Polls have now closed in the 2021 Scottish election but pandemic restrictions mean that counts will take longer than usual. Instead of election night drama, we will see results trickle in over 48 hours.
Here are the key moments to look out for and when to expect them.
Friday afternoon: key marginals declare
Voters in Scotland get two ballots, one for their single-member local constituency (like Westminster elections) and another for a seven-member regional contest.
Seats at the regional level are allocated proportionally but, crucially, the votes parties get on this half of the ballot are divided according to the number of constituency seats they win in the relevant region. For example, in 2016, the SNP took 45% of the Glasgow region’s list votes but won zero list seats as they had swept every constituency. Labour, by contrast, took four of the seats with 24% of these ballots.
The SNP won so many constituencies in 2016 that they only took four list seats, and the 2021 polls suggest they’re likely to lose regional vote share this time around. That means they’ll need to win several new constituencies if they are to return to Holyrood with a majority.
With that in mind, keep an eye on some of the important marginal seats up for grabs. Several of these are due to report their results on Friday afternoon and early evening. The one generating the most interest is Dumbarton, where the Labour incumbent Jackie Baillie beat the SNP by just over 100 votes in 2016. She is one of the few constituency MSPs who may benefit from a sizeable personal vote this time around.
The Conservative-held seat of Ayr is also very close, with fewer than 1,000 votes separating them and the SNP last time.
Edinburgh Central is attracting a lot of attention as it is the seat vacated by former Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson. This is a symbolic target for the SNP, whose candidate is Westminster veteran and former deputy leader, Angus Roberston.
Eastwood is another affluent marginal to keep tabs on. This seat hosts the tightest three way Tory-Labour-SNP fight in the country – they all polled at over 30% in 2016. This result could be an early indication of where things might be headed.
All of these, as well as other close contests like North East Fife and Edinburgh Southern, are expected to declare on Friday afternoon or early evening. There are also a few “bellweather” seats – that is, those which tend to closely reflect the overall national constituency vote.
While the seat of Strathkelvin and Bearsden is unlikely to change hands, the three main parties came in just a couple of points away from their national vote shares in 2016. The situation is similar in Renfrewshire North and West and Clackmannanshire and Dunblane. If the SNP can increase their vote share substantially in these areas it would bode well for their chances of securing a majority, but if Labour are resurgent, it could complicate things.
Saturday: Labour, the Conservatives – and Salmond
The regional seat results are highly dependent on what happens in the constituencies. The final couple of seats in each region are often allocated on very fine margins, so the overall result may come down to the wire.
Labour and the Conservatives are highly dependent on the list vote, so this is really where second place will be decided. The Conservatives won 23% to Labour’s 19% in 2016.
Saturday will be the big day for regional results as the counts are completed for the final few constituency seats in each area. West Scotland and the Highlands and Islands regions will only have one seat apiece to count on Saturday, so they may be among the earliest to report. However, the different processes in place due to pandemic restrictions mean it’s difficult to know for sure.
The smaller pro-independence parties are worth keeping an eye on in the regions. The Scottish Greens look poised to increase their share again, meaning they’re likely to pick up a handful of seats.
Former First Minister Alex Salmond has also returned to the political scene with the aggressively pro-independence Alba Party, which is running candidates in every region. The party will need to clear around 5% of the vote in at least one region to stand any chance of winning seats. Salmond himself is hoping to do so in the North East.
Be wary of assuming that a big swing in one region will give a clear picture of the national result. Some areas, like the more eurosceptic Highlands and Islands, might lurch further to the Conservatives, while others could see some degree of transfer from the SNP to Labour or vice versa. Split-ticket voting also looks set to increase, which might throw a spanner in the works for the SNP as they look to hold on to their handful of regional seats.
Turnout increased slightly at the last Scottish election in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum, up to 55.6% from 2011’s 50.4%. We’ll start to develop an idea of how turnout might be shaping up as soon as the first few constituency results are known. A lower-than-expected turnout may be bad news for the SNP.
A study of 2020 elections shows that turnout is lower when COVID-19 cases and deaths are higher. But COVID-19 cases are at their lowest level in Scotland since last summer and half of all adults have been vaccinated, so it seems unlikely that anxiety about the disease will have had much impact.
The number of people registered to vote by post has shot up from 725,000 to more than one million. Those with postal ballots are significantly more likely to vote, so this will help hold numbers up.
On the other hand, the campaign was low-key, which typically reduces turnout. Parties couldn’t canvass the way they normally would. And even though door-knocking was allowed by the end of the campaign, most candidates decided against it. The simple fact is that, as virus restrictions eased, most people had better things to do than tune into political bickering on the telly.
The SNP will be hoping that in-person turnout has held up. Postal voters tend to be older and therefore more prone to voting Conservative or anti-independence. If in-person turnout among younger voters collapses, that will probably hurt the chances of an SNP majority. Given the likelihood of tight margins in many seats, and the complicated way list seats are allocated, we may be waiting until Saturday evening or even later to know whether this has materialised.
Fraser McMillan receives funding from the ESRC as a Scottish Election Study Research Associate. He also receives ESRC funds as the ScotGov Tracker project's Principal Investigator.
As part of the Scottish Election Study team, Christopher Carman receives research funding from the Economic & Social Research Council.
Rob Johns receives funding from the ESRC as part of the Scottish Election Study team..