Insight: Indyref truthers and the great conspiracy

SO THIS is what happened: on 18 September, at polling stations across the country, hundreds of Yes campaigners were given ballot papers with no identification number on the back and their votes were rendered invalid.

Images of alleged vote rigging in the Scottish Independence referendum 2014 - 
Yes papers on the No table at the Dundee count. Picture: Contributed
Images of alleged vote rigging in the Scottish Independence referendum 2014 - Yes papers on the No table at the Dundee count. Picture: Contributed

Either they were rejected at the counts or they were taken out of circulation and replaced by No votes before they got there. Or maybe that wasn’t it, at all: maybe some of the counters simply moved Yes votes to the No pile or filled in extra ballot papers by themselves. Or, think on this: what if the blank-backed ballot papers furore was cooked up to deflect attention away from the real scandal: the swapping of genuine ballot boxes for pre-loaded ones in the back of vans?

Indyref truthers

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And so it goes on. On Facebook and Twitter, so-called indyref truthers continue to propound wild conspiracy theories. Police Scotland and the Electoral Commission have been inundated with vociferous, but vague complaints based on unsubstantiated YouTube clips and the American author Naomi Wolf – whose locus in all this is unclear – ­appears to be collating tweets from the “no ID number” brigade. By Friday, more than 90,000 people had signed a petition calling for a rerun, a series of rallies had been organised for this weekend and lawyers had supposedly been consulted over the possibility of applying for a judicial review (the only mechanism by which the result could now be challenged). “We are coming together to remind Scotland and the world we have the right to a fair vote and that we deserve to be heard,” said Kirstie Keating, who started the petition.

Postal counts. Picture: Michael Gillen
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It doesn’t matter that for many of the truthers’ theories to work, staff at the polling stations would have had to have pre-existing knowledge of the way ­people were going to vote. Or that in order to change the result, 400,000 ballot papers would have to have been interfered with. Or that any conspiracy on such a scale would have had to involve hundreds of people, all of whom could be relied upon not to blab. All that matters for a not-insubstantial minority (perhaps as many as 5 per cent) of Yes voters is that they know independence was stolen from them, not merely in the metaphorical sense that the power of the state and media was brought to bear on them during the campaign, but literally, by an electoral process that was fixed from the outset.

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In truth, we should have seen this coming. With so much invested in the 18-month campaign, and the polls appearing to place victory within reach for either side, it was always going to be difficult for the losers to accept defeat. That this would translate into movements such as #the45, who are bent on keeping the dream of independence alive, and the truthers who believe they were cheated out of it, was almost inevitable.

A YouGov poll in early September showed 25 per cent of the electorate believed MI5 was working with the UK government to block independence and 19 per cent that the referendum would be rigged, with many voters so fearful the marks made by the pencils provided in polling stations would be tampered with, they brought their own pens. Already convinced the process was flawed, they were predisposed to believe any claim of impropriety that was put in front of them.

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People believe the CIA was behind 9/11

You only have to look across the Atlantic – where millions of people believe the CIA was behind 9/11, that Sandy Hook was a “false flag” operation, and Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US – to see how paranoia is flourishing in the modern age. Though conspiracy theories have attracted followers since the 1950s, their popularity has been fuelled by real-life betrayals.

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“I believe Leveson, the Westminster expenses scandal and the banking crisis, and the impact those crises have had on everyday lives, transformed people’s views of the political system so whatever little trust that remained was swept away,” says former Labour MSP Pauline McNeill.

The referendum gave people with real grievances a sense of control; it is unsurprising that when this was stripped away in defeat, some were heartbroken and lashed out at the authorities.

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There are those on the No side who would go further. They believe the Yes campaign exploited people’s distrust in the system to gain support and so is indirectly responsible for encouraging the vote-rigging allegations. Though many leading Yes figures have been quick to dismiss the allegations, critics say repeated references to state and media bias, and the use of the language of deception – particularly Alex Salmond’s claim that No voters have been “gulled” and “tricked” – fostered a climate of paranoia in which they took on an air of credibility.

No supporter

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“The SNP has unleashed something which they were prepared to put up with, but which will come back to bite them,” one No supporter says. “It now has lots of new members, many of whom have never been involved in politics and have no idea about how the system works, and it will have to manage those expectations.”

That may or may not be a problem for the party. But there is a bigger one for the population as a whole. What happens to society if significant numbers of us stop having faith in the mechanisms by which democracy is delivered? And if we are no longer convinced elections are fair, will we stop abiding by their results?

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Entering the world of the indyref conspiracy theorists is like travelling through the looking glass. It started with a flurry of dodgy YouTube clips: bundles of ballot papers (one with a cross clearly marked in the Yes box) sitting on a No table; shaky footage of a woman who appears to be taking votes from the Yes basket and placing them in the No basket; and a man who has a quick look round him before making a mark on a piece of paper.

