House of Commons Library

EU referendum: how the result will be declared

Published Thursday, May 12, 2016

This Commons Library briefing paper summarises how the result will be declared following the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU on Thursday 23 June 2016.

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How long will the count take?

Previous referendums do not provide a precedent for how the timings of the EU referendum count will proceed.

This is only the third UK-wide referendum. The 1975 referendum was counted the day after polling day and the 2011 referendum on voting reform was combined with a number of other polls.

When will the votes be counted?

The Electoral Commission has directed all counting officers to count overnight on Thursday 23/Friday 24 June. Over 44 million people will be eligible to vote.

In the UK

This means that at the close of the poll at 10.00 pm on Thursday 23 June the process of counting can begin.

Voters who at 10.00 pm are in the polling station, or in a queue outside the polling station, for the purpose of voting, may apply for a ballot and must be allowed to vote.

Anyone arriving after 10.00pm who attempts to join the queue cannot be issued with a ballot paper under any circumstances. Anyone attempting to deliver a postal vote after 10.00pm will not be allowed to do so.

In Gibraltar

In Gibraltar, where polling stations close at 10.00 pm local time (9.00pm BST) counting will only commence at 11.00pm local time (10.00pm BST) to ensure all counts occur at the same time.

What time will there be a result?

This is hard to estimate as there is no real precedent for a referendum in these circumstances as this is only the third UK-wide referendum and the previous two differed in several ways.

The counting process will start at 10.00pm on Thursday 23 June 2016 as the polls close. Individual counting areas will start declaring totals in the early hours of Friday morning but it is unlikely that the official UK total will be officially declared until several hours later.

The official result will only be declared by the Chief Counting Officer once all regional totals have been approved and declared. Each regional result will only be declared once all the local results in the region have been declared and collated.

The separate counting areas are in 11 regions plus Northern Ireland (see section 5 for the detail of the counts and declarations).

In the UK

Individual counting areas vary in size. Birmingham, for example has nearly 700,000 eligible voters and is the largest local authority in the country in terms of population. In contrast, the City of London, has about 7,000 eligible voters.

The smallest counting area is the Isles of Scilly with about 1,700 voters spread across five inhabited islands.

Highland Council has over 170,000 eligible voters but they are spread over 2.6 million hectares. At the Scottish independence referendum the Highland Council result was the last result reported, at just after 8.00 am.

The Orkney Islands council area has about 17,000 eligible voters spread over 20 inhabited islands and reported its Scottish independence result at just after 2.00am.

In Gibraltar

At the 2014 European Parliamentary elections Gibraltar had an electorate of around 22,300 so it is likely to be an early result. The Clerk of the Gibraltar Parliament has estimated a result around 2.00 am local time.

Previous examples

The result may become clear before the final national result is officially declared by the Chief Counting Officer. At the Scottish independence referendum the ‘No’ vote declared by Fife council at just after 6.00am on Friday 19 September 2014 meant that the national running total of ‘No’ votes could not be beaten, but the official result was not declared by the Chief Counting Officer until 9.00 am.

However, if the result is close, as with the referendum on devolution in Wales in 1997, the result may depend on every counting area. In 1997 the ‘Yes’ vote to establish the National Assembly of Wales was not decided until the last area to declare, Carmarthenshire.

Who will be at the counts?

The Referendum Rules make it clear who must be admitted to the counts and those who may be admitted to the count.

By law certain people must be admitted to an election count and the Referendum Rules (Section 45) adapt those classic election rules to apply to the referendum. These are:

  • Counting officers, regional counting officers and the Chief Counting Officer
  • Clerks working for the counting officers
  • Referendum agents
  • Counting agents
  • Referendum observers 

In addition Counting Officers may permit other people access to the count if:

  1. the officer is satisfied that the person’s attendance will not impede the efficient counting of the votes
  2. the officer has consulted the referendum agents or thinks it impracticable to do so

 Further information about the people involved is explained in the associated PDF.

Local counts

The count will be conducted in 382 counting areas. In Great Britain the count areas will be local authorities responsible for electoral registration. This means there are 380 counting areas in Great Britain.

England

  • 32 London boroughs
  • City of London
  • 36 metropolitan boroughs
  • 55 unitary authorities
  • 201 non-metropolitan districts
  • The Isles of Scilly 

Scotland

  • 32 unitary authorities 

Wales

  • 22 unitary authorities 

Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland count will be held at eight locations across Northern Ireland.

The referendum ballots will be counted by UK Parliamentary constituency at the eight counting centres. The counting centres are the same as those for the Assembly elections on the 5 May 2016.

As with the 2011 referendum on voting reform, votes will be collated into one total for Northern Ireland from each of the eight counting venues. In 2011 results were not published by constituency, only by counting area.

Gibraltar

Gibraltar is a single counting area. There will be 14 polling stations across Gibraltar. The count will be conducted at University of Gibraltar Campus, Europa Point, on the southern tip of the territory.

Regional counts

The referendum specific legislation makes provision for counting and referendum agents to be present at regional counts as well as at the 382 local counting areas.

Regional counts will not actually count individual ballot papers but will be the base for the Regional Counting Officer to execute their functions on the night. This includes collating and announcing the final result for the region.

List of Regional counts – host local authority

Region

Town

East of England

Chelmsford

East Midlands

Kettering

London

London Councils*

North East

Sunderland

North West

Manchester

Scotland

Falkirk

South East

Southampton

South West and Gibraltar

Poole

Wales

Flintshire

West Midlands

Birmingham

Yorkshire and the Humber

Leeds

*London Councils is a cross-party group representing the 32 boroughs of London and the City of London. It will be hosting the London regional count at The Guildhall in the City of London.

National count event

The Chief Counting Officer for the referendum will be based at the national counting event. This will be Manchester Town Hall. It will also be the venue for the North West regional hub count.

The local count for the City of Manchester counting area will be at the Manchester Central Convention Centre.

Verifying and counting the ballots

The count at elections and referendums in the UK are guided by key principles:

  • ensuring a result is declared swiftly and accurately
  • the number of ballots received at the count tallies with the number of ballots sent out to polling station
  • the counting process is legal and impartial
  • voter secrecy is maintained

 

Further information about the process is explained in the associated PDF.

Declarations

For the referendum there will be declarations for local and regional totals as well as a national total.

Local totals

Local declarations will be made at the local counting venue in each of the 382 counting area.

Regional totals

The RCO will collate all the local totals in his or her area. Once all of them are collated and the regional total is known this will be submitted to the Chief Counting Officer.

Once the CCO gives permission the RCO will declare the regional result.

No ballot papers are physically counted at regional count hubs and there is no provision for a region-wide recount to be undertaken.

National total

The Chief Counting Officer will collate all regional totals and once all the regional results, including Northern Ireland, have been approved and declared the Chief Counting will declare the final UK and Gibraltar total.

This will be the official final result and there is no provision for a recount at national level.

Is the result binding?

The national result, once declared, will be final but it is not legally binding.

The European Referendum Act 2015 does not include provisions to implement the result of the referendum; legally, the Government is not bound to follow the outcome. However, it would be very unlikely for the Government to ignore the outcome of the referendum.

Further information

Publication details

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7588

Author: Neil Johnston

Topics: Election results : UK, Elections, EU institutions

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