Planes, Boats, Choppers Readied to Bring In Scots Votes

Living on the edge of the North Atlantic, islanders off the west coast of Scotland are used to watching the weather. They’re doing so more keenly this week as the world’s eyes turn to their country’s decision on its future.

Airplanes, helicopters, ferries and vans are standing ready to add their votes to those of the other 4,262,415 people eligible to participate in tomorrow’s independence referendum. Officials aim to have a result available as people wake on Friday morning and are determined the weather shouldn’t intervene.

“The forecast is looking OK and we hope the plane will fly,” said Nigel Scott, spokesman for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the local-government body responsible for counting the votes of 22,908 registered electors on the 130-mile (210-kilometer) long chain of the Western Isles. “We’ve got a contingency plan and a boat on standby to bring the votes over if the plane can’t go -- that could put the result back by two or three hours.”

The logistical battle to bring in the ballot boxes from 5,579 polling stations to 32 counting centers across Scotland once voting ends at 10 p.m. is given added urgency by the desire to ensure a result before breakfast time for a referendum that could split the U.K. in two. Investors will be watching through the night as the counts reveal whether Scotland becomes the world’s newest independent country, breaking with 307 years of history.

‘Theater and Excitement’

It’s also a recognition of the “theater and excitement” of the referendum that’s led to the count being conducted overnight, according to Chief Counting Officer Mary Pitcaithly, though she’s warned this shouldn’t be at the expense of accuracy.

“The Scottish independence referendum will be a major event at a national and international level,” Pitcaithly wrote in a briefing for counting officers in November last year. “While recognizing the drama, democracy is best served by accurate careful processes, not necessarily fast ones.”

In U.K. general elections, the count sometimes takes place the day after the vote in remote areas to overcome the logistical difficulties of collecting votes from islands and rural locations. Scotland has 93 inhabited islands, including the Shetlands and Orkneys, as well as the Hebrides.

Votes from Barra, in the south of the Western Isles, will be taken by boat north to Eriskay, then by road across the causeway that runs up the chain to the airport on Benbecula, from where they’ll be flown to the count at Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, Scott said.

St. Kilda

There is no polling station on St. Kilda, Scotland’s most westerly group of islands, and the military staff stationed there will have arranged to vote by post or proxy, he said. Amid the complicated logistics, the Western Isles result is expected to be among the earliest to be declared, at about 2 a.m., according to projections by the Press Association, the U.K.’s national newswire.

Argyll and Bute Council, which includes 23 inhabited islands and, according to Pitcaithly, doesn’t normally count overnight “due to difficulties in retrieving ballot boxes from some islands in the dark,” is confident it won’t hold up the national result. The council area includes the islands of Tiree and Coll in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast.

“We’ve got a very experienced team working on this and the arrangements we’re using are the same as for other elections,” a spokeswoman, Aileen McNicol, said in a telephone interview. “We’ll use helicopters to bring ballot boxes to be transported by road.”

Light Winds

With light cloud and light winds being forecast for western Scotland on Thursday night, the Argyll result is scheduled for about 3:30 a.m.

Weather and geography are not the only factors that could delay the result. An Opinium Research LLP poll of 1,156 voters for today’s Daily Telegraph newspaper found 91 percent of respondents saying they’re certain to vote. That might slow the process, given that turnout in Scotland in the 2010 general election was under 64 percent.

Central Count

Once the votes are counted at the 32 local centers, they will be sent electronically to Pitcaithly at the central count in Ingliston, near Edinburgh. After confirming them by telephone, she’ll authorize their announcement locally in front of the television cameras.

Only when all the results are in will Pitcaithly announce the national result. And that will hinge on Scotland’s three most populous cities, which will be among the last to declare how they’ve voted. Counting in Glasgow and Edinburgh is due to be completed at 5 a.m., with the result from the oil city of Aberdeen projected to come in one hour later.

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