Then, it moved on to “strange” goings-on involving a laptop and secret meetings at the Renfrewshire count, and comments from Ruth Davidson which appeared to suggest No campaigners had gained early sight of some of the postal votes. Finally there is the ongoing controversy of the blank-backed papers.

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Electoral Commission

For many of the complainants, the first point of contact was the Electoral Commission. Aware many had no idea of the proper procedure at counts, staff explained how such misunderstandings might have occurred. The bundles of papers on the No table in the first clip were still tied up with elastic bands which meant they had not yet been sorted, they said. At the counts, the papers from each ballot box were divided into bundles of 50, with counters required to write the number in the last, incomplete bundle on a slip of paper – which is why the man in the third clip is writing. “The YouTube videos were difficult because some people were claiming they came from one count, some from another,” says Electoral Commission spokesman Sarah Mackie.

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Later, with the clamour growing, the commission issued a statement in which it pointed out checks on ballot papers are carried out at several points in the run-up to an election: during the printing process; prior to the ballot papers leaving for the counting area; at the polling station, before the poll opens; and at the polling station, when the polling staff issue the ballot paper to each voter.

“It is also worth noting that, in the extremely unlikely event that a ballot paper is issued, completed and placed in the ballot box and does not have a unique identifying number on the reverse, it will still be included in the counting of votes and would not be rejected on these grounds alone,” the statement read.

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Police Scotland

Police Scotland is taking calls on the blank-backed ballot papers and is said to have passed complaints relating to Davidson’s comments to the Crown Office. They are also investigating a handful of cases of alleged “personation” (when an individual turns up to vote to find someone else has done it for them) in Glasgow.

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Several prominent Yes campaigners have denounced the vote-rigging claims and at least two – Doug Daniel and Debra Storr – both of whom were present at counts, have written blog posts giving step-by-step accounts of the process and reassuring voters about the conduct of everyone involved.

At Glasgow City Council officials have been fighting the same uphill battle, with information that 702 accredited counting agents from both campaigns and more than 100 elected politicians at the count raised no concerns on the night doing little to dampen suspicions. “The problem is that once people start investing in these theories, they are not open to explanation,” a source said. “An explanation of one theory only feeds a competing one or means you are part of the wider plot.”

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Dr Philip Habel

Dr Philip Habel, lecturer in politics at Glasgow University, says studies have shown that not only are people who believe in conspiracy theories resistant to information which runs counter to their pre-existing opinions, but that the more countering evidence they are confronted with, the more rigidly they will stick to their theory.

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That the belief in conspiracy theories is no longer a fringe activity is partly down to social media which, Habel says, makes it easier for those involved to seek out information which validates their own world view and to sift out information that challenges it.

Another reason the vote-rigging allegations have gained traction is that a generation used to bureaucracy and surveillance has been shocked by the low-tech nature of the British electoral system. In a world of CCTV, bag checks and iris and fingerprint recognition, it must seem strange that you can walk into a polling station and cast your vote, no questions asked. The system has run on trust: we trust voters are who they say they are, we trust the Royal Mail to deliver postal votes, but how does that work when trust is in short supply?

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George Black

A veteran of nine elections and two referenda, George Black, chief executive of Glasgow City Council and the counting officer for the Glasgow area, says he was surprised by the level of suspicion he encountered on 18 September, with campaigners telling drivers charged with moving ballot boxes to the count they were going to tail them to ensure they didn’t pick up new boxes. “Perhaps the injection of hundreds of thousands of new voters into the system should prompt us to think again about how we run it,” he says. “Perhaps we should insist people turn up to vote with a passport and a driving licence. Perhaps we should insist they register to vote in person with two pieces of ID and that they renew that registration annually.”

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But he knows tightening up procedures would disenfranchise a section of the population who have only just re-engaged. “I don’t think there is any argument that if we make it harder to register, fewer people will do so. Similarly if we make it harder to vote. Not everyone has a passport,” he says.

To convince people of the legitimacy of this referendum

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Still – as hundreds take to the streets today – something clearly needs to be done to regain trust and convince people of the legitimacy of this referendum and the electoral system as a whole.

“If there is any reasonable suspicion of fraud it must be fully investigated by Police Scotland. And most importantly, everyone in the system from returning officers to counting agents to party leaders must say clearly and unambiguously they have faith in the results,” Black says. “The idea of widespread or organised fraud is abhorrent, but a widespread lack of faith in the integrity of our voting system is nearly as bad. It’s a short step from not having faith in our voting system to not having faith in the people we elect. And if that were to happen our whole democratic system would be under threat.” «

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• Twitter: @DaniGaravelli