How many votes went missing in London? The Electoral Commission weighs in

In the immediate aftermath of this May’s London Mayor and Assembly elections, it became clear that mistakes had been made during the count.

Some Mayor votes in Merton and Wandsworth were omitted from the count. In addition, the checking process was flawed as votes were reported from more wards than exist in London.

Neither of these errors were serious enough to suggest the wrong people were elected. But the next batch of problems to come to light, thanks to a report by the Open Rights Group, were on a much more significant scale:

Although the glitches are unlikely to have changed the overall result of the mayoral race – Boris Johnson won by almost 140,000 votes after second choices were taken into consideration – today’s report lists a string of potentially serious problems with the counting procedures used in the mayoral and London Assembly elections.

Among the deficiencies highlighted in the report are the counting of blank ballots as valid votes, frequent jams in the scanning machines and a series of bugs and system freezes. ORG’s observers also reported that they were refused access to parts of the process at counts in London Olympia and Alexandra Palace.

In at least two cases, the margin of error was greater than the winning candidate’s margin of victory, leading the group to conclude that there was “insufficient evidence” for it to say that the results were accurate.

Now the Electoral Commission has weighed in with its report into the London elections that concludes:

We have significant concerns about the number and size of discrepancies between the number of ballot papers expected and the numbers verified as having been scanned. We do not have comparable statistical evidence to support an assessment of whether the figures for these elections are significantly better or worse than would be expected at a manual count … the electronic counting system used at these elections did not support the more detailed notes that might provide an audit trail. (p.6 of their report)

In other words, “the numbers don’t add up; we don’t know why; it might be bad, it might not be; but there wasn’t a proper audit trail so we’re all left clueless.”

Not surprisingly, as a result (and to their credit) the Electoral Commission has made a series of recommendations for steps that should be taken if any future electronic counts are carried out.

They bear a certain similarity to suggestions I have made on behalf of the Liberal Democrats previously… But whilst previously none of the relevant authorities have been sufficiently interested in ensuring that electronic counting systems are accompanied by robust enough cross-checking systems to ensure that votes do not go astray, it looks like we may finally be making some real progress on this courtesy of both the London elections this year and also the fallout from last year’s Scottish elections.

The Electoral Commission also has some pungent words to say about the striking of deals with counting equipment suppliers that forbade the making public of the testing carried out on the equipment. Again, it’s been a long time coming.

For example, for the 2004 elections after repeated requests I was finally given a copy of the review carried out to check that there were test plans in place, but the full details of the tests, let alone their result, were all kept secret in the name of ‘commercial confidentiality’. I don’t think the London election staff who had to withhold test information were particularly happy about being placed in this situation, though it didn’t stop the same situation arising again in 2008.

Let’s hope that this time the Electoral Commission’s criticisms ensure that in future elections are run for the benefit of the public, with open and audited systems, rather than for the convenience of the commercial firms who have bid for the work.

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