Bad systems, not tired people get election counts wrong

Cross-posted from The Wardman Wire:Sleepy person

Both the recent controversies over whether or not general election counts should take place on the Thursday night and whether or not the 2012 London Mayor and Assembly elections should use e-counting touch, in part, on the question of the accuracy of manual counts.

This is an area where systematic evidence is very thin on the ground. For example, when recounts take place, there is no formal recording of the different recount results nor, when a result is declared, a formal recording that a recount took place. As a result, systematic analysis such as how often recounts occur, in what sorts of counts, and so on is all impossible. (Note to Electoral Commission: gathering this sort of data would probably have more practical benefits than some of the highly detailed but incomplete financial data you have got into collecting.)

As a result, comments such as “Thursday counting is bad because it means tired people and they’re more likely to make mistakes” can’t easily be tested against evidence other than people’s personal experiences.

So here are my experiences of how and why counting goes wrong in election counts with manual counting and either first past the post or regional PR.

First, though, you may quite reasonably ask why my personal experiences should carry any weight? The answer to that necessarily involves some self-puffery, for which apologies. I’ve been regularly going to election counts for two decades, averaging several counts a year and across different Returning Officers each year. Add in to that often being on the phone to someone in a count elsewhere in the country giving them advice, and I’ve got direct experience of a larger, more diverse (i.e. not just the one council) set of election counts than nearly anyone else. There are a few people with more experience, but not many. In addition, I’ve co-authored several editions of two election law manuals (for the Liberal Democrats) and served on the Electoral Commission’s Political Parties Panel for several years.

Back to the substance: how do counts go wrong?

The first stage in a count is emptying each ballot box and counting the number of ballot papers in that ballot box. This is then checked (“verified”) against the record of the total number of ballot papers that were given to voters to complete and place in that ballot box. If ballot papers given out equals ballot papers returns then you know the ballot box has not been stuffed. The numbers should tally, though quite frequently the numbers are out by 1 or 2 for individual ballot boxes. The variation is usually due to a combination of the occasional ballot paper being taken away by a voter rather than being placed in the ballot box and the occasional error in recording the number of ballot papers issued.

The verification stage is fairly robust because it involves checking data from two places (papers in ballot box, record of papers issued). It would be a remarkable coincidence for both to be wrong – and in the same direct and by (almost) the same amount, so that cross-checking the two totals doesn’t bring that to light.

In practice, the two items which can go wrong at this stage are sloppy counting and missing boxes. If sloppy counting is combined with a Returning Officer who is happy to let the verification stage pass even with discrepancies greater than 1 or 2 per ballot box, the result is totals which may well not tally with the final vote counts. If that happens, it’s easy then to be stuck with no way of finding out what went wrong and where in the process. Missing ballot boxes happen only rarely, but just sometimes a box is misplaced or forgotten and not included in a count. One example is a ballot box that was placed under a table and then forgotten about for the rest of the count.

In both cases, the safeguard should be a simple and clear system for recording the totals of ballot papers issued and counted in each ballot box, with a line for each ballot box so you can see if any are missing altogether. In addition, some Returning Officers show these calculations to election agents – which acts as an extra protection against mistakes.

In other words – the main cause of problems caused at this stage are poor systems (e.g. no check that all the ballot boxes have been included) or a Returning Officer who sees sharing information with election agents as a burden rather than as an extra insurance against errors. A tired person, with a good system will perform better than an alert person with a bad system.

The next stage is to then mix together ballot papers from different ballot boxes and to sort them out in to piles for each candidate. It’s at this stage that postal ballot papers are added in too. They will have gone through a slightly different process up to this point with again the main risk being that a large number of papers are mislaid and then main protection being good systems.

The main causes of mistakes during the sorting in to piles are either individual papers being placed in the wrong pile or, when a pile is scooped up to be placed with other votes for the same candidate as a prelude to counting them, placing a pile of votes for Candidate X in with votes for Candidate Y.

This is where the counting agents for each candidate can provide an important safeguard – as they will be watching out to make sure that none of their own votes are misplaced in this manner. Again, the attitude of the Returning Officer is crucial to how effective this safety net is. Did they allow a reasonable number of counting agents such that they can properly scrutinise the count? Are they given reasonable space to use and allowed to get close enough to the counting to see what is being done? Or are counting agents a headache to be kept away and is shifting around bits of paper out of sight under table tops seen as acceptable? And most crucially – are the bigger piles that the papers are gathered up in to in clear sight of the counting agents, who can therefore spot large pile of votes going astray?

The next stage is then to take the ballot papers for one candidate and start counting them up, usually in to batches of 25 or 50. The batches are then piled up and in turn counted up in order to get a vote total.

As in the previous stage, the main source of error is batches going in the wrong place. Take a batch of 50 votes, accurately counted, but put it in the wrong candidate’s pile and the accurate counting was for naught. As before, a major safeguard is the role of the counting agents. The other main safeguard, as all through the process, is the quality of the supervision of the counters by the “middle management” at the count. Flicking through piles of ballots, taking a second glance before moving bundles around and so on – that can all make a big difference.

