ORG's report into e-counting of votes cast in the London Elections is out today. The report, which is the result of a huge team effort, finds that:
"there is insufficient evidence available to allow independent observers to state reliably whether the results declared in the May 2008 elections for the Mayor of London and the London Assembly are an accurate representation of voters’ intentions."
Votes for London Mayor and the 25 member London Assembly were counted electronically, and overall the election was well-managed by the independent body set up to run elections in London, London Elects.
However, transparency around the recording of valid votes was a major issue, leading many of our team of 27 official observers to conclude that they were unable to observe votes being counted. And while hundreds of screens set up by vote scanners showed almost meaningless data to observers, London Elects admit that the system was likely to be recording blank ballots as valid votes.
The report also details how London Elects are unable to publish an audit, commissioned from KPMG, of some of the software used to count the London vote, because of disputes over commercial confidentiality. The situation highlights the problems that arise when the very public function of running elections is mixed with issues of commercial confidentiality and proprietary software. In the context of a public election, it is unacceptable that these issues should preclude the publication of the KPMG audit.
London Elects will pay Indra – the company who supplied both Bedford and Breckland during last year's chaotic trials of e-counting technology in local elections – upwards of £4.5 million for delivering the London e-count. Today's report recommends a full cost benefit analysis of any future e-count, set against a properly costed manual count.
This cost-benefit analysis should include our report's five recommendations for improved transparency around the recording of valid votes in e-counting systems. The problems around transparency observed by the ORG team can be solved, but it is important to ask: at what cost? There comes a time when electoral administrators need to ask themselves whether electronic counting really delivers value for money to our democracy.
Huge thanks go out to all the observers who put in hard work and long hours to make this report possible. We are still in the shadows of the chaotic May 2007 e-count in Scotland, and the electoral timetable is likely to preclude the deployment of computers in elections for the next two years. However, in that time these deterrents may have faded and legislators may feel eager to experiment with e-counting again. This report should be top of their reading list.