By Martin Kelly
A police investigation into alleged breaches of electoral law is under way after complaints were made following comments from Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson on the night of the independence referendum.
The police inquiry began after Ms Davidson appeared to suggest agents acting on behalf of the Better Together campaign had illegally counted postal ballots before the official deadline.
The alleged breach relates to the “Requirement of Secrecy” in electoral law, particularly relating to postal votes and keeping the number of votes for each side a secret.
Speaking on a live BBC broadcast, 45 minutes after voting ended, the politician told host Glenn Campbell that agents had been able to “take tallies” of postal ballots which she said was “very positive” for her side.
Ms Davidson told the Scotland Decides programme: “We have had people at every sample opening around the country over the last few weeks… and we have been incredibly encouraged by the results from that.
“Going into today, going by the postal votes that were cast, our side would have had a lead and I think that we have a confidence, I hope a quiet confidence, that the quiet majority of Scots have spoken today.”
She added: “Different local authorities have had openings around the country. It is illegal to discuss that while any ballot is ongoing, so until ten o’clock tonight no one could talk about it.
“But there is people in the room that have been sampling those ballot boxes as they have been opened and they have been taking tallies and the reports have been very positive for us.”
Counting ballot papers during the sampling process is illegal and carries a jail sentence of up to one year. The sampling, where ballots are placed voting side down, is carried out in order to confirm that the name and address matches official records.
Asked to comment on the video of Ms Davidson making her remarks, a spokesperson from the Electoral Commission told Newsnet Scotland:
“Schedule 7, Paragraph 7 of the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013 sets out the rules which cover the requirement of secrecy for those attending the opening of postal ballot paper envelopes.
“Any breach of these rules would be for the police to investigate and, as such, any complaints we have received in relation to this matter have been brought to the attention of the Police Service of Scotland.”
The episode isn’t the first time the police have been called on to investigate alleged breaches of electoral rules involving counts.
In 2010, Kerry McCarthy was given a police caution after being accused of breaching electoral law by revealing voting numbers in her constituency.
The Labour MP had boasted to thousands of followers on twitter that an early batch of ballots showed Labour receiving far more support in her constituency than the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats.