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How scanners and PCs will choose London's mayor

Can e-counting technology get it right this time?

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Very few politicians are recognisable by their first names only, but next week, two such larger than life characters will face each other in the closest battle for the office of London Mayor since it was re-established in 2000.

The polls have the Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone running neck and neck with the Tory contender, Boris Johnson. So the count, on May 2nd, will be the most closely watched in recent times. But how much can we trust the technology that will tally up the votes?

As with the previous two Mayoral races, the votes will be counted electronically, a decision which might cause some eyebrows to raise after the disastrous electronic counting in last year's Scottish elections.

While every vote matters in every election, in a close race where the outcome could swing on a tiny percentage, each vote matters even more.

Indeed, after the Scottish debacle - in which scanners discarded some 70,000 ballot papers with no human oversight, and a further 70,000 ballot papers were judged to have been spoiled - the Electoral Commission recommended (pdf, and we paraphrase) that electronic counting not be used in major elections until the kinks have all been ironed out.

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Deputy Greater London returning officer John Bennett says he expects that, unlike previous years, all candidates will have a full staff of assistants and representatives at the three count centres across London, to make sure things are running properly.

A spokesman for the Electoral Commission told us that its position is still that electronic counting should not be made available at any further UK statutory elections until the Government has "undertaken a further programme of support and testing of the e-counting system".

But it specifically excluded the London Assembly and Mayoral elections from its ruling, because "we recognised that planning for the 2008 Greater London Assembly (GLA) elections is at an advanced stage".

By this, the Electoral Commission doesn't mean it was simply too late to switch to a manual count; rather, that London Elects had done a massive amount of testing and research to ensure the integrity of their chosen system.

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"We recognise that the Greater London returning officer has taken steps to ensure the integrity of the count but the GLRO is ultimately responsible for the organisation and conduct of the election and ensuring the successful use of e-counting," the spokesman concluded.

Deputy GLRO John Bennet explains that there are some major differences between the Scottish set-up and the system that will be used in May, from the technology that will do the counting right down to the design of the ballot papers.

"In Scotland, as in 2000 and 2004 in London, the scanners scan and interpret the vote in one pass," he says. "Now we're scanning in one pass and sending data to [an] interpreter PC which matches up with templates."

If the analysis identifies a problem with a ballot paper, then it is sent for adjudication rather than being declared spoiled. This means that a scanner cannot bin a ballot paper - only a returning officer will have that authority.

Technical support was also a major issue in the Scottish elections. With the count spread over more than 30 centres, when things went wrong, it was almost impossible for the engineers to respond quickly enough. In the London elections the counting will take place in just three locations, all of which will have a staff of engineers on hand to deal with any problems that arise.

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