THE results of the Holyrood election may not be known until the weekend after polling day, as the traditional overnight count is being abandoned because of Covid.

Election managers have been ordered not to count ballots until 9am the following morning at the earliest, meaning the full results may not be known for days.

Counting normally begins as soon as possible after polls close at 10pm, with a race between the most compact constitutencies to declare within hours.

Every vote has to be counted before the 56 seats regional lists decided by proportional representation can be allocated.

Other changes this year include the limiting of electors to each polling station.

The cap of 800 voters per station means more places will have to be used, with more work involved in distributing and collecting ballot boxes.

Holyrood recently passed a lot allowing voting on more than one day because of Covid.

The latest changes are included in an instruction issued earlier this month to council chief executives by the Electoral Management Board for Scotland.

EMB convener Malcolm Burr said counting the results of the May 6 election was expected to take “significantly longer than in previous Scottish Parliament elections”.

It would follow the “next day count procedure” used for local elections, as it would be unfair for staff to be asked to count overnight “where there is no prospect” of finishing by morning.

Mr Burr, who is also chief executive of Western Isles Council, said  returning Officers must ensure first ballot boxes are opened “no earlier than 9am and no later than 10am” on May 7.

“For the avoidance of doubt, there is to be no overnight counting of votes,” he said.

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He went on: “It is reasonably anticipated that the counting process will take significantly longer than in previous Scottish Parliament elections.

“It is not reasonable, particularly considering working conditions for election staff, candidates and agents, to begin an overnight count where there is no realistic prospect of it being concluded by early morning.

“Count venues will be subject to enhanced hygiene and capacity limits; these are most appropriately managed during daytime hours.

“This approach will significantly reduce the mingling of count and polling staff. General resilience in terms of staffing and support for systems is best delivered during the daytime.”

He said returning officers must allocate “a maximum of 800 electors, excluding postal voters, to each polling station” and plan the layout to avoid “unacceptable” times in queues.

He said: “Physical distancing and the consequent need to limit the number of people in a polling place at any one time due to Covid prevention measures mean there is a risk of queues developing outside the place. 

“Limiting the number of in-person voters allocated per station should minimise this risk.

“Particular attention should be given to polling places with three or more stations and to those that are especially compact, to ensure that the layout of the building allows space for the movement of voters through the premises.”


He said that if any returning officer wanted to allocate more than 800 voters to a polling place, they would need to justify the proposal to the EMB convener.

Nicola Sturgeon warned at yesterday’s daily briefing that the election would not be “normal”.  

The First Minister said: “My view on this, and it has been my view all along, is that if it is at all possible, the election should go ahead.

“Because we live in a democracy and it is right that people – perhaps even more so in a crisis – get the chance to cast their verdict on the government that is running the country.

“We’re not all going to be campaigning in the way we normally do, chapping on people’s doors. Maybe in the later stages more of that will be possible, but right now that is not possible.

“There will be arrangements that have to be made for the safe conduct of voting and counting.”

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Contacted by the PA news agency, nearly half of Scotland’s local authorities confirmed plans to start counts on Friday morning, including Argyll and Bute, East Lothian, Highland, Falkirk, Midlothian, Moray, North Ayrshire, Orkney, Renfrewshire, Scottish Borders, South Ayrshire, West Lothian and the Western Isles.

A spokesman for the West Lothian returning officer said the counting process may now “continue into the following day or days”.