumfriess & Galloway, East Lothian, South Ayrshire, East Renfrewshire, West Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh City, Glasgow City, and Aberdeen City.  The “no” percentage margins will be much larger in the first localities on this list and much smaller in the larger cities. However, because of their significantly larger size, the cities will contribute many more net votes for union than their smaller, rural brothers.

These regions have 37.2 percent of the population.

The Swingy Suburbs
The election is likely to be decided in the Glasgow and Edinburgh suburbs. These areas as a whole tend to be balanced between supporters of the SNP and those of Labour, which suggests very narrow and close margins in Midlothian, West Lothian, North Lanarkshire, Inverclyde, East Dunbartonshire, South Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, East Ayrshire, and North Ayrshire. If the polls are right and voting follows partisan inclination, the side that carries these populous and swing areas will win the vote.

These regions have 29.1 percent of the population.

Population = Poll Results?
Here’s an indirect confirmation of the polls. Since virtually every Scottish adult is expected to cast a vote, the share of each area’s population should be a good proxy for its share of the vote. If you split the swing suburbs 50-50 and assign half of the population share to each side, you get 48.1 percent “yes,” 51.9 percent “no.” That’s about where the polls’ average is right now — 48 yes, 52 no. If the polls are correct, then, either the heartland must vote yes by much higher margins than the bastions vote no or the independence side must carry the suburbs with over 55 percent of the vote for “yes” to prevail.

But the Polls Could Be Wrong
Since turnout is expected to be much higher than for other elections, many habitual non-voters will cast ballots today. Polls suggest these folks will split for independence by a few points. That will likely not change which group each locality has been assigned to unless non-voters in each region significantly depart from the habitual voters’ breakdown (e.g., first-time voters in a heavy “yes” area are heavily “no”, etc.).

Féachana sona!

The Corner

The one and only.