UK Politics

Scottish independence: What if result is a dead heat?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There are precedents for an election to be decided by the toss of a coin

When I was invited onto CBBC's Newsround to answer young viewers' questions about the Scottish independence referendum, one question left me totally stumped.

"What happens if the result is 50/50?" I was asked by the Palm Class of children at the May Park Primary school in Bristol. After all, opinion polls are suggesting the result will be very close.

To win the referendum, one side needs to secure 50% of the vote, plus one extra vote. That one extra vote is the winning line.

But if an even number of people vote, or an even number of votes are deemed to be valid and not spoiled, an exact dead heat is statistically possible.

Granted, the likelihood of it is vanishingly small, but not impossible. Let's take a look at some of the numbers.

Number crunching

The Electoral Commission, the organisation that oversees elections, has told us there are 4,285,323 people registered to vote in the referendum.

If there is an 80% turnout, 3.43 million people will vote. If, in percentage terms, 51% of people vote one way and 49% the other, the winning majority would be 68,566 votes - or, give or take a few hundred, the capacity of Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby.

Image caption There will be no recount of the overall result, however close the outcome

So, let's take this hypothetical one stage further, continue to assume there is an 80% turnout and assume there are no spoilt ballot papers.

So 3,428,258 people would vote. Imagine half vote one way, and half the other - 1,714,129 voting Yes, and 1,714,129 voting No.

So which side is the winner? There is a precedent for this kind of situation.

Take the election victory of Conservative councillor Christopher Underwood-Frost over his Liberal Democrat rival John Birkenshaw on West Lindsey District Council in Lincolnshire in 2007.

'Heads or tails'

The two men were tied on 781 votes each. So they tossed a coin. But shouting 'heads' or 'tails' to decide the future of the United Kingdom might raise the odd eyebrow around the world.

So what does the legislation have to say? Here it is, in the form of the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013 .

It is about 60,000 words long, but, as the Electoral Commission acknowledges, it makes no reference to a dead heat.

So could they do a recount? The short answer is no.

The Chief Counting Officer Mary Pitcaithly has made it clear that all votes are counted locally, that concerns about the count must be resolved locally, but "the closeness of the vote will not in itself be a sufficient reason" for a recount at any of the 32 count centres around Scotland.

She adds: "There is only one result - the aggregate of all 32 local totals."

'Respect the result'

And any recounts done locally, unless it was the last count centre to declare, would be done without the knowledge of how people had voted elsewhere - and so without knowing how close, or not, it might be on the national stage.

So are we back to tossing a coin? There is one more document worth a peek at. It is called the Edinburgh Agreement.

It was signed by Prime Minister David Cameron and the First Minister Alex Salmond in October 2012 and set out the deal for the referendum.

The Agreement sets out that both sides are agreed that the referendum should deliver "a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result everyone will respect".

Or, to put it another way, fingers crossed it's not a dead heat.

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