With the United Kingdom fate in the European Union on a knife-edge, millions of Britons began voting on Thursday in the historic referendum that will decide whether the country will stay in or leave the 28-nation bloc after an acrimonious campaign.
Both sides of the campaign have appealed to a record number of registered voters -- more than 46 million -- including 1.2 million British Indians, for a big turnout as Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron made his final appeal to “get out there and vote Remain” and reject the “untruths” of the camp in favour of ‘Brexit’ or Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The prime minister voted with wife Samantha at a polling booth in Westminster, just yards from his Downing Street office from where he will keep a keen eye on the results.
“It is a fact that our economy will be weaker if we leave and stronger if we stay,” Cameron told supporters in Birmingham on Wednesday, as he travelled up and down the country to make a final push for votes.
As part of his closing speech, he invoked Britain’s popular war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, saying, “The greatest privilege of my life is to stand in my office two yards away from where Winston Churchill made that decision to fight on against Hitler in 1940. He didn’t want to be alone, he wanted to be with the Poles and the French and the others fighting for European freedom and democracy.”
On the opposing side, former London mayor Boris Johnson, heading the final drive for the Vote Leave campaign, insisted his side was “on the verge of victory” and that Thursday could mark the UK’s “independence day”.
The last poll tracker showed Remain at 52 per cent and Leave at 48 per cent, reflecting the neck-and-neck nature of the campaign throughout the four-month period since Cameron announced the date of the referendum in February.
A victory for Remain therefore is within the margin of error, as two further polls from Opinium and TNS also forecast Leave on 51 per cent and Remain on 49.
On Wednesday night another poll, by ComRes, gave Remain an eight-point lead with 54 per cent compared to 46 per cent for Leave.
The referendum ballot paper asks the question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Voters have the option to mark a cross next to either “Remain a member of the European Union” or “Leave the European Union” and whichever side gets more than half of all votes cast will win.
Edinburgh Council in Scotland reported that nearly a fifth of the city’s 345,000 voters have already submitted postal votes in the EU referendum, with more than 82 per cent of the city’s postal voters returning their ballot paper by Wednesday evening.
Polling stations across Scotland reported a steady flow of voters, encouraged by the bright sunshine in the region.
The flow has been more sluggish in other parts as the weather forecast for polling day remains mixed, with thunderstorms causing flooding in some parts of the country.
One voter from Chessington tweeted that she had to be carried into a flooded polling booth to cast her “remain” vote.
A low turnout is likely to benefit the Leave side, however, the general expectation is of a bigger turnout than the 2015 general election which was around 66 per cent.
After the referendum with polls closed, sealed ballot boxes will be collected and transported to the count venue for each of the 382 local counting areas.
These represent all 380 local government areas in England, Scotland and Wales, plus one each for Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.
Individual areas’ results will then be declared throughout the night, along with results from 11 regional counts.
In a departure from the norm, no major broadcasters have commissioned any exit polls over concerns about accuracy following the fiasco of the last general elections, when a hung Parliament had been predicted wrongly instead of a big Conservative party majority.
The result will be declared by Jenny Watson, the chair of the UK’s Electoral Commission and the referendum’s chief counting officer, at ManchesterTown Hall on Friday morning.
The European Union is made up of 28 countries who have come together for trade and security.
It was originally set up as the European Economic Community in 1958 with six members -- Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
The EEC changed its name to the European Union in 1993. The UK had joined the EEC back in 1973. There has only been one other UK-wide referendum on the issue of EU membership, in 1975 when the country voted to stay in the European Community.
Eligible voters in Thursday’s referendum include anyone over the age of 18 who is a British citizen resident in the UK and UK nationals who have lived abroad for less than 15 years.
Citizens of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus resident in the UK can vote as can Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK and Gibraltar, including Indians.
Voting timings: From June 23, 2016 at 7:00 am (IST 11:30 am) till 10:00 pm (IST 02:30 am on June 24)
Counting for London and Northwest to start at starts from 00.45 am on June 24 (IST: 05.15 am)
Major outcome starts between 03.30 am (IST 08:00 am) to 04.00 am (08:30 am) on June 24
Final outcome to be declared till 07.00 am (IST: 11.30 am on June 24)