At a referendum, how the Ballot Paper is worded, and how the Question and Answer are worded, is undoubtedly worth several percentage points. It is no small matter. Getting this right for us is absolutely crucial.
Here are 3 points regarding the wording of the Ballot Paper on 18 September 2014 (above) that you may not have considered until now.
Ballot Paper First Point – The United Kingdom was entirely Ignored
The words on the Ballot Paper, and the Question, ignored entirely the central Nation State at issue – the United Kingdom. It was as if the UK wasn't really involved. There was no mention of it.
The Question in 2014 was "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
There was no mention of the pre-eminent, fundamental Nation-State which was to be broken up. There was no recognition of the United Kingdom. It was pushed out the picture! It was all about Scotland. Should "Scotland" be "independent" or not?
The little matter of the existence of the United Kingdom itself – the very Nation-State which Scotland would be "independent from" – was deemed of no apparent significance to even rate a mention of its name on the Ballot Paper!
Contrast this with the Ballot Paper and Question at the EU Referendum on 23 June 2016 which mentioned the United Kingdom twice, and the EU State which was at issue, five times!
The heading on the EU Referendum ballot paper read, "Referendum on the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union".
The question read "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"
The answers given were, "Remain a member of the European Union" and "Leave the European Union".
It was all about the European Union!
However, the referendum on whether Scotland should leave or remain in the United Kingdom appeared to have nothing to do with the United Kingdom on the ballot paper, or in the question!
That cannot be allowed again! And please don't think that is of no significance.
People went into the Voting Booth in 2014 and they were presented with a piece of paper which made no mention of the United Kingdom, the very thing we are trying to keep together and stop being broken apart. That was undoubtedly worth percentage points to the separatists!
So, point 1: The United Kingdom must be prominently mentioned.
In future, we must ensure that the main Nation – the United Kingdom – is featured on the Ballot Paper and in the question.
Ballot Paper Second Point – Un-Alphabetic Order Answer
On the ballot paper, the "No" answer appeared under the "Yes" answer. Even though "N" comes before "Y" in the alphabet.
So, on reading the ballot paper, it went…"Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes."
"No" deferred to "Yes" and was textually submitted to it. "No" was the second choice for people who bothered to read that far! How did that come about?
We wrote to the Electoral Commission on the 2 September 2014, in our position as an official "Permitted Participant". We asked:
"Do you know why Yes is printed above No on the ballot paper, when N comes before Y in the alphabet? Is there an official Electoral Commission reason for that layout? As a No campaigner, it strikes me that the layout of the two words might have a subliminal effect on some people."
We received the following response from it on 9 September 2014.
"The ballot paper was agreed by the Scottish Parliament and is in the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013. We raised the issue when we assessed the referendum question and there was a view that in plain English 'Yes' would naturally come before 'No'. To do it the other way would risk confusing the voter. Hope that answers your question."
"The ballot paper was agreed by the Scottish Parliament"…indeed! "Confusing"…otherwise? Make of that what you will?
So point 2. If we are using the format of "Yes" and "No" again then our answer "No" should come above their answer "Yes" – because that is actually how the alphabet works!
Ballot Paper Third Point – "Double Negative"
This is something that we were able to witness in our capacity as a Permitted Participant who was allowed to be at the official Count and to go through, with the Returning Officer, the questionable ballot papers – the ones which people had filled-in strangely.
We found that rather than putting an "X" or a tick, some people were writing "Yes" in the Yes box or "No" in the No box.
Here's the thing: If you wrote "Yes" in the Yes box, the vote was officially counted as a Yes vote because it was considered to be a positive statement. However, if you wrote "No" in the No box it was considered to be a "Double Negative" and the vote was disallowed!
Now, in Glasgow, there were scores of people doing this! All the ones who wrote "Yes" in the Yes box were counted as valid votes, and all the ones who wrote "No" in the No box were disallowed.
Naturally, we objected at every single one of those "Double Negative" decisions, but our objections were over-ruled. The Returning Officer pointed out that they were working from an official guidelines manual which stated that this was the proper decision in such instances.
So there were scores of these disallowed No votes in Glasgow alone. We can only imagine that throughout Scotland, it must have run into a few hundred, which at the end of the day can be decisive. We certainly lost votes that way.
So point 3, a written "No" in the No box (if we are going to use this structure) should be allowed in future!
Sort out the Question (and the Answer)
The question in 2014 was "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
Ideally it should have been arranged so that we had the "Yes" answer; that our side had the affirmative "Yes" slogan. For example, "Should Scotland stay part of the United Kingdom?"
We didn't have the positive answer on our side, but we still won! If we had the affirmative answer, we would have won even more.
Can that be changed for next time? Unfortunately, by now, the word "Yes" has become so corrupted by the ScotNats that it may be too confusing if the question were to be changed so we had the "Yes" word in future.
At the very least, though, we can argue for a neutral question to be posed.
For example, the Northern Ireland referendum in 1973 avoided "Yes" and "No" by making it a matter of neutral tick boxes. The electorate was asked to indicate:
- Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom?
- Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?
Using that structure we could say:
- Do you want Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom? -
- Do you want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom? -
Or using the EU Referendum structure from 2016 we could say:
Should Scotland stay in the United Kingdom or leave the United Kingdom?
- Stay in the United Kingdom -
- Leave the United Kingdom -
These are all things which we can be thinking and talking about, and promoting...right now, rather than puzzling over them at the last minute! We can't leave it to a bunch of clueless civil servants to wonder about, and get wrong!
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