Digital Privacy

Gould Review on Scottish Elections Published

The Electoral Commission and the separate review by Ron Gould that the Commission instituted have published their reports on the Scottish elections of May 2007

The Gould Review in particular identifies a number of important issues, many of which ORG addressed in our own report on the elections published this June.

  • The Review identified ‘fragmented and antiquated’ legislation which made it difficult for elections to be properly run as responsibilities were split between too many bodies. The Review makes a number of good recommendations including appointing a Chief Returning Officer for Scotland and removing administrative responsibilities from the Electoral Commission to help clarify its role.
  • The Review finds that combining the Scottish parliamentary and local government elections was problematic and should not be repeated.
  • The Review agrees with ORG’s finding that combining the two parliamentary ballot papers onto one sheet was the primary reason for the high level of rejected ballots. The Review argues that ministers appeared to want to combine the ballots from very early on whilst going through the motions of consultation and analysis. The Review recommends that in future two ballot sheets are used. Interestingly these findings are based on analysis of actual rejected ballots. From this the Review suggests, and ORG agrees, that anonymised rejected ballot images should be made available for analysis in all future elections.
  • The Review recommends that in future registered party names are used on ballot papers before any descriptions, if they are to be allowed. The ordering of these names would be by a public lottery. This confirms ORG’s view that the use of ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’ at the top of the regional ballot was confusing for voters in May 2007.
  • That electronic counting added complexity and contributed to ballot design problems was acknowledged by the Review. These were compounded by many late changes and decisions by ministers which were often poorly communicated to stakeholders.
  • The Review comments that while lead supplier DRS did put emphasis on delivering a reliable system, some problems encountered on election night were missed because final testing did not use the same configuration and data as used on the night.

While the Review makes a number of positive, but minor, recommendations regarding electronic counting, it unfortunately fails to address the security and technical issues encountered by ORG observers. It seems that once again a lack of technical expertise has led an elections report team to focus on other matters at the expense of important issues regarding the security, accuracy and auditability of e-voting and e-counting systems. Whilst building trust in e-counting systems is mooted, the obvious method of using sample manual recounts to check the accuracy of electronic counts is not once mentioned.

While ORG remains unaware of any plans to introduce e-voting in Scotland, the Review states that:

“We strongly recommend against introducing electronic voting for the 2011 elections, until the electronic counting problems that were evidenced during the 2007 elections are resolved.”

We welcome this caution but it raises questions about moves that Gould may be aware of that we aren’t!

The Review overall concludes that there was too much emphasis on completing counts quickly and this, along with managerial failings and politically-motivated decisions by ministers led to ‘voters [being] overlooked as the most important stakeholders to be considered at every stage of the election.’ ORG welcomes the Review’s repeated emphasis on conducting accurate and high-quality counts over speedy counts. However it’s notable that the Review lacks the kind of strong language which will encourage rapid action on the problems noted. The Review notes that:

“… we have had no intention of — and, in fact, have scrupulously sought to avoid — assigning blame to individuals and institutions or questions the legitimacy of the 3 May 2007 elections results.”

Given this perspective it’s difficult to see how the Review could have come to any strong conclusions that would force political action. By avoiding the question of the results’ legitimacy the Gould Review has abdicated itself from an important responsibility. ORG expressed doubts over the results, as did others, and yet the Review we’ve all been made to wait for dodges the issue.