The Outsourcing of Scotland’s Sovereignty

After having witnessed the Glasgow count on the night of September 18th, certain things didn’t feel right in retrospect. The Emirates Arena was huge, and the count could have been effectively completed in a much smaller area. Monitors like myself were able to watch the volunteer counters count he ballots, yet observing where the ballots were coming from and what happened to them after they were counted was off limits.

A question I began asking myself was who employed the election officials, and what one entity was overseeing the entire operation. As to the latter, my internet search led me to The Electoral Management Board for Scotland, led by OBE Mary Pithcaithly. Seeking to establish who they hired to conduct the logistics of the referendum in the 32 constituencies, I came across this page, which includes a document ‘Checklist for Managing Contractors and Suppliers’.

What I read was frankly frightening, as it essentially establishes unaccountable corporate control over the Scottish referendum vote. While you can download it and read it for yourself, I found these excerpts particularly ominous for democracy in Scotland.

– Which [contractor] offers the best value for money? (..)
– Obtain a statement from the supplier confirming whether they will be using sub-contractors and, if so, seek assurances that the sub-contractor will be
capable of delivering the work and that appropriate quality assurance processes are in place.
– Even though Counting Officers are not subject to FOI, in the interests of transparency, consideration should be given to agreeing to some disclosure in the event of an FOI request. (…)

Data protection and secure storage
– Neither you nor the supplier can divulge any confidential information relating to the terms of the contract.
– The supplier and any sub-contractors must ensure the secure destruction of all electoral registration data and related materials at an agreed point
– The supplier must ensure the safe/secure storage of all live ballot papers.
Requirements for secrecy
– You must provide suppliers with a copy of the requirements for secrecy

So, in essence, the services of determining the collective will of the Scottish people were privatized and outsourced to the lowest bidder. How much of it? We can’t know because all of the contracts and their terms are secret. Under the terms of the Scottish Independence Referendum Act (SIRA), the ballots and documents must be kept for one year, or is it all must be destroyed within one year? The legislation is contradictory. In any case, the contracts apparently stipulate that the data must be destroyed at a given point.

So we don’t even know what private company or companies are in possession of the ballots, and when they are to be destroyed. Confidence inspiring, non?

The second aspect concerns the use of so-called blank ballots, that is those without the self-identifying number on the back. The proper ballots were to appear as such.

However, the Daily Record unwittingly included a photo of a blank ballot at an Edinburgh polling station. Look carefully at the back of the first ballot rolled over, where the barcode should be.

This puts to bed the idea that the thousands of voters who claimed to have received a blank ballot are delusional, as the Deputy Counting Officer for the city of Edinburgh maintained.

What is also revealing are the powerpoint instructions given to the polling station inspectors and poll staff workers available here and how they deal with blank ballots. One Orwellian ‘key aim’ is that “The referendum will produce results which are accepted as accurate”, and another to “provide excellent customer care”. “The collective will of the Scottish Citizenry” was not on their radar.

There is nothing in the powerpoint presentation for dealing with votes without a identification number, so the poll staff may not have been aware that they existed. Voters were certainly not informed beforehand what the ballots were to include. At the close of the polls “agents can put their own seals on the ballot box”.

Finally, the instructions on ‘After the Declaration of the Result’ demonstrate how the result of the referendum was wired to be unverifiable.

2. Documents not open to inspection
2.1 The undernoted documents are not open for inspection other than by order of the Court of Session or a sheriff principal

a) the packets of the ballot papers in the proper officer’s possession
b) the packets of the completed corresponding number lists
c) the packets of the certificates of employment.

So, only under a judge’s order can a single ballot be inspected, but it is legally impossible to inspect the totality of the ballots even in one constituency, let alone the totality of the ballots in Scotland to determine systematic irregularities. We don’t know where they are, what private company is in possession, or whether they have already been destroyed as stipulated under contract.

These are just a few examples of the potential scope for systemic fraud within the Scottish referendum vote. While I am not easily given to conspiracy theories, these lax rules, in addition to the secret use of private contractors, leave plenty of possible avenues for mass electoral fraud, and little scope for redress, by design. Collectively, these factors facilitate the legal subversion of the will of the Scottish people. You can explore the Elections Scotland website and read the SIRA legislation and reach your own conclusions.

