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Thursday, May 6, 1999 Published at 20:24 GMT 21:24 UK

V-day as Scotland's voters decide

Scotland's geography presents peculiar problems

BBC News Online will have live coverage of the Scottish Parliament election count overnight after the polls close at 2200 (BST) on Thursday 6 May. Details are available on our On Air page.

Andrew Cassell in Edinburgh reports on a day that will create a new Britain
Voting is nearly over in the elections to Scotland's first parliament in nearly 300 years.

Bad weather in parts of the country have contributed to forecasts of a low turn-out in what has been billed as Scotland's biggest-ever electoral exercise.

People have for the first time, had two votes to cast in Scotland's "General Election" and a third for local government elections, which have also been taking place on 6 May.

Vote 99 Special Coverage
Polling day was a landmark, with the introduction of proportional representation to a major British election campaign.

The voters' first ballot paper contained their choice of constituency Member of the Scottish Parliament or MSP.

Seventy three constituency MSPs are being elected under the same first-past-the-post system used to elect Members of Parliament at Westminster.

Another 56 MSPs are being elected under the Additional Member System of proportional representation.

[ image: The highs and lows of voting in Scotland]
The highs and lows of voting in Scotland
These are candidates standing in the eight Scottish Parliament Regions - made up of groups of parliamentary constituencies and each containing seven additional seats.

With each voter also receiving a ballot paper for the local government elections and a record number of candidates standing for councils, the election is posing huge demands on electoral staff, who also face a host of other logistical challenges.

Polling stations as small as caravans with electorates of less than 50 were opened, mountains negotiated and islands hopped to pick up the ballot boxes on election night with the aim of making those estimated declaration times.

James Smith, returning officer for the South of Scotland, region revealed something of the sheer scale of operation which faced him and returning officers throughout Scotland on polling day.

Mr Smith is responsible for the nine South of Scotland constituencies and regional list which are returning nine first-past-the-post MSPs and seven from the regional list.

[ image: Collecting ballot boxes is a hard job]
Collecting ballot boxes is a hard job
On election day, 8,000 people are involved in the voting operation and Mr Smith said keeping everything running depended on adapting to a host of challenges, not least the environment.

Wanlockhead, in the Lowther Hills, is reputed to have the highest polling station in Scotland at 1,351ft above sea level.

Places like the former mining community can often be cut off in characteristically unkind weather, but Mr Smith and his staff were hoping for nothing more than a bit of mist in early May.

However, it is the polling stations in the valleys which can often pose more of a problem.

He said: "Some of the village halls in the valleys have no telephones and mobile phones don't work so we have to make regular visits to check things."

Telephone line

The same problems arose elsewhere in Scotland, such as at Auchleven, which despite being only three-quarters of an hour's drive from Aberdeen, is still without a telephone line to the village hall.

And the lofty locations of Tomintoul and Cabrach provided similar heightened challenges for officials in Moray.

Collecting the ballot boxes can resemble a military operation rather than an exercise in democracy.

In the Western Isles, for instance, helicopters and boats must be used when doing the rounds.

[ image: Glen Orchy: Few voters]
Glen Orchy: Few voters
The helicopter crew's duties include picking up two boxes from Barra and the flying to Benbecula.

A box is taken from remote Eriskay with 121 voters to Ludag on South Uist in a 15-minute journey by launch and then to Benbecula across the causeway between South Uist and Benbecula for pick-up by the helicopter.

The situation has been complicated by the need for three ballot boxes at each polling station on 6 May - two for the Scottish parliamentary elections and one for the local government elections. This means extra capacity is required for transport.

Orkney, meanwhile, fares somewhat better because of its ferry system. After polls close, three launches are used to go round the islands to pick up boxes but once again the weather can disrupt the process.

An equally diverse approach to reaching voters in remote areas is employed in Argyll and Bute.

Ballot boxes

Ferries are used to collect ballot boxes near the mainland at Bute, Lismore and Luing and a helicopter is used to transport boxes from Gigha, Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Tiree, Coll and Mull to Lochgilphead.

Many of the polling stations in Scotland serve very small communities.

Candidates for the polling stations with the lowest number of voters are between Bridge of Orchy Hall and a caravan at Lochbuie on Mull, both of which have 46 people on the roll.

The caravan and mobile polling station, which bears more of a resemblance to a mobile building, may rank as the smallest polling stations in Scotland.

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