For multimember elections, such as when three ward councillors are all up for election at the same time, this counting stage is a little more complicated because there are multiple votes on the same ballot paper. Often therefore the “block votes” where each vote is for the same party are sorted out, and then tallies made for the split party votes. Alternatively, tallies may be made straight-away. Tallying can either be done by recording five-bar gates as you go through each ballot paper in turn or by laying out a large number of ballot papers next to each other and then counting across to total the total number of votes for each candidate in that batch.

Whatever method is used, this is a stage liable to errors – and the sort of errors that it is hard for others to spot and query. However, as with other stages large errors are almost certainly going to result from either mathematical mistakes or from a batch of papers being put in the wrong place.

After the counting, the bundles (or tallies) of votes are added up for each candidate. The total of votes for all candidates, plus rejected ballot papers, should also match with the total of all the ballot box verifications.

Mathematical errors at this stage can make a large difference to the result, and this maths is often done away from agents and without them being given the sums to check and query. The systems used also vary greatly in quality, with some Returning Officers having spreadsheets into which all the numbers are plugged and any failures for totals to cross-check automatically flagged. Others do no cross-checking.

In other words, the main errors at this stage come from poor systems and from not allowing agents to cross-check calculations.

There is a common theme running through the stages. It is true that at all stages the more tired people are, the more likely mistakes are to happen. But in reality the far bigger impact on accuracy is caused by the systems used for the count. Clear records for collecting, totalling and cross-checking numbers protect from a myriad of possible errors. Sums that are only done once, not cross-checked and only dashed out on a scrappy piece of paper are far more vulnerable to error.

In my experience of mistakes being made at counts, there is a near inevitable low level of errors with individual papers going in the wrong pile or a pile of 25 papers actually being 26. These sorts of errors can be related to how tired or fresh the staff are. But the big errors – the ones that can change results – are of a different sort. They are the ones where poor systems allow large number of voters to be missed out, misplaced or miscounted.

Returning to the specific issue of whether counting with staff on a Thursday night means mistakes are more likely to happen, that is missing the main issue. If you’re worried about accuracy (and given what some Returning Officers get up to, there are times I certainly have been) then you need to worry about systems. Worrying about Thursday night versus Friday morning is like worrying about whether you are going to start a car trip in Reading or Oxford – but your destination is Beijing. It’s a trivial difference to the overall issue.

If you want a practical suggestion for reassuring people that election counts are accurate, don’t worry about Thursday night versus Friday morning. Instead introduce a new rule requiring the verification and vote tally calculations to be published along with the count result. That will force those Returning Officers with poor counting systems to raise their game – and that’s what really matters.

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14 Comments

  • In the past my council has delayed counting to Friday so that they can verify postal vote returns (checking the proof of identity form matches the records held by the council) using a machine set up in the council buildings, rather than risk it all going wrong by unhooking it and taking it down to the sports hall where the count will happen.

  • There is of course no reason for counting staff to be tired. Good returning officers employ different staff to man the polling stations to those counting the votes. Good returning officers also employ people to count the votes like cash office and bank clerks (if they still exist) who are expert at accurate paper counting.

  • As Dan says, there’s no reason for counting staff to be tired. However, given that the “independent” verification of the process and the voting is being done by party volunteers, this is where I believe the fatigue will set in. Many will have been up since 6am delivering “Good Morning” leaflets and knocking up, whilst others will have spent a full day at work before coming home to help out with campaigning. There is still a reliance on these volunteers to get the checking right and to spot the errors like the ballot box under the table or a bunch of votes in the wrong pile, and they’re more likely to get this wrong if they’re tired.

    Personally, I just don’t see the benefit of the Thursday night count – an extra 12 hours or so before the results are declared frankly aren’t going to make a world of difference.

  • One other factor is if the person managing the count is partisan. I remember a local by-election in Newham where it was obvious we had come 2nd to Labour. We polled 70% in two of the 6 pds with the Conservatives polling a general sixth of the vote across the whole ward. The other four pds were a good Labour lead over the Lib Dems.

    Yet the result that was to be announced was saying the Conservatives at 2nd place! The Labour supporting presiding officer was happy to just `call it a day as the result was clear` disregarding the importance of 2nd place and the idea that every vote must count.

    It was only when I piped up `I’m sure the local press would be interested in this` that he did a bundle -check and found 150 votes put in the Tory bundles that were for the Lib Dem candidate!

  • Excellent article Mark.

    “There are a few people with more experience, but not many.”
    I can’t think of anyone with your combination of practical and legal knowledge

    The one thing I would take a bit of an issue with is the “systems vs time of count”. There is almost certainly a tendency for Returning Officers to, for very human reasons, not want to prolong the count any longer than necessary and so to avoid procedures which make the count take longer whilst providing a check against error.

