Problems with E-Counting
I have some previous experience with e-voting and e-counting from the "More ways to vote" trial in St Albans in 2003 while I was still a member of that authority. In fact, that election was the last one I personally contested in St Albans.
Overall that trial appeared to raise turnout by some five percentage points, and everyone involved accepted that the results as eventually declared reflected the wishes of voters, but there were some fairly serious teething problems with the systems. Most voters managed to vote fairly easily, with a few vocal exceptions, but candidates and the returning officer's staff had some difficult moments and long delays, and we didn't actually get the final results confirmed and verified until long after a conventional paper count would have been completed. In fact I can recall the unusual experience of sitting opposite piles of ballot papers the relative sizes of which showed quite clearly that I was ahead of the nearest challenger by three to one, and still being worried that I might have lost. (Enough votes had been cast by the internet, telephone, or touch screens at polling stations that if all of them had been Liberal Democrat I would not quite have made it.)
My ultimate conclusion was that this was potentially a good way forward but we were not quite there yet and would have to make a better job of it before such a system could be permanently adopted.
So I suppose I should not have been shocked by today's "Open Rights Group" report on the London Mayoral elections. But I was.
Reading that independent observers had “Insufficient evidence” to declare their confidence in the result of an election is the sort of thing we have heard from Kenya and Zimbabwe, but I did not expect to hear it from the capital city in one of the oldest democracies in the world.
I don't personally doubt for a quarter of a second that Boris Johnson's win really did reflect the way Londoners voted. There is no way the government or the outgoing London administration would have rigged a vote for the opposition!
Nevertheless, to have even the slightest question cast on the integrity of the result is a situation which we must not allow to be repeated. We have already heard some worrying things about postal votes - it is time for all-party action to make sure we can retain complete trust in the credibility of British elections.
A summary of the Open Rights group posted today in the e-Voting section of their website reads as follows:
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.