A vote of confidence for electronic counting

Britain’s latest general election was the most controversial in decades, not least since it exposed the widening cracks in our outdated electoral system. The new coalition government has of course promised a referendum on the issue of electoral reform.
   
Putting to one side the enormous voter education programme needed to ensure the electorate is able to make an informed choice in such a referendum, it’s clear that considerable changes must be made to the mechanisms of voting and counting before proposals such as the Alternative Vote (AV) could possibly work.
   
Although returning officers and electoral administrators have, over the past decade, absorbed many changes to electoral legislation, particularly in the field of postal voting, the methodology that surrounds polling day itself has remained, essentially, unchanged for 100 years. A system that is struggling to cope with current practices would surely collapse if voters were to be given multiple options on their ballot papers in an AV or Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system.

Changing the system
It’s essential that the new government sets in place an immediate review of the way in which returning officers will manage a significant change to the voting system. Alongside any front-end method of casting votes must be an efficient back-end administration process.
   
Anyone who saw the footage of the army of individuals employed to herd ballot boxes in Sunderland on 6 May will start to get a feel for the level of pressure that returning officers are under, with candidates, agents, media and voters all pushing for a quick result. Rightly or wrongly, speed is a priority. Yet it was more than 18 hours before some constituencies declared their results. In the Republic of Ireland, where preferential voting is the norm, experienced administrators are known to have been re-counting ballot papers two or three days after the close of the polls.

Is there a solution?
Against such a backdrop, the obvious solution would appear to be electronic counting. The application of this technology at national level would bring a number of benefits, not least speed. The hundreds of counting staff who are currently required to work through the night would be significantly reduced. Where a hall full of 150 staff might be recruited to count by hand, just 30 would be needed to operate e-counting equipment. The efficiency savings are not hard to imagine.
   
These advantages have been evidenced by the successful implementation of e-counting in many statutory and non-statutory elections both here in the UK and around the world. However, questions have been raised over the accuracy, transparency and security of e-counting and these concerns must be met head on before a national roll-out can be sanctioned.
   
In addressing these issues, it’s important to emphasise that the use of e-counting ensures that every ballot paper is handled in an identical manner and the risk of human error is removed. In the vast majority of cases, where the voter’s intent is clear, the ballot paper is read and counted automatically. If there is any doubt over the voter’s intent, the ballot paper is automatically flagged and passed to the returning officer and their staff for review. This process allows for experienced administrators to deal with anomalies, while the technology makes very fast work of the majority of clear ballot papers.

Local Governments and their wish to harness the technology
The way in which individual local authorities harness technology differs greatly, but in the world of e-counting there are some notable authorities that are paving the way in modernising election administration. Indeed, e-counting can no longer be classed as a new or emerging technology, with many local authorities now experts in this field.
   
Westminster City Council, along with all other London boroughs, played a critical role in the administration of the inaugural London Mayor and Assembly Election in 2000. This was the first statutory election in the UK to use e-counting on any significant scale.
   
Looking forward to its full council elections in 2002, Westminster began to consider the use of e-counting for its own purposes. Operating under the Electoral Modernisation pilots programme, Westminster chose e-counting to deliver some significant objectives, including a significantly reduced team of staff and the faster delivery of results. The project required the counting of around 36,500 ballot papers for 20 individual multi-seat wards, yet results were delivered in around two-and-a-half hours.
   
When facing these elections again in 2006, Westminster City Council once more turned to e-counting – with full political support from across the authority. Again, Westminster City Council realised many benefits including allowing experienced staff to adjudicate doubtful ballot papers, while the e-counting technology took care of the ballot papers where the voter’s intent was clear. On this occasion the returning officer’s staff also manned and operated the scanning equipment.
   
In the interim period, Westminster was able to build on its experience and trial new workflows and technology during two further GLA elections in 2004 and 2008.
   
In the run-up to the 2010 election, elected members of Westminster City Council expressed a desire to continue their use of electronic counting. However, in view of the likelihood of combined general and local elections, central government determined there would be no electoral pilots and Westminster was denied the use of e-counting. So, after ten years of electronic counting, Westminster had to plan, staff and train for a manual count – with many of their core team members never having experienced a manual count in their time with the authority. As such, a great opportunity was missed. To have had a combined electronic count would have saved considerably on count staff resources whilst resulting in much speedier results.

A positive experience
Glasgow City Council is another authority that has taken hold of the technology and run with it. In 2005, the Scottish Government announced its decision to procure, centrally, an e-counting system for the combined Scottish Parliamentary and local government elections to take place in 2007. From day one, Glasgow City Council insisted on full ownership of the project, involving staff from all areas of the authority including election administration, project management, legal and technical.
   
Following the delivery of a hugely successful count in 2007, Glasgow made a firm commitment to build on its experience. Once again, here was an authority that wanted to move forward and not backwards. The council was determined to retain and further develop staff skills in order to reduce reliance on the supplier of the technology and deliver a locally-driven project. Since then, Glasgow has undertaken no less than four separate e-counting projects, underlining that this is hardly technology in its infancy.

Moving the strategy forward
Electoral modernisation pilot projects here in the UK have made some progress towards harnessing the capabilities of e-counting technologies. They have begun to establish an interest by voters and an appetite by electoral administrators to progress the introduction and safe use of these technologies. However, the Electoral Commission has been clear in its recommendations – the introduction of this technology should be within the framework of a defined government strategy for electoral modernisation. Suppliers of the technology welcome the use of accreditation and standards against which all technical solutions can be assured, giving the returning officers the desired consistency. Surely now is the time for the government to address this on a wider scale.
   
With a clear strategy in place and realistic timescales, the introduction of e-counting technologies can be managed to ensure security, consistency and accuracy – all of which will be transparent to all stakeholders in the electoral process.

Sonya Anderson is head of elections at DRS Data Services


About DRS

DRS is a global leader in the field of election management, with extensive experience of working with local authorities, national governments, educational establishments, international election stakeholders and public and private sector organisations.
   
It is DRS’ aim to help reduce the administrative burden of political elections and non-statutory elections, whilst ensuring the security, integrity and accuracy of the results.
   

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