The end is in sight for candidates, campaigners, and pundits in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election. In a little under a week, on Thursday 6 May, the people of Scotland will go the polls to cast their votes.
The result of the election will have potentially seismic implications for UK politics as a whole.
But the country may have to wait longer than usual for that result – with COVID-19 restrictions necessitating different counting arrangements.
So when will we know the result and what will be the early signs that might help us predict what’s happening?
Portland’s guide to the Scottish Parliament election night(s) tells you everything you need to know.
1) No queues at the polling stations?
Voters in Scotland may notice an absence of queues at the polling stations when Polling Day rolls around on Thursday 6th May.
The Electoral Commission has confirmed that more than 1 million Scots – almost 25% of the electorate – have registered for a postal vote.
These postal votes have already begun being cast – so by the time we get to Polling Day, many voters will have already made their choices.
2) Exit poll health warning
Exit polls in Scottish politics are rare, but if we do see an exit poll conducted come Thursday – it must come with a significant health warning.
Any exit poll will struggle to quantify the impact of the quarter of Scots voters who have already voted by post, and an exit poll is limited in its ability to predict the result from the complex form of proportional representation that Scotland uses to elect its MSPs.
3) Two days of counting votes.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, counting procedures will be different for this election.
There will be no overnight count on Thursday, and counting is not expected to begin before 9am on Friday 7th May.
There will be fewer counting agents too, and counting places will be socially distanced – meaning results will take longer and will have to be staggered over the weekend to avoid the usual large gatherings of counting agent and party observers.
The Electoral Commission has published an indicative timetable for counting of constituencies and announcement of results which are staggered over Friday 7th and Saturday 8th. If you are keen to follow all the action in real-time in this unprecedented count, results are reportedly to be shared on Twitter by Returning Officers using a pre-determined hashtag.
But remember there are two sets of votes to be counted in this election: the first-past-the-post constituency vote, and the proportional representation regional list vote. Every constituency in a region must be counted and declared before the calculations on the regional list can be made. There’s a lot of work to do before the final result becomes clear.
4) Rise and shine for the result on Sunday.
So when will we know the final result?
It could come as early as Saturday evening, but Portland would recommend a safe bet is to be-up-with-the-lark on Sunday to catch-up with the final scores on the board.
Unless you, like us, love following election results in real-time – in which case, we wish you luck for your 48 hour election result marathon, punctuated by a bit of kip here and there.
5) Can we predict the result early?
If you are impatient for the result, then it may be possible to analyse a direction of travel from the early results.
There are two trends to watch for: first, whether the SNP are set to secure an overall majority on the constituency vote alone. It is possible to achieve, but would require the SNP to retain every constituency seat they currently hold as well as win key seats in the North-east, Edinburgh, and the central belt. Keep an eye on key marginals to see if the SNP might be set to win a majority before the regional list vote is even counted.
The second trend to watch for is how the parties’ vote share tracks relative to the 2016 election result. If it emerges that the SNP for example, is down on their constituency vote share on 2016, then hopes of majority may fade. Keep a close eye also on the vote shares of the Conservatives and Labour relative to 2016 to spot who may take second place.
6) The seats to watch
What are those key marginal seats that might give us an idea of the direction of travel?
Former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale took to Twitter to share her top 10 Friday counts to watch.
Portland’s pick of the 3 marginal contests that may provide a picture of the mood of the nation:
Edinburgh Central: A tight SNP-Conservative marginal and the seat of former Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson. The SNP’s former Westminster Leader Angus Robertson will be hoping to overturn the Tories’ wafer-thin majority of 610, and the SNP simply must win this seat back if they are to coast to a majority.
Dumbarton: Scottish Labour stalwart Jackie Baillie faces a tough challenge from the SNP to keep the seat she has held since the very first Scottish Parliament election. Viewed as a key marginal, a win for Scottish Labour will illustrate that there is life left in the party.
Moray: Perhaps a slightly tougher seat for the Conservatives to win given the 8.6% majority the SNP currently enjoy, but Moray is of course the constituency that Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross holds in Westminster. This result will be a key insight into whether the Scottish Conservative vote is holding up in their North-east stronghold.
7) The regional list could determine the story of the election.
The SNP has its sights on winning an outright majority – which would be a spectacular feat given the Party has been in power since 2007 and operates within a political system designed to prevent majorities.
Polling suggests the prospect of an SNP majority is still in play – and they may secure it on constituencies alone – but it is likely the regional list that will determine the story of the election.
If the SNP falls short of a majority, then their performance on the regional list – and the performance of other pro-independence parties like the Scottish Greens and Alex Salmond’s Alba Party – will be critical to securing the pro-independence majority that the SNP seeks to demonstrate a mandate for an independence referendum.
It is highly likely that the Scottish Greens will gather enough regional list seats to get the SNP over the line, should the SNP fall short on constituency seats. The performance of the Alba Party will also be closely watched.
8) The fallout.
In such a seismic election, expect the fallout to dominate the following week’s news headlines.
An SNP or pro-independence majority will significantly strengthen, in their view, the nationalists’ demands for a referendum and expect this to be a key narrative that develops.
The ‘constitutional cold war’ that we have been living through on the prospect of a referendum will suddenly start heating up – with attention turning to Westminster and how the UK Government chooses to respond to a pro-independence Parliament and calls for a referendum.
The fall out could also mean farewell to some faces we’ve come to see regularly in this campaign. Scottish Conservative Leader Douglas Ross has had a challenging campaign and despite a robust policy platform – his personality has failed to cut-through and is proving a limiting factor on the Scottish Conservatives’ reach. Failing to prevent an SNP majority and slipping to third place behind Labour could spell the end for Mr Ross’ short tenure. Could we also see the last of Willie Rennie? Although expectations of the Scottish LibDems are low and the party’s vote looks robust, Rennie has led the party for almost a decade and it may be time to handover to one of the LibDems’ fresh faces in the Scottish Parliament.