    The other thing the whole counting procedure lacks is a simple way to put right errors which are clearly acknowledge to have occured (eg box not counted, wrong candidate declared winner, clear error in totalling up votes). Any challenge to the result requires the candidate to lodge a petition (with financial guarantees etc). There should be an option for the Returning Officer to lodge a petition on his/her own accord in a case where there is a clear error

  • Just curious – following on from Hywel’s point, can anyone think of an example where an error by the returning officer – acknowledged or not – has led to the wrong candidate being elected? I seem to remember hearing of one where the wrong name was read out because two of the candidates’ names got mixed up on the declaration sheet, but the result had to stand as the declaration announcement was legally binding?

  • I’ve been involved in one (only one of two boxes counted) and I’ve a vague memory of it happening on other occasions. Usually this is where there are combined elections and the papers for one election are put to one side and only some taken back out to count.

    There was also an example a few years back where the wrong candidate was declared elected (and was officially declared as such – see below)

    There is a school of thought* which holds that it is the candidate whose name is entered on the “candidate returned” sheet which goes on display that is the “final and official declaration” However if that name is different from the winner agreed by agents etc the RO would be in a tricky spot. It does also sometimes happen that the RO fills in the official return, signs it and then uses that to declare the result.

    It’s a similar species of error but I also think there was an incident of the right three candidates being declared the winners but with the wrong vote totals against each name which had implications for who served 2,3 or 4 year terms.

    (* Mark and I have certainly held differing views on this in the past and I can’t recall whether we ever came to a complete agreement. Our disagreements were well into hypotheticals though 🙂

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Oct '09 - 4:11pm

    We had one in LB Lewisham where the Returning Officer “forgot” to ask the agents if they’d like a recount, in a three member ward where we’d won two of the seats and lost the third by 6 votes. He stood up there, we were waiting for the call “all agents come” but instead he made the official declaration. After that we were told since the official declaration had been made, it could only be challenged by an electoral court, and we would bear the (substantial) costs if the result stood.

    As it was, my feelings on looking at the ballot papers as they were counted was that the nature of the ballot layout and split votes probably meant we were unlikely to find lost votes for this candidate, but it was obviously galling not to have the chance to make sure.

  • There can also be problems with the quality of the scrutineers. For years the Tories didn’t seem to have a clue what they were at the count for and just used the time to socialise and bray about what oiks the Liberals were, but years of losing, and a professional agent, have made them raise their game and they now do a decent job of watching the count. Now it seems to be people from UKIP who wander around wondering what they are doing there.

  • tony, I think that pretty much reflects the Tories at every count I’ve been to! As for UKIP, isn’t it more the case that everyone else is wandering around wondering what UKIP are doing there….

  • Conservative Agent 7th Oct '09 - 7:20pm

    As a professional Conservative Agent with 30 years experience of counts in three of the UK nations, I agree with Mr Pack that it is the chaotic systems used by some Returning Officers that is the real issue.

    When I started out, the full-time EROs employed by the local councils were as interested in the electoral process as were the party agents – one even went so far as to ‘practice’ counts to try different ideas and indentify possible weaknesses in his systems. The ROs (often the Mayor or Chief Executive/Town Clerk) deferred to the ERO and allowed him to conduct the count and simply declared the result. Nowadays it seems that ROs with no day-to-day knowledge of electoral matters are intent on ‘being in charge’ and, in the recent European elections, I witnessed one RO cause total chaos by simply not understanding what was going on at the count.

    The sad demise of professional agents across the parties hasn’t helped matters nor has the consequent lack of opportunities to build solid working relationships with our opposite numbers.

    Final thought – my sole experience of electronic counting (in the previous London Mayoral election) left me feeling totally unsure of the accuracy of the result. The machines rejected votes which were promptly gathered and moved out of our sight … who adjudicated them, when and on what basis remains a mystery to me and the opportunity to conduct bundle checks (or any other check) was non-existant. Moving bits of paper around may be old-fashioned but, if done properly, it is totally transparent and easy to replicate should the need arise.

  • Martin Land 7th Oct '09 - 9:28pm

    Thirty seven years on from attending my first count, I still feel that things have gone downhill. I have an excellent relationship with my Conservative opposite number and we enjoy baiting our Returning Officer from time to time.

    On the whole it’s not General Election counts that trouble me. And on the whole again, County and District election counts are pretty good too.

    But it’s Town and Parish elections that concern me. Far too often there are two clerks covering each ward or Parish with as many as 20 candidates for perhaps 5 seats being checked off, vote by vote, on to a manual grid system. As this is enormously time consuming, RO’s refuse recounts even though the results are often VERY close, with a very flippant attitude (it’s only a Parish…) which shows little respect for the candidates who in these cases are willing to give up their time for no remuneration whatsoever to serve their community.

    I feel that these elections could be counted a day or two later in a special count where the time could be taken to get it right and perhaps make a bit of fuss of the candidates. I have 19 Town Councillors on my patch. They work as hard as our District Councillors with no allowance paid and deserve a better run counting when neither the Agents, the RO or the Counting Clerks are just anxious to get home after a tiring campaign.

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