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Election e-counting imposed against advice

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Boris Johnson's top official is headed for a clash with the elections watchdog over his personal decision to use electronic counting machines at the next London election - despite serious concerns over fraud and costs estimated by his own staff at £1.5m more than a manual count.

Leo Boland, chief executive of the Greater London Authority, revealed the decision this week at a meeting with Electoral Commission representatives.

They had expected to discuss the case for and against e-counting at the 2012 election. A source at the meeting said Commission representatives were "absolutely livid" at the fait accompli.

Following last year's mayoral election, the Electoral Commision registered "significant concerns about the use of e-counting for elections in the UK". Observers found discrepancies in the number of unspoilt ballot papers and the number of votes registered by the scanning machines.

The Commission then called on the GLA to carry out a cost versus benefit analysis of e-counting before committing to it again. This week's meeting was supposed to be a discussion of its conclusions - which included the finding that it cost an extra £1.5m compared to manual counting - but Boland had already made the decision on the basis of the time saved by e-counting.

Today, a spokeswoman for the Electoral Commission declined to comment on the GLA's move. She said the Commission would publish its response to the cost versus benefit analysis as planned next week.

A source said Boland, who draws a salary of £205,000, should expect it to be very critical.

It was also confirmed at the meeting that only two suppliers are in the frame for the multimillion pound London e-counting contract. Both Milton Keynes-based DRS and Spanish firm Indra have been involved in election controversies in the UK.

DRS supplied the machines that were at the centre of the disastrous 2007 Scottish election, when a massive ten per cent of ballots were discarded by the machines as spoilt, with no human oversight.

Meanwhile Indra supplied the machines that drew criticism in London in 2008. It also supplied machines at the centre of an abandoned e-count by Breckland Council in 2007.

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group (ORG), which acted as an official observer organisation at the London e-count last year, said Boland's decision suggested he didn't understand the problems associated with e-counting.

He said: "Given the desire to charge ahead without proper analysis of its own Cost Benefit Analysis, and analysis of its suppliers, ORG is not confident that the GLA properly understands the risks it is taking.

"Putting aside the risks from technical errors, failures or hacks, the GLA have completely failed to make the case that spending £1.5m more on the 2012 election is the best way to spend London taxpayers' money."

Killock added that ORG believes the GLA's cost versus benefit analysis had been biased in favour of e-counting, and had probably underestimated the extra expense.

At time of publication the GLA hadn't responded to The Register's questions about its decision. ®

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