Polling day counts have changed a lot over the years – recently, more and more councils have undermined the traditional overnight experience by delaying counting until the following morning (or several mornings later, in the case of Tower Hamlets). Happily, that won’t apply to the referendum, where counting will begin everywhere once the polling stations close at 10pm.
The counts will be administered at council level, like a local rather than general election, so each area’s ballots will be transported to a local counting centre for their borough. The usual process of verifying the votes will take place, before counting begins – for obvious reasons, the count will be simpler as a binary choice than the normal division between multiple candidates, so ought to be somewhat swifter than at election time.
The results will be formally announced on a regional basis, and then on a national basis in Manchester. However, we’ll probably have a good idea of the result before the national or even the regional totals are formally issued. When each local returning officer thinks they are ready to announce their local totals, they must check in with their regional returning officer to report the numbers and secure confirmation that they can announce the local result.
Barring any unforeseen issues, the bulk of the local results are expected between midnight and 4am, but a delay in any one local count will hold back the formal announcement of that region’s total. However, the media will no doubt be tallying up the local results to produce a running national total - as will both campaigns – meaning that we’ll know at each stage who is ahead and where.
If it’s on a knife-edge, as many expect, the final outcome could rest on waiting for a few laggardly authorities to finalise their numbers. But if one side has a clear advantage, we may reach a point well before the final announcement at which it becomes clear that the result is near-certain.
The most comparable counting experience was the AV referendum – that, too, was announced regionally, but long before the final total was in it became clear that No2AV had won. At that point, the venue for the result cleared out – No campaigners went to the pub to celebrate, and Yes campaigners to drown their sorrows – leaving the surreal sight of some TV cameras filming the national returning officer on a stage in an almost empty hall, waiting to announce a result that was by then inevitable. This time, as then, due process, quite rightly, will continue until every vote is tallied.