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The biggest poll debacle in the history of British democracy sees up to one in ten votes thrown out

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SCOTLAND'S status as a modern democracy was dealt a grievous blow yesterday by a scandal in which up to one in ten votes in the Holyrood election were thrown in the bin uncounted.

In a development that could bring into question the legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament poll, as many as 100,000 ballot papers were spoiled. That averages out as one in 20 votes but in some seats a tenth of the papers were spoiled.

In about one in six constituencies, the number of spoiled votes was bigger than the successful candidate's winning margin. They included Airdrie and Shotts, Livingston, Linlithgow, Stirling, Ochil, Govan, Central Fife, Dunfermline West and Cunninghame North.

At the root of the debacle were new, convoluted and potentially misleading election rules that lawyers say could expose the election results to an unprecedented legal challenge.

Politicians of all parties queued up to promise inquiries and to trade blame for the failures that resulted in the proportion of spoiled ballots rising from 0.8 per cent in the last Holyrood election in 2003 to about 5 per cent this time.

Yet the same politicians endorsed the new single-paper ballot and the decision to hold parliamentary and council elections on the same day - although the two use different electoral systems and voting procedures.

Last year, all the main parties gave formal approval to the Scotland Office's decision to put both constituency and the regional list candidates for Holyrood on a single ballot paper, a decision independent experts say misled many voters into unwittingly spoiling their ballots.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said the level of spoiled papers was "unprecedented" in UK election history. He went on: "Huge numbers of people have cast two votes in one column and none in the other, rendering both votes void. The ballot paper says 'you have two votes' and it appears this is where the confusion may have been caused."

Politicians of all parties had also backed the decision to hold the two elections on the same day, something that added to the confusion for some voters. "With hindsight, I think it was a mistake to try to hold both elections on the same day," Ken Ritchie, of the Electoral Reform Society, said. "I think there were problems, problems we did not really anticipate. People should have anticipated them."

In an online poll on the BBC website, which had attracted more than 1,200 votes last night, 64 per cent of Scots thought the election results should be recounted. YouScotland.com, an online citizens' rights movement, described the vote-scrapping scandal as "a democratic disgrace" and called for international monitors to investigate.

"We demand accountability, not a meaningless collective expression of regret, or an inquiry headed up by one of the main perpetrators," it said. "We want a genuinely independent inquiry."

As Scotland waited for a result in the election, the two main parties traded jibes over the spoiled ballots.

Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, demanded a full public inquiry led by a judge into the decisions that led to the chaos, especially those made by Labour ministers in London and Edinburgh. "The inquiry will have the fullest powers when recovering evidence and the most searching remit," he said.

Labour had earlier promised that the Electoral Commission, as part of its routine review of electoral procedures, would specifically examine the ballot-paper issue.

Douglas Alexander, Labour's Scottish Secretary, rejected Mr Salmond's call for an additional review, potentially setting up the first constitutional wrangle with the SNP.

"I am not convinced this is necessary and believe the Electoral Commission, the independent election watchdog, should be allowed to carry on its inquiry without interference," he said.

Mr Alexander's office has legal responsibility for the Holyrood polling and took one of the fateful decisions about Thursday's election. Last November, Mr Alexander announced the two Holyrood voting boxes would be on a single ballot paper. He said that would make it easier for voters to understand the process and participate in it.

But before he confirmed the decision, he launched a consultation, asking politicians and councils for their opinion. With a few exceptions, including the Scottish Senior Citizens' Unity Party, the responses were positive.

Allies insisted the consultation meant Mr Alexander was not to blame for the debacle and pointed to the other crucial decision before the poll - combining parliamentary and local elections. That decision was made by Scottish ministers, despite the independent Arbuthnott Report advising the two polls should be held on separate days.

Also contributing to voter puzzlement over the poll was another bipartisan decision to allow parties to choose how their names would appear on ballot papers.

The SNP made considerable use of that freedom, listing themselves as "Alex Salmond for First Minister" in order to appear at or near the top of the regional list part of the ballot paper.

As the row simmered on, lawyers and constitutional experts warned that the widespread confusion over the vote could allow the courts to intervene. Although all the results declared were affirmed by the political parties' scrutineers at each count, there is scope in law to mount a legal challenge.

To take issue with the entire organisation and presentation of the ballot paper would require a new form of challenge, based on the European Convention on Human Rights.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh, a barrister and law lecturer at Edinburgh University, said it was possible politicians could use that as the basis for a challenge. "The question in law is, can that right to a free and fair election be exercised?" he said. "You could argue that, if you have 150,000 people unable to vote, clearly that right wasn't practically exercised."

Tommy Sheridan, of Solidarity, who lost his Glasgow seat by a handful of votes, said he would not mount a legal challenge because he could not afford it, but encouraged others to do so.

Both Labour and the SNP had an interest in a high turnout: each calculated it was the best way to win. But there was little evidence the gambit had paid off - the turnout was about 50 per cent, similar to the 2003 figure.

Q&A:

How many votes were lost due to spoiled papers?

It is thought that around 100,000 ballots were spoiled. In at least nine constituencies, the number of spoiled papers was greater than the winning margin.

How does this compare with previous elections?

It is unprecedented. In the 2003 Holyrood election there were 15,785 spoiled papers in the constituency vote - 0.81 per cent of votes cast.

Why were so many papers spoiled?

Voters had to put two crosses on their Holyrood voting papers - one for their constituency and one for the regional list - but it appears many wrongly put two crosses in one section. Simultaneously staging the council elections, in which voters had to rank candidates, also caused confusion.

Who is responsible for the design of the parliamentary ballot papers?

The Scottish Secretary, Douglas Alexander, sanctioned the single ballot paper after a consultation. He claimed it would "make things easier for voters".

Why were the council and Holyrood elections held on the same day?

The Scottish Executive believed it would increase turnout.

Hitches in the electronic counting system delayed several declarations. Why was it brought in and how much did it cost?

With a complex council voting system being used for the first time, ministers decided a computerised system would be quicker. DRS landed an 8.9 million contract to "e-count" elections in Scotland.

What is DRS?

Based in Milton Keynes, DRS was set up nearly 50 years ago and has run electronic vote-counting systems in London, Norway and Mali. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock is a non-executive director. The company says he was not involved in the awarding of the contract.

Should the Holyrood and council elections have been held on the same day?

They normally are, but this is the first time a proportional representation system, called the single transferable vote, has been used for the council elections. The Tories said holding the elections the same day would confuse voters.

What was done to explain the new voting system to the public?

A 2.1 million Vote Scotland campaign was set up by the Scottish Executive and Scotland Office.

Voters have their say on the botched ballot

Sheena Gilmour, from Dunfermline, said: "The voting procedure has led to so much confusion and upset. The money spent on this fiasco is disgusting and I am now gutted that my vote will not be heard."

Peter Hayes, from Ayr, said: "When the number of spoilt papers exceeds candidates' majorities something is seriously wrong with the way the system has been devised."

Craig Ferrier, Dundee: "The whole process was a shambles. The system is now totally discredited and the company providing the technology should be sued to reclaim the taxpayers' money."

David Davies, Shetland: "Too many changes were put into place at one time. Running the council election at the same time as the Holyrood ones, with different rules, was asking for trouble."

Jennie, Inverness: "I have a degree in politics, yet it took me half an hour studying the leaflets to understand the STV system for local council elections. I have never seen anything more cumbersome in my life."

 
 
 

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