The Electoral Commission has published a report laying out a series of detailed and powerful criticisms of the cost-benefit analysis carried out for the Greater London Returning Officer into the use of e-counting for the 2012 London Mayor and Assembly elections.
However, the Greater London Returning Officer (GLRO) appears determined to go ahead with electronic counting, having told a meeting he had made this decision before even hearing the Electoral Commission’s views and despite even the flawed cost-benefit analysis showing that e-counting is more expensive than manual counting.
The Guardian reported on Wednesday:
The Greater London Assembly … indicated last week that it will go with electronic counting systems for the May 2012 elections. This is despite having a cost-benefit analysis prepared by its own returning officers, (who preside over ballot counts) which calculates that manual counting will cost £3.6m, and e-counting £5.1m – making it 42% more expensive.
Yet Leo Boland, the chief executive at London City Hall, who took office in January, told the Open Rights Group and other attendees at a round table that he would go ahead with e-counting for the 2012 elections.
The true difference in cost is likely to be even greater than 42%, because as the Electoral Commission states in a report just published on their website:
Having studied the cost-benefit assessment, we are concerned that there are potentially a number of gaps that suggest the advantages of ecounting may have been overstated. For example, it was assumed that ecounting 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 goes on to all but insist that the Greater London Returning Officer changes course:
We recommend that the GLRO should undertake the analyses described above before taking a final decision to award an e-counting contract. In the meantime, the GLRO should also make plans for a manual count, in case it is found that e-counting cannot be undertaken with sufficient transparency at an acceptable cost.
There are some signs that course will indeed be changed, for in an email to me yesterday the Greater London Authority said that, “While we are starting the procurement process for e-counting (and tenders should be received early next summer), we will re-calculate our CBA [cost-benefit analysis] at that time on the basis of what we then know so we can make a proper comparison”.
What’s perhaps most worrying about the story so far is way in which decisions have been made so far and the quality of the work being done to prepare for the elections (the flawed cost-benefit analysis). It suggests we are in for a very bumpy ride.
I certainly hope we are not in for a return to the bad old days of the 2000 elections, when the then Greater London Returning Officer decided they were a law unto themselves and refused to allow myself or the Conservative agent to check or query results before officially declaring them because he wanted to dash off to give them to journalists instead. That’s no way to run an election.
UPDATE: The Guardian has now covered the Electoral Commission’s report too.