Independence referendum question submitted to Electoral Commission

The Scottish Government's preferred question for the independence referendum will be tested by the elections watchdog.

The SNP administration wants to ask: Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has submitted the question to the Electoral Commission, which will scrutinise it using focus groups to determine whether it is fair and easily understood, before reporting its findings.

Although the government and parliament is not bound by the watchdog's conclusions, constitutional experts say ignoring its advice would be unusual.

The final wording will be included in the Referendum Bill which will come before the Scottish Parliament in spring 2013.

Ms Sturgeon said: "The independence referendum will meet the highest international standards. The Electoral Commission has considerable expertise in regulating referendums and elections and I have now written to them to formally request that they provide advice and assistance to the Scottish Government by considering the wording of the question that is proposed to be on the ballot paper for the Scottish independence referendum - Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

"The recently published analysis of the 26,000 responses to the Government's consultation on the referendum revealed that 64% of respondents broadly agreed with this wording.

"The question will be tested to check that it is easy to understand, to the point and unambiguous. The Electoral Commission are experts in question testing and will use focus groups and gather views from experts in accessibility and plain language and others who have an interest in the referendum and its outcome before reporting on the proposed question.

"Once they have reported back it will then be for the Scottish Parliament to decide the final wording of the question on the ballot paper."

John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, said: "We will assess the referendum question to see whether voters find it clear, simple and neutral. If it isn't, we'll say what needs to be done.

"As part of our assessment process, we will talk to voters across Scotland to see whether they can easily understand and answer the question on the ballot paper.

"We'll also ask for advice from accessibility and plain-language specialists, and we'll ask prospective campaigners, politicians, academics and other interested people for their views on the question. Throughout the process, our focus will always be what's in the voters' interests."

The assessment of the question will take up to 12 weeks. Assessors will consider whether it is easy to understand and to the point, and if it is unambiguous and avoids encouraging voters to consider one response more favourably than another or misleading voters.

Speaking at the Scottish Parliament's Referendum Committee on Thursday, constitutional expert Alan Trench said the Electoral Commission's advice was "sufficiently authoritative that it should normally be followed" and "if we were to get to get to the point where Parliament didn't follow that advice that would raise very serious problems for the conduct of the referendum and respect for the outcome afterwards".

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