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Electronic Counting

The May 2012 London Mayoral and local Scottish elections were used as a testbed for electronic counting systems, supplied by Logica. Under plans announced in 2009, ballot papers were electronically scanned and counted at a cost of £1.5 million over the cost of manual counting. After observing the count, the Open Rights Group reported to the London Assembly's committee that although there have been substantial improvements the provisions for parallel manual counts run on random samples for verification purposes are still inadequate. Based on expert advice and our own observations, the Open Rights Group believes that although such random sampling acceptably reduces the risk of fraud, e-counting is still too expensive to entrust with our elections. ORG advocates the retention of paper and pencil and manual counting as the prudent economic and democratic choice, though we are not opposed to e-counting in principle.

Background

The right to vote without interference is the bedrock of democracy. A healthy society depends on the confidence of its citizens that elections have been fair, open, and effectively safeguarded against fraud. The paper systems by which the UK has elected its leaders for centuries may seem quaint, slow, and old-fashioned, but they do have one advantage: they have been thoroughly debugged so that fraud, if attempted, is detected and stopped. The same cannot be said of the new electronic systems on offer today.

All computer users struggle with security issues; electronic voting and counting systems are no different. It is impossible to prove with any degree of confidence that an electronic voting system – that is, one that directly records votes electronically – has not been tampered with. Thanks to work led by the Open Rights Group in 2007, electronic voting, which is widely opposed by computer scientists on security grounds, is not on the agenda for the UK at this time.

Unlike direct-recording electronic voting systems, e-counting systems retain the possibility of manual auditing: observers can count a set of ballots and compare their counts to those the computers produce. However, such audits must be carried out in parallel to the computer counts to ensure that neither fraud nor software error influences the election's outcome. While some US areas have mandated this kind of manual sampling of ballots, the UK has so far shown a strong reluctance to do this. Sampling was not included at previous London e-counts, even though a sample recount performed in a 2007 e-counting pilot in Breckland showed significant differences between the manual and electronic results.

It is this issue that makes e-counting a risky decision. ORG's report into the use of e-counting in the 2008 London elections, based on the reports of our 27 observers, concluded 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." Transparency around the recording of valid votes was poor, and London Elects was unable to publish its audit, commissioned from KPMG, of some of the software used due to claims of commercial confidentiality on the part of the vendors.

ORG's view

Accordingly, ORG believes that e-counting is only appropriate if: - Manual verifications of the electronic counts are carried out; - Measures are in place to provide independent scrutiny of both hardware and software; - Electoral agents are trained to deal with machine errors; - Expensive electronic systems are abandoned on cost grounds where manual counting is clearly cheaper.

Failing these conditions, ORG recommends the retention of voting with paper and pencil and manual counting.

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