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Observers criticise London e-count

Too many issues for full confidence

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The body which provided official observers to the London elections has said it was given insufficient evidence to feel confident in the results.

The Open Rights Group (ORG), which was accredited by the Electoral Commission to provide observers, has released a report that identifies a number of shortcomings in the electronic counting process.

London Elects, the organisation which runs the election, has contested several elements of the report.

In the executive summary it declares: "There is insufficient evidence available to allow independent observers to state reliably whether the results declared for the May 2008 elections for the mayor of London and the London Assembly are an accurate representation of voters' intentions."

London Elects contracted Spanish company Indra to provide an electronic counting system for the election. The ORG report says there were no procedural hitches, but that the level of transparency was inadequate.

It says a major problem was that the screens set up by the scanners showed data that was almost meaningless to observers, party candidates and agents. ORG says that officials have admitted that the system was likely to be recording blank ballots as valid votes. This was caused by setting the scanners to a level of sensitivity that was likely to record specks on the ballot papers as votes.

Observers had limited or no access to the servers linked to the counting equipment, which ORG says left a serious gap in the chain of accountability.

Transparency was also undermined by the fact that London Elects has been prevented by commercial confidentiality from publishing audits on the source code and the counting infrastructure.

Further problems arose with a bug that briefly caused the system to auto-process ballots, a system freeze during the second level of adjudication, and in discrepancies between the number of ballots scanned and the number polling station staff had recorded as being in the box. ORG says this "introduces an unacceptable level of uncertainty in the declared results".

A spokesperson for London Elects rebutted some of the criticisms in the report. He told GC News that the scanners had been subjected to intensive testing before the election, taking in their sensitivity levels, and that it was satisfied with their performance.

He also said that ORG observers had ample opportunity to see what was going on on the screens, that other observers had praised the system, and that constituency returning officers were satisfied that any discrepancies in the ballot were fully explained.

Becky Hogge, ORG executive director, said: "The problems around transparency observed by the ORG team can be solved, but it is important to ask: at what cost? Our report makes several recommendations to improve the transparency of any future e-count, but there comes a time when electoral administrators need to ask themselves whether electronic counting really delivers value for money to our democracy."

She told GC News that there was no evidence that the shortcomings had benefitted any particular candidate in the elections.

"Short of recounting the ballots by hand there is no way of knowing if this had a significant effect on the election," she said.

ORG concludes the report with three recommendations:

  • London Elects should perform a full cost-benefit analysis of e-counting against a properly costed manual count of similar scope.
  • There should be time for formal consultation at national and local levels before e-counting is used in an election.
  • There should be long lead-in times, at least 18 months, for the procurement and implementation of election technology.

Hogge said she was encouraged that ORG had been invited to attend the next meeting of the London Assembly's Election Scrutiny Committee.

The London Elects spokesperson said it was right that the process should be monitored.

"We welcome the report as it's important that people carrying out elections are scrutinised and it's good for democracy that what we are doing is watched," he said. "We will also welcome the report from the Electoral Commission, and it's important that we keep learning and improving."

He added, however, that ORG's criticisms were not a surprise as it is "anti-e-voting and anti-e-counting".

Last year ORG – a digital rights advocacy group - published a highly critical report on e-voting and e-counting in the English local elections and those for the Scottish Parliament. It has declared its opposition to continued use of the technology until there has been a full modernisation of the electoral framework.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

Kablenet's GC weekly is a free email newsletter covering the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. To register click here.

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