Where next for e-counting in London?

On 18th November I hope to find out the future of e-counting in London. Conservative London Assembly Member, Andrew Boff, will be asking London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson the following question:

Question No: 3574 / 2009
Andrew Boff

For the 2012 elections would the Mayor prefer a £5million+ electronic count where the bulk of the costs would go to a foreign computer company or a £3.5million manual count where the bulk of the costs would go into Londoner’s pockets? (Source [PDF])

This question sums up the view the Open Rights Group and I have been advocating. Does it really make sense to splurge a huge sum of money on e-counting when we know a manual count would be cheaper, let alone easier to verify and more trusted by voters and politicians alike? In these times of restricted public funds wouldn’t the millions for e-counting be better spent on other priorities – I certainly think so.

The back story is that after strong urging from the Electoral Commission and the Open Rights Group, London agreed to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of continuing with e-counting versus using manual counting. When it finally emerged the analysis was obviously biased towards e-counting, trying to minimise the greater cost of e-counting as much as possible.

When a round table was organised to discuss stakeholder views of the analysis, attendees were told that London would proceed with e-counting regardless, rather making the process and that meeting pointless. The Guardian picked up the story. At this point ORG released its own comments on London’s analysis (which I led on drafting) but the Electoral Commission had yet to release theirs.

When the Commission did release their views (something which I was very remiss not to blog on then, sorry loyal readers) we were in for a pleasant surprise. The response was very direct in criticising the weakness of London’s analysis and failings in the UK Government in providing a clearer framework for the use (or not) of such voting technologies. The killer quote:

“However, having studied the cost-benefit assessment, we are concerned that there are potentially a number of gaps that suggest the advantages of e- counting may have been overstated. For example, it was assumed that e- counting was free from human error. Conversely, the assumptions made about the speed and accuracy of manual counting seem overly negative. Also, important safe-guards, such as preparing a manual count as a back-up and the manual checking of a random sample of ballot papers do not appear to have been considered when costing e-counting.

“Therefore, we would suggest that a determination that e-counting is affordable and that the cost is not significantly or disproportionately more than that of manual counting cannot be made without undertaking further analysis of the costs and benefits which takes into account these and other points…”

The Commission also notes the moral hazard in there being only 2 likely suppliers for running an e-counted London election. It also adds a final significant warning:

“We believe that there are considerable risks in undertaking a large scale e-counting exercise in the absence of such a national framework and that the current cost-benefit analysis by GLRO does not sufficiently fill the gap created by this absence.”

It was the strongest public statement I have ever seen from the Commission, and I couldn’t have been more delighted by the firm approach they took. GLA officers are understood to be re-doing some form of analysis following the Commission’s request for more work, meanwhile however procurement also seems to be going ahead. More coverage by Mark Park.

The hope is that Andrew Boff’s question will reveal the current direction and show how committed Boris Johnson is to spending taxpayer funds on election technology.