Digital Privacy

London Assembly Elections Review Committee – who would want to steal an election?

Yesterday the Greater London Authority’s Elections Review Committee met to discuss the conduct of the May 2008 London elections. The ORG 2008 Elections Report played an important role in their agenda and it was great to see it attached to the papers sent to all members.

First up were representatives from Indra (the e-counting supplier) and election officials from London Elects, Greater London’s Returning Officer and two Constituency Returning Officers. A number of good, challenging questions based on ORG’s findings were directed at those present, but the responses were often less than satisfactory, resorting to assurances (because proof of the election’s validity couldn’t be provided). Members of the committee, being London Assembly members, were in the strange position of having to question whether their own election was valid. So their was little incentive to push hard for answers, with the exception of Andrew Boff (Con) who as a former systems analyst understood the severity of the problems and risks involved in e-counted elections.

Mr Mayer, Greater London’s Returning Officer for the election, at one point suggested that the way to deal with the burden of staffing for such elections was for more e-counting and e-voting and he seemed to regret that there wouldn’t be e-voting for the 2009 European Elections. Thankfully he also admitted that the Electoral Commission had made clear they didn’t support such moves and indeed would have opposed e-counting in the 2008 London elections if London Elects hadn’t already been so far down the line in their preparations.

On asking Indra whether the error messages ORG had observed risked the integrity of the election, Indra responded that these were isolated ‘glitches’ but that they had absolute confidence in the declared results, a view supported by Mr Mayer. Andrew Boff was prevented by the chair, Brian Coleman (Con), from pursuing this weak response further.

Imagine a caterer was contracted to provide 9 million hot meals and of these some went wrong. Imagine that a few thousand people got sick from eating these meals, a few hundred seriously so. Would explaining these as ‘kitchen glitches’ be satisfactory? Or would we want to understand if the procedures for ordering, checking and handling ingredients had been satisfactory? Would we check for the qualifications and training of cooks, perhaps also looking at the audit trail for the ordering of the goods?

No such scrutiny was levelled at Indra nor London Elections. Indeed the committee seemed uncomfortable challenging the results, but happier expressing displeasure over delays or other administrative matters which, while of importance, hadn’t risked the accuracy of the result. Furthermore several attempts were made to imply ORG’s report was the work of well intentioned amateurs, perhaps not worth taking seriously.

On ORG’s behalf I then came before the committee to discuss our findings. I began by explaining my ten years of experience in the field and why I was qualified to discuss this election. Some committee members visibly raised eyebrows on hearing my brief resume. Perhaps they assumed I was a geek without knowledge of elections.

However on trying to address some of the weak or ridiculous responses from the previous participants (Indra in particular) the Committee balked at my comments. Again with the exception of Mr Boff they were incredulous of our findings, in particular challenging our maths over the maximum number of possibly unaccounted-for ballots.

The Chair claimed electoral fraud wasn’t an issue in the UK, to which I responded that candidates from all three major political parties have been convicted of electoral fraud in the last 10 years. Still Mr Coleman refused to accept that there were people with sufficient interest and capability to commit electoral fraud in the London elections. My presence was soon no longer desired and the meeting swiftly ended.

Fundamentally the problem for the committee members, Indra and London Elects was they wanted to believe the election was correct. They couldn’t prove it was though and neither could we. Instead of asking for decent evidence of a proper election (such as audit trails, manual sample recounts and so on) they chose to focus on whether ORG could prove our concerns. I don’t believe it is for ORG to do that. Our report raised reasonable doubt over the integrity of the election due to issues with the software, ballot box security, ballot paper counts and more. It is for London Elections and their contractors to now prove to a reasonable level of assurance that those issues didn’t affect the result of the election. As I tried to say yesterday, if they are so confident in the result, why not do a manual recount of samples at least? What are they scared of finding?

You can watch the whole session here (Windows Media only I’m afraid).

Read more about the Committee and download the agenda papers for the meeting here.

You can read ORG’s report of the 2008 London elections here.