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Nominet election shambles sparks call for re-vote

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Prospective board candidates for UK registry Nominet have called for a re-run of the election - just hours after the ballot closed and before the votes have even been counted.

Andrew Bennett and Angus Hanton are among six up for the two non-executive positions at the company that runs all .uk internet domain names and have called for the contest to be run again after a calculation cock-up by ballot specialists Popularis was discovered at the last minute.

That cock-up meant some members now have several times their previous weighted votes and are in a position to determine the final results. "Some members now have more votes than they thought they had - and may not have voted at all," explained Bennett.

Hanton, meanwhile, has written both to Nominet chairman Bob Gilbert and Popularis outlining why he thinks a re-election is the only fair course of action.

A list of all Nominet members with the votes allocated to them was produced on 23 August and used by several of the candidates to plan their campaigns. However, the day before Nominet's annual general meeting in London yesterday, and the day after the deadline for proxy and postal votes, Nominet says it discovered that there was "an error in way that domains were counted" and produced a second list with re-calculated votes.

Hanton and Bennett both argue that they relied on the list in their lobbying campaigns and would have spent their limited time and resources very differently if the true figures had been available.

"[The old list] systematically understated the vote from members who would have been most likely to vote for me and Andrew Bennett," explained Hanton. "I, at least, was therefore misled into not lobbying my 'natural supporters' to them to get them to vote because of this false information."

Hanton has got a point. Due to the intricacies of the Nominet voting system - which splits a quarter of all available votes equally between members and then provides a single extra vote for each .uk domain that a member has bought from Nominet (there are 4.7m counted .uk domains) - it is possible for a very small number of people to play a deciding role. But most significantly, under new voting rules that Nominet brought in to make voting fairer, there is a cap of three per cent of votes from any one member when it comes to board elections (the cap is 10 per cent on other business).

The net result of this, and the fact only 10 per cent of Nominet members have traditionally bothered to vote, is that all the candidates are effectively chasing a pool of 400,000 votes, and no one member will be able to cast more than around 12,000 votes (because of the three per cent cap on votes cast).

A number of huge discrepancies in the before and after records has put that system's equity in doubt, however. While most members saw their allocation double, some saw far greater increases. For example, registrar Any-web had its voting allocation increased from just 3,016 votes to 18,723 votes, and Malcom Baxter from 4,893 to 14,152. Really Useful Domains was allocated just 251 votes originally, but was in fact entitled to 7,477 - a 30-fold increase. Many more have seen similar increases.

The cock-up appears to have been in Popularis using the old system for calculating domain numbers - where only the domains bought or renewed in the previous year are counted, as opposed to the total number of domains. Because of the average two-year registration of .uk domains, this previously meant allocated votes rose and fell from year to year, and was something Nominet decided to end in August. By using the previous method by mistake, however, the earlier calculations for this AGM were based on 2.3m domains rather than the new figure of 4.7m.

Nominet accepted its mistake during the AGM, although chairman Bob Gilbert determined that the vote was legal, and suggested that Nominet may not have the power to rerun the election. Following criticism from members, however, Gilbert said he would ask Popularis to look at the figures and determine if the result was valid.

Popularis will now have to decide whether to stick with its figures and announce the results as intended this morning, or call the election null and void and reopen it. Either way, the meeting that Nominet hoped would go smoothly after its aborted EGM earlier this year has ended up in a shambles for a second time.

Nominet company secretary and director of legal and policy Emily Taylor told us the voting allocation error was "very regrettable, and as soon as we realised, we pulled out all the stops to fix the problem". She said, however, that the company is waiting on the figures and advice from Populis before deciding what to do. The company's primary concern was that the candidates felt they had been given a fair deal, she said.

Nonetheless, Taylor warned there might be legal issues surrounding what Nominet can and cannot do over the election. "Our current rules are very unusual and inflexible," she explained, although she declined to speculate on what the options were until the results came back from Popularis.

Nominet attempted to change its articles of association in March this year. The original Nominet rules were drawn up in a different era of the internet and sought to protect the company from the madness of the dotcom boom. However, the knock-on effect has been that Nominet is forced to run by what many see as arcane rules. The changes were lost in a series of three votes at the March meeting when Nominet's two biggest members voted against it, which itself sparked a reappraisal of the voting rules.

Nominet will receive Popularis' figures later today and hopes to make a decision by this evening. ®

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