London confirms choice to use e-counting again

Given the signs, I’m not hugely surprised that London Elects have decided to go with e-counting again for 2010. It’s only likely to cost the taxpayer about £1.5 million more than doing it manually… and that doesn’t seem to bother Boris, but it bothers me. The DRS release claims that, if the GLA agree to use them in 2016 too, then they will be £0.2m cheaper per election than manual counting. But based on my review of the GLA figures for manual counting, they were seriously inflated to make e-counting look more attractive (and the Electoral Commission concurred). So I challenge DRS’ claim to cost-effectiveness.

As is often the case, rather than recognising the fundamental difficulties with e-counting (or e-voting), the GLA have decided that last time’s problems were because of the supplier they chose. So they’ve dumped Indra for a joint venture between DRS Data Services and Electoral Reform Services. (Disclosure: I’m a member of the Electoral Reform Society who own Electoral Reform Services.)

These were the same two suppliers involved in running the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, which also experienced significant problems as observed by ORG. Given his background and the sensitivity of these contracts, it is interesting that Lord (Neil) Kinnock remains on the board of DRS.

ORG will be planning to observe these elections once again. I hope they are trouble-free and improve on the experience in 2008. We’ll be watching!

Full announcement on the DRS website


London: We have a non-answer on e-counting

So London Mayor Boris Johnson did answer Andrew Boff’s question on e-counting, or did he? Here’s the background on the question, and the section of Mayor’s question time copied in below (source [PDF]):

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?

Answer from the Mayor:

The Authority’s Scheme of Delegation quite properly gives the Chief Executive, in his role as the Greater London Returning Officer, the right to take all the decisions about how GLA elections are delivered. That accords entirely with the practice across the country that politicians contest elections, and do not decide how they should be run.

The answer completely dodges the nub of the question as well as the budget setting powers of the Mayoralty along with the London Assembly. Of course politicians in power get a say in how elections are delivered, why else would a race for e-voting have been begun when Robin Cook had suggested an electronic general election after 2005 was a target?

Boris either doesn’t care, doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to take on his Chief Executive.

The question now becomes, how do we hold the Greater London Authority’s Chief Executive to account about election arrangements if the directly elected Mayor won’t?


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.

notes from JK voting

A bad day for the public interest

What a strange day it has been. I’ve had a very productive time at work whilst lots of other things have been bubbling over:

  • London Elects and the Greater London Returning Officer (the people responsible for the London Mayoral and Assembly elections) had asked for responses to their cost-benefit analysis of manual vs e-counting in 2012. I had just completed ORG’s response earlier this week, which argued that given the £1.5m saving from going manual, there seemed to be no good reason for e-counting. Today was a ’round table’ to also explore issues covered in the analysis. However rather than being the consultation event we expected, ORG’s Executive Director was told that the decision to e-count the 2012 London election had already been taken. Not even a pretence of keeping an open mind! No proper debate or consideration has taken place, just a firm commitment to press ahead with e-counting regardless of costs or consequences.
  • Meanwhile in Brighton & Hove I submitted a formal request to Brighton & Hove City Council’s acting Chief Executive that he ‘call-in’ a decision made by the Tory Cabinet earlier this month. This means the decision is suspended and hopefully will be examined by a scrutiny committee. Why? Because the reports for the decision, over pedestrianising parts of East Street,  failed to include comments from any residents in spite of several having provided detailed objections. Council decisions cannot be based on consultations which have failed to include residents views. This just makes people (more) cynical about consultations and prevents decisions being taken on the balanced information.
  • Finally some Freedom of Information requests I put in some time ago have come to fruition, somewhat explaining why such huge rent rises are being demanded from seafront businesses. The reason? A big fat commission-based fee for the consultant leading the rent reviews for the Council. More details in “Huge consultant fees encourage seafront rent hikes“.