The U.K. is poised to decide on its future in the European Union in a referendum on Thursday. Polling stations are open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. local time.
Once voting ends, politicians, investors and the public will face an anxious couple of hours before the first results are announced.
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Wherever you are following around the world, here’s what to expect, and when.
Unlike in a general election, broadcasters won’t be releasing an exit poll — because there’s no way the pollsters can be sure they’re targeting an accurate cross-section of voters on the day. But at least one will conduct an on-the-day survey for publication after voting ends.
The ballot boxes will be transported to centers in 382 areas for local counts. First, officials will tally up the number of ballot papers in each box and check it matches records from the relevant polling station. Then they’ll calculate the local turnout for each area, with the first announcements as early as 11 p.m. Only then will teams begin to sort and count the ballot papers. Each result will be announced locally: The official in charge will read it out in the counting center, often in front of television cameras.
It’s the total number of votes that counts; it doesn’t matter how many individual areas each side wins. And the timings below, based on a list compiled by the Press Association newswire, are only a very rough guide; the timetable often slips. If either side disputes the result in a particular area, the ballot papers may need to be recounted, and that can take time.
Chris Hanretty of the University of East Anglia has projected likely outcomes for most of the voting areas based on local levels of Euro-skepticism. John Curtice of Strathclyde University and Stephen Fisher of Oxford University have done their own calculations. “Anywhere with a high U.K. Independence Party vote, a large older population and a large non-graduate population is going to be relatively good for ‘Leave,”’ says Curtice, who’ll be analyzing the results for the BBC on the night.
When might we have a good idea of the result? Possibly about 3:30 a.m., according to Hanretty. Sometime between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., Curtice estimates, depending on how close it is. If it’s really tight, “you might be waiting there horribly close to 8 o’clock in the morning,” he warns.
The first results are due — but they’re unlikely to provide much useful information about the overall outcome. The Isles of Scilly, off England’s southwest coast, and Gibraltar are due to be up first. The smallest count area, the Scillies have only 1,800 of the 46.5-million electorate. In Gibraltar, the British territory on the tip of southern Spain with 24,000 voters, a poll in April found 88 percent planning to vote “Remain.”
The real action starts. Sunderland and its northeast English rival, Newcastle, with a combined electorate approaching 400,000, will race to be the first major center to announce a result. With the national polls running neck-and-neck, we should expect “Leave” to be 6 percentage points ahead in Sunderland, according to Hanretty. But there's a large margin of error: “Leave” is 90 percent likely to be between 1 point behind and 13 points ahead. "If 'Leave' does not have a substantial lead in Sunderland, 'Remain' are more likely to win overall,'' say Curtice and Fisher. The Hanretty model suggests “Remain” should be 12 points ahead in Newcastle. But beware — the cities are just a few miles apart and we’ll be unable to discern any national trend.
Expect the result from the City of London, Britain’s most pro-EU district, according to the Hanretty tally. But it’s also the second-smallest count area — fewer than 6,000 voters — and totally unrepresentative of Britain as a whole. The result from Swindon, in western England, will add to our knowledge. Out of 188 districts ranked by polling company YouGov Plc, it’s the 12th most Euro-skeptic.
The flow of results will start to speed up. “Leave” is projected to have a 20-point lead in Basildon, in Essex, and Hartlepool, in the northeast. Stockport in the northwest tends toward "Remain," while nearby Salford looks like a swing area. Wales has seen a trend toward anti-EU sentiment recently, and the first district expected, the former mining area of Merthyr Tydfil, could go either way. These districts in South Wales are key, according to Roger Scully, professor of politics at Cardiff University. "If 'Leave' aren't winning places like Merthyr, Caerphilly and Newport, they're not going to win,'' he says. We should also get the first indications from generally pro-EU Scotland, with the count completed in the Western Isles.
About 40 results are scheduled to be in by about now. The first London boroughs are due, with big “Remain” leads expected in Wandsworth and Westminster. "If 'Remain' does not have a very big lead in Wandsworth, then 'Leave' are likely to win overall," Curtice and Fisher say. Likely swing areas include Denbighshire and Wrexham, in North Wales, and Hart, in Hampshire.
Castle Point in Essex should produce one of the biggest leads for the “Leave” campaign; Lambeth, in south London, and Oxford may see even bigger advantages for “Remain.”
We’re scheduled to have reached 140 results by now — more than a third of the total. Thanet, where UKIP’s Nigel Farage tried to win a seat in Parliament last year, is among the “Leave” strongholds, while Islington, in north London, is one of the areas tipped for a high “Remain” vote. Chesterfield, in the East Midlands; Durham, in the northeast with nearly 400,000 voters; Wirral, on Merseyside; and Welwyn Hatfield and Epsom & Ewell, in the London commuter belt, look to be possible close results.
Lancaster in northwest England, bang on the median line on Hanretty’s scale of euro-skepticism, is due to announce its result. Pro-EU Edinburgh and Cambridge are also expected to report, along with Boston, in Lincolnshire, an area that has seen one of the most noticeable influxes of eastern European workers. We should have more than half the results by now.
The busiest time — nearly 100 counts are scheduled to be completed at this hour. They include the two single-biggest count areas — largely pro-EU Northern Ireland and Birmingham, with a combined electorate approaching 2 million. Unlike most big cities, Birmingham tends slightly toward Brexit.
Two of the eight biggest count areas are expected to declare: slightly pro-EU Sheffield in Yorkshire and slightly anti-EU Wiltshire in western England.
More big cities announce their results and, with the bulk already in, it may only be such populous areas that can have much influence on the final outcome at this stage. Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool have 1.1 million voters between them. Kirklees in West Yorkshire, where Labour lawmaker Jo Cox was killed last week, also announces how it voted. If we’re running to plan, there are only just over 30 results left after this.
Leeds and Bristol are the last two really big cities left to announce how people have voted, though pro-Brexit rural Cornwall — with the fifth-largest electorate of all — is also due now.
The last three scheduled results, from Arun on the south coast, Waveney on the east coast and Harborough in the East Midlands. They have a total electorate of only about 280,000, so the nationwide score will have to be extremely close for them to make a difference. If that’s the case it’s worth noting that the two coastal areas are seen as being strongly pro-Brexit. Once the final area has declared, the stage will be set for Chief Counting Officer Jenny Watson to formally announce the national result in front of the television cameras in Manchester's neo-Gothic Town Hall.
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