July 29, 2008 | Becky Hogge

Next election for Mayor of London to be counted manually?

Will the 2012 election for Mayor of London be counted manually? Yes, at least, that’s the assumption the UK’s elections watchdog would like City Hall to make. The Electoral Commission’s report into the London Elections [pdf] has called for the Greater London Returning Officer to carry out a cost benefit analysis of options for counting ballot papers at the 2012 elections "as a matter of urgency" (mirroring the key recommendation from ORG’s recent report), and to start from the assumption that the vote will be counted manually.

The statutory report, published earlier this month, vindicates many more of the observations made by Open Rights Group volunteers in our 2008 London Elections report. The Electoral Commission are "extremely concerned" that they have not been given full access to audits of the e-counting system commissioned from KPMG before the election, demanding that any future technical audit include a requirement for full publication. They write:

"We recognise that commercial suppliers... may wish to protect their commercial interests. However, such wishes should never take priority over the interests of electors"

The Commission also raise the same concerns as ORG over the ballot box verification process, and the discrepancies observed between figures for ballot papers issued at the polling station, and ballot papers scanned in the count centre. They recommend that any future e-count allow count centre staff to record reasons for such discrepancies, and provide "verification statements" to candidates, party agents and observers. They concur with our analysis that the system could have been recording blank ballots as valid votes. And they also touch on the fact, detailed in the ORG report, that nearly 1,000 votes for London Mayor from the Merton and Wandsworth constituency never made it into the final result because of a transmission error.

Central to the ORG report were concerns around transparency, and the Electoral Commission report emphasises loss of transparency as one of the "hidden costs" of electronic counting. They point out that observers at electronic counts need to increase their technical knowledge in order to understand what is going on, because:

"Candidates, agents and observers act as a crucial check on the accuracy and integrity of the count process, both for their own benefit and for the wider benefit of the vast majority of electors who are not able to physically attend the count."

Last year, the Electoral Commission recommended that no further pilots of e-voting or e-counting take place until the Government have released "a robust, publicly available strategy that has been the subject of extensive consultation". In this month’s report, they reinforce this recommendation, demanding in addition a full cost benefit analysis for the use of electronic counting.

Will the Ministry of Justice listen? Despite expectations that a strategy document on e-voting and e-counting could be available before the Summer recess, no such document has emerged. And it seems their idea of extensive consultation is one question hidden in a pretty unrelated consultation (on remote electronic voting – a completely barmy idea that even the USA won’t touch with a barge pole). We can only hope that the Government listen to this latest Electoral Commission report – and to the growing consensus that "modernising" elections doesn’t have to mean expensive computer systems that hide the workings of our most important democratic ritual in a black box away from public scrutiny.

Comments (2)

  1. Dewi Morgan:
    Aug 04, 2008 at 09:50 PM

    Votes cannot be manually counted forever: it's just not going to happen. Denial is not good enough: in everything, progress marches on over the protesters.

    So instead, we need to ensure that what comes out at the end is *right*.

    What if there were an open project to design the "perfect" automated vote counting machine? Seems to me that open design philosophies are the only way to get the required openness and security for a workable vote counter.

    Of course, that would then mean that the manufacturers would be offering tenders based on lowest price rather than best design, and that might not be in people's best interest (a well designed but shoddily built vote counter may not be all that secure either).

    But a vote counting machine designed by the people, for the people, sounds like the way to go to me. Googling "open source voting" throws up some interesting hits: worth looking into, or am I being naive?

  2. Ian Way:
    Mar 09, 2009 at 01:53 AM

    There is such a process, it was successfully trialed on a small island off New Zealand.

    It is a design of the ballot paper that is safer, fairer, cheaper than existing approaches, completely open and can be based on open-source software. The concept is compatible with many known voting systems and methods.

    This is a quality solution that meets the need of a real public benefit from modern technology.

    The VoteSafe design is based on two simple changes to the traditional ballot paper, the candidates' names are in random sequence from one ballot paper to the next. As the serial number of the ballot paper changes so does the sequence. The serial is the key to the sequence, and can be re-generated at counting time, that is close of poll.

    Secondly there is a perforation so that the ballot response, (a tick, cross, or preferential number) can be separated from the name/s or issues. The response portion only is returned and and be processed openly with complete integrity as no one knows the significance of the response as it is hidden by an algorithm defined as a key or a specific election. This key in electronic form is held by the Returning Officer.

    The field trial had one response slip for three races. STV for favourite rainbow colour, multiple FPP for native birds and a yes/no referendum.

    Technology employed: small office computer system, COBOL software compiler, TTF font for bar-codes (serial number, sequence for rainbow, boxes ticked for multiple FPP and box marked for referendum), bar-code wedge to read returned input. Perforated paper stock for ballot papers laser printed on small office printer.

    The technology is scalable from a handful of electors to millions. It employs people at the input phase so that an openly scrutinised poll can take place, is fully auditable and an be totally recounted if so required. Once the key is destroyed the process is beyond reach.

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