THE SNP Government has called on the country’s elections watchdog to judge if its proposed independence referendum question is fair.
• Scottish Parliament to have final say on referendum question
• Election Commision to file report on whether or not question is loaded in favour of Yes vote
The Nationalist administration has faced criticism over the question it plans to ask Scots in the historic 2014 vote on the country’s future.
The Electoral Commission is now being asked to test the question ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ But ministers insist that Parliament will have the “final say” on the question.
Pro-union parties had voiced concerns that the question is weighted in favour of a “yes” vote. They argue that starting the question “Do You Agree” gives the impression that the subsequent proposition is the favoured option.
But Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has today written to the Commission asking them to carry out the formal testing.
She said: “The independence referendum will meet the highest international standards. The Electoral Commission has considerable expertise in regulating referendums and elections.”
The Commission, the country’s independent elections watchdog, will now carry out testing. It will then advise on the results in a report to be published before the Referendum Bill is considered by the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government says this is the same arrangements for other referendums in the UK under the Westminster Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Ms Sturgeon added: “The recently published analysis of the 26,000 responses to the Government’s consultation on the referendum revealed that 64 per cent of respondents broadly agreed with this wording.
“The question will be tested to check that it is easy to understand, to the point and unambiguous. The Electoral Commission are experts in question testing and will use focus groups and gather views from experts in accessibility and plain language and others who have an interest in the referendum and its outcome before reporting on the proposed question.
“Once they have reported back it will then be for the Scottish Parliament to decide the final wording of the question on the ballot paper.”
Pro-union parties seized on the concerns over the question to set up a commission chaired by Lord Stewart Sutherland and comprising elections experts Dr Matt Qvortrup and Ron Gould to come up with a suitable question.
The group came up with an alternative proposition for the ballot paper three months ago which was: “Scotland should become an independent state: I agree/I do not agree.
The assessment process takes up to 12 weeks and the Commission will publish its findings including any recommendations for changes. The testing will assess whether the question is easy to understand and to the point, that voters find it unambiguous and that it avoids encouraging voters to consider one response more favourably than another or misleading voters
John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland said: “We will assess the referendum question to see whether voters find it clear, simple and neutral. If it isn’t, we’ll say what needs to be done.
“As part of our assessment process, we will talk to voters across Scotland to see whether they can easily understand and answer the question on the ballot paper.
“We’ll also ask for advice from accessibility and plain language specialists; and we’ll ask prospective campaigners, politicians, academics and other interested people for their views on the question. Throughout the process, our focus will always be what’s in the voters’ interests.”