Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/07/london_mayoral_election_observation/

What did happen to all those London mayoral votes?

We observe the election count

By Lucy Sherriff

Posted in Government, 7th May 2008 08:51 GMT

Last week, the nation turned out in record numbers (45 per cent) to decide who would run their local councils. In London, that meant voting Boris Johnson into what Ken Livingstone probably thought was his office for life.

Some time earlier, the Open Rights Group had called for volunteers to be part of an election observation mission, to see how the electronic counting process worked. In a burst of democratic fervour I signed up, and last Thursday found myself stalking down to a polling station in Hackney, wearing my official observer accreditation, and poking my nose in, in an official capacity.

Of course it took me a while to find the polling station. The local "youths" had been entertaining themselves by moving the signs to the polling station around. Arrows were pointing the wrong way, and some signs had been left outside people's houses. Of course, messing with access to the polls cannot be condoned, but I was impressed with one particular rearrangement of signs that sent hapless voters wandering literally in circles.

Having finally made my way to the station, I met one of the poll workers who muttered some things about the local "youths" in terms which I shall not repeat here, and set off to put the signs back in place. The presiding officer called the police, who tried to explain to the hooded BMX-ers that disenfranchising the public was not a highly regarded activity.

Broadly satisfied that democracy had not broken down at the polls, I headed home.

Bonfire of the ballot boxes

On Friday, I was dispatched to the Alexandra Palace counting centre. This is where ranks upon ranks of Fujitsu scanners would process hundreds of thousands of ballot papers, and ultimately determine who would be in charge at London's City Hall. Not the best choice perhaps, given the historic edifice's tendency to go up in flames. Nevertheless, we watched as the returning officer checked that the database had no data already in it, and the count began.

ORG has asked us not to discuss our findings until they have had a chance to complete their report. But it has been widely noted in the press that many of the ballot boxes were not properly sealed at the start of the count. This I certainly saw in all four of the constituencies being counted at Alexandra Palace. Some boxes seemed to have been improperly sealed, and may never have been closed. Others looked as though they could have been closed initially, but that the tape had not stuck properly.

The set up was apparently very simple: each of the four constituencies had a roped-off counting island, with ballot boxes stored in the middle, surrounded by scanners. Although observers were not permitted inside the roped-off area, screens facing outward would display thumbnail images of each ballot as the vote was tallied.

The postal votes were first through the scanners. Inevitably, there were some paper jams as the folded and often dog-eared bits of paper made their way through the machines. (The count began at 8:45, and I spotted my first paper jam at 8:47.) Things seemed to speed up a little as the counting staff became more familiar with the equipment, and as the postal vote was completed the scanners had to process fewer folded papers.

At the short ends of each constituency's rectangular island the adjudication staff sat at computers with double displays. This meant that ballots the scanners couldn't read would be clearly visible to observers, candidates and party agents outside the island. Second level adjudication, where votes could be discarded, was displayed on a big screen. Virtually all the party representatives clustered around these screens, arguing about whether or not a vote ought to be counted. I saw more than one stand-up row, as the finer points of election law were debated by very tired, very caffeine-fuelled people.

Just tell 'em Chad sent you

By 1:45pm the count had been running for five hours, and the machines in the North East constituency island had dealt with 216,000 of the almost 600,000 ballot papers. It was clear that the count would not be finished by 6:00pm, or even by 8:00pm. Fortunately, the second shift of the ORG team was due to start at 2:00pm, so I packed up my clipboard and, bleary-eyed (watching the scanned images flash by was oddly hypnotic), headed for home.

The most remarkable thing about the day was realising that election observers have only been allowed in the UK since 2006.

Anyone over the age of 16 can apply to be an election observer. I can wholeheartedly recommend it as an extremely interesting way of passing the time. Certainly any students of politics, even A-Level students, should make a point of registering and going along at the next opportunity.

We've been sending observers to elections abroad for years, to make sure emerging nations are doing it right, but our own electoral process was presumed to be above reproach.

It remains to be seen whether or not that is the case. Some of the staff involved in the count certainly seemed to think we'd be better off observing elections in places where there was actually widespread electoral fraud. But unless people check, how can you be sure that there isn't any here?

Important disclaimer: Although I was part of the Open Rights Group observation mission, I am by no means a spokesperson for same, nor should this report be interpreted as anything other than a personal account of an interesting couple of days. Further, in accordance with the rules election observers agree to abide by, this article has been provided to The Register free of charge. ®