Whether a sufficient legal challenge to the result can be mounted to at least delay certification and / or overturn the result if mass fraud is found within the next few weeks has yet to be seen. Ironically, it may have taken independence to have the necessary powers assure a free and fair referendum. As it is, Scotland is still at the mercy of the Westminster government to decide what is democratic and what is not.

In any case, the way this referendum was designed and conducted can give us no confidence that it truly reflects the will of the Scottish people to remain in the UK. The only way now is to hold a revote, with a process designed and monitored by the OSCE and transparently implemented by strictly monitored volunteers. If not, Scots will rightly suspect that their will was subverted by a deliberately privatized and potentially fraudulent referendum process.

Join the Conversation


  1. Hi Mark,
    I think you will be interested in reading the 2nd article by ‘Lawyers for Yes’ by Jonathan Mitchell. It covers a lot of the technical / legal aspects of the vote process.

    The most striking thing about this legal perspective is that it appears that the Rule in relation to the ballot papers requiring a Unique ID number (UIN) only applies in the polling station i.e. the onus is placed on the voter to alert the polling station staff if there is a problem with the ballot paper. BUT If/when a blank ballot paper is placed into a ballot box then it WILL be counted…and the counting people will not even look for ‘blanks’ (and if they do come across them then, according to the interpretation of the Rules by the E.C etc., that is NO reason to reject a ballot). That seems to be the legal position to date…but have a read of J.M’s article and make sure that I have got that right.

    I agree that most people did not know that they should look for a Unique ID number on the back, but do you know that this was one of the things listed on the ‘polling card’ that voters must do? It seems very few people read it or took that in.

    In relation to some of your points above… re. the Daily record ballot paper – it is worth taking into account that the blank back in this image may be the back of the first page / the cover. That cannot be ruled out so that image is not strong proof.

    Based on the link you provided, it does say that the documents have to be kept for one year, before being destroyed. But yes, it seems almost impossible to raise a Judicial Review so access these. (See J.Mitchell article for more info about that too)

    To be honest, although the language here sounds quite authoritarian it is pretty standard for contracts i.e. you interpret ‘best value for money’ as ‘lowest bidder’ whereas ‘best value’ is based on several factors including reputation, ability to deliver, management structure, as well as cost. So it is not the lowest bidder who gets the job, necessarily.

    In terms of security conditions required by contractors, I would be more concerned if they did not ask for, and request, some of the security stipulations above i.e. it is more likely to be tampered with if everyone knows exactly who is dealing with the logistics, and surely the fewer the better that know about who is storing the documents the better.

    I have been following this quite closely and I am very suspicious of the whole process to be honest. It seems to have been very lax at the polling station stage and re. the ballot boxes, seals etc. So I am not discounting anything you say, in general terms, but for the sake of accuracy I felt it was worth highlighting some of the things that I have come across. and I hope you take these in that spirit.

    best wishes,

    1. Dear Stephen,

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      I did see the post from Lawyers for Yes, that there is little scope within the law for judicial review. That’s what bothers me. A referendum should not be an accusatory process where one has to prove fraud. It should be open and transparent so no one suspects it.

      I’m not a lawyer, though I have taught US constitutional law, so I’m not familiar with the subtleties of UK contract law. However, the secrecy of the contracts, ballots, and the process is deeply disturbing, because it leaves open so much open to fraud. Why did the UK not invite the OECD to monitor the referendum? Why could they not find upstanding citizen volunteers to man the booths rather than hiring private contractors?

      Reading SIRA, it seemed wired to prevent judicial review and a transparent process. I know that’s the law, but that doesn’t mean people can have full confidence in the result. If the UK government doesn’t want years more of pressure for independence because Scots feel they were robbed of independence, Elections Scotland and local councils should permit international inspection of all ballots and contracts so people Scots can continue to accept their subservient position within the UK.

      Maybe I’m just being idealistic, but I thought the UK was a transparent democracy. Being confident in the results of a referendum should not be an accusatory process.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.