Investigators looking into the cock-up that was the May elections in Scotland have issued their final report. Looking at the media coverage, you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd given the whole thing a clean bill of health. Headlines proclaim the report's conclusion that the electronic counting process was not to blame for the …
Was there random sampling tests?
Did they pick a random district and hand count it to validate the counting machines?
There's a few known attacks on these vote counting machines.
1. Deliberate mis-calibration of the machines, in your opponents stronghold districts (spotted in Florida).
2. Setting machines to ignore borderline votes in opponents districts, while setting them to reject (so they can be retried) in your own districts. (also spotted in Florida by Greg Palast).
3. Out and out fraud, then fixing the random recount by precounting potential 'clean' districts until you find ones that will pass the recount, then 'randomly' choosing those districts as the districts to be rechecked (seen in Florida again).
It's not so bad in the UK because the voting is controlled by independent body, rather than politicians, but it's important that everyone has confidence in the vote, so it should be done anyway.
I can live with this
The method choosen was a manual vote, that's a ballot paper and a pencil. These papers were then scanned and the vote registered (or not).
I can live with this as the fall back position was then to count the votes by hand. If however the entire system was computerised then there would be no ballot papers to count when things went tits-up and we would still be arguing who was in charge in Scotland. Some problems need to be fixed like two vote on one paper but for goodness sake lets keep the ballot paper system.
The problem with the Scottish vote is that we had Scottish parlimentary elections and council elections at the same time with two different voting systems. This led to confusion and the incorrect filling in of voting forms.
The Sottish electronic count is probably the best system there is. As there are paper votes you can resort to manual counting if things go wrong. However, machines are generally better at counting than humans, so should reduce the number of miscounted votes.
I think all we ned to do is allow ourselves an extra day of counting - this would allow a sample of the electronic votes to be hand counted to check that there hasn't been a systemic error that could skew election results.
"In May this year, seven constituencies had to abandon the electronic counters, amid accusations of computer crashes and scanners failing to cope with folded ballot papers."
Were those seven constituencies in Scotland or England? I think they were in England, and hence have no relevance to the Scottish experience. Nice work Lucy.
Counts were suspended in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Eastwood and Perth and Tayside North, among others. None of which, as far as I can tell, is in England.
Unless you are proposing that we redefine the borders somewhat..?
Tim, the evidence suggests that the electronic system wasn't the best. The amount of ballot papers that it rejected was wholly unacceptable. It seems that the system was untested on a large scale and as a result was unable to handle the variety of handwriting that was passed through it. In addition there was no scrutiny of the system, either of hardware or software and the software was all closed source.
This was a system that was being tested in a live situation, and effectively disenfranchised a lot of people because of that. The usual lack of comprehension within the government meant that the system was passed through pretty much on the nod, for which someone senior should have taken responsibility. A democracy cannot afford to have the core process of its society left to the lowest bidder and without public scrutiny, as it rapidly stops being a democracy. Pencil and paper is the only solution until the people who make decisions on our behalf understand this.
But suspended != abandoned, counts were abandoned in England for sure, and only suspended in Scotland. Minor detail I know.
Core processors and functioning peripherals
>> "A democracy cannot afford to have the core process of its society left to the lowest bidder and without public scrutiny, as it rapidly stops being a democracy."
Have you met the New Boss? He looks a lot like the Old Boss.
The counting machines and software used in the Scottish elections is the same that has been used for the previous London Mayor elections. Now I could be wrong, but it all seemed to work OK then (I would imagine if someone had called it into question the news would have even reached up here!!). In addition, DRS has supplied the same system to other countries who continue to use it without any problems. The confusion came when the Scottish Parliament (or whoever) decided to make the voting forms so complicated that people couldn't understand them. After all the counting had taken place, all the hard drives from the counting machines were surrendered to the returning officers.
Personally I would like to see a return to manual counting but this would probably not be possible if they continue with the STV system - I heard it would take days to calculate this by hand. I think its interesting that Alex Salmond seems to be saying that the election was flawed but hasn't offered to call another one - funny that!
I was there...
I was an election agent in May, so I was at one of the counts, at least until it was suspended and I went home to bed. It was fascinating to watch the papers go through the scanners and watch the OCR (or image matching, or something) software doing its job. From what I could see, it was working well. It should have been a quick and accurate count. However, as far as I can understand, there were two problems; one technical, one organisational.
The technical problem was the one that stopped the stopped the count on the night. Having done the right thing and distributed the processing across many (I think 31) counting centres, some towering genius then introduced a single point of failure with a central server to which all counts reported. The central server, of course, failed for a lengthy period of time. This was serious, but it was not the cause of the rejected ballots.
The organisational problem seems to have been a rather bizarre algorithm in the way that "recognised" papers were accepted. The parliamentary paper had two voting columns - one for the MSP, one for the party. In Scotland we choose one MSP for each constituency on a personal vote, then another seven from party lists. Yes, eight MSPs per constituency. It seems that if a voter cast a party vote but no personal vote, the entire paper was rejected. This worked against many of the smaller parties (we have a multi-party system up here) and may have led to the annihilation of the SSP. There is a good argument that whoever devised and/or approved of this algorithm is culpable in an electoral fraud. This fault only affected the parliamentary election, not the local government election.
Despite these problems I think that the voting methodology was good. PR is a good way to elect politicians, but too complicated to count and allocate to do manually. I would have no hesitation in using e-counting again next time, but I will bite, kick and scratch not to allow e-voting. At least we still have a paper trail, and if we really wanted we could run all of the papers through the machines again.
PS Hope you don't mind the anonymity, but I'm going to be an election agent again and I need to keep on the good side of our Returning Officer.