Bedford Elections 2007 and the electronic counting
7th May 2007
Electronic counting is a pretty new thing when it
comes to British elections, and at 10am May 4th
2007 the town of Bedford took part in a trial to use
an electronic counting system sourced from Indra
The counting process is reasonable straightforward
in principle - paper votes are scanned and then verified.
Any papers that are questionable go to level one adjudication.
Anything that needs further adjudication goes to a second
level adjudication process nominally controlled by the
returning officer. Ballots which have been verified
are then counted and the system automatically tallies
There were three elections taking place on the same
day: the election for Mayor of Bedford, a number of
elections for Borough Councillors and also some Parish
Council elections. There were a number of different
voting systems in use: a limited form of STV (single
transferable vote) for the Mayor, first-past-the-post
with a single member returned for most Borough
Council elections and first-past-the-most with multiple
members for some Borough Council elections
and the Parish Council Elections.
In total, over 80,000 ballot papers would need to
be processed. Past experience of manual counts indicated
that this would take between four and six hours. However,
in the end the electronic counting system took a staggering
16 hours to deduce the final result.
Before I start to examine some of the flaws of the
Indra supplied counting system, I would like to make
it clear that the Borough Council staff processing the
count worked extremely hard and I do not hold them responsible
for the problems that occurred.
The problems began early on in the process. There
were around half a dozen scanners to scan 80,000+ papers.
Although the scanners should have been able to "feed"
the ballot papers quickly enough this process fell apart
The initial problem was that some of the ballot papers
had glue along the top and these did not go through
the scanners. Somebody managed to find a pair of scissors
in order to "trim" the ballot papers but this
still led to delays. Productivity improved significantly
when a second pair of scissors were found.
Also many ballot papers had been incorrectly torn
off at the polling stations due to problems with the
perforations. Although these passed through the scanners
correctly, they were mis-scanned later in the process.
Although only one ballot paper was meant to be scanned
at a time, there were some cases in which up to three
ballot papers were picked up at once. In these cases,
only the "top" vote was counted and the rest
was lost. It is not known how many papers fall into
First Level Verification
The verification process was meant to examine each
ballot paper for a valid vote and then move it along
to the "counting" stage if valid, else this
was passed to first level adjudication. Initially 10
stations (laptop computers) were used for this process.
However, a very high level referrals meant that these
stations became overwhelmed with around 30% of all ballots
being referred to the adjudicators - which is about
24,000 papers split between 10 stations. It has been
reported that 17,000 of these votes were for the Mayoral
Apart from ballots that genuinely required adjudication
(e.g. spoiled ballots, incorrect voting etc) the system
could not reliably differentiate between the "1"
and "2" votes written on the Mayoral ballot
papers ("1" is for first preference, "2"
for second). The computer system repeatedly failed to
confuse "1"s written with serifs for "2"s.
Although voters were told to write "1"
or "2" only on the paper, no guidance was
given on how to write the numbers for the benefit of
the OCR system. Also, many thousands of voters used
a traditional "X" instead of a "1"
or "2" which is still counted as a valid first
preference vote.. although the computer system did not
understand this and it referred all such votes to first
Although the Mayoral count was more
complex because of the first/second preference voting,
a human counter would easily be able to cope with "X"s
on the ballot.
Overall, far too many ballots were referred
to first level adjudication due the way the computer
system was designed. For most of the 16 hours of the
count, the people operating the first level verification
computers were swamped.
The work was very difficult for the
human operators as there were three different voting
systems in use on that date and the ballot papers were
coming through more-or-less in a random order. This
meant that the adjudicators continually had to adjust
their "mind set" depending on which paper
they were looking at.
Returning Officer Verification
At the start of the counting process,
three stations were set up as "second level adjudication".
These were meant to be for any ballots referred from
the first level adjudicators. It soon became apparent
that all three stations were displaying exactly the
same ballot paper, rather than three different ones.
As a result, the "second level adjudication"
stations were reduced from three to just one.
Nominally, second level adjudication
is the responsibility of the returning officer, but
in this case it was a nominated employee. In the Indra
system the second level adjudication takes place at
the RO (Returning Officer) station.
Two types of ballot paper were being
referred - the first type were those papers where the
determination was unclear and the voter's intention
had to be carefully scrutinised in conjunction with
the guidance notes that had been issued to both staff
and observers beforehand (this was a new thing at this
election and was a very good idea). This meant that
the papers often had to be looked at closely and discussed
with the political agents and/or the returning officer.
In some cases there was no precedent or guidance set,
so the discussions could take place for some time.
In some cases ballot papers had become
folded while scanning and the ballot had to be manually
retrieved from storage. In other cases the determination
of the voter's intention was hampered by the poor resolution
of the scanned image on screen.
The second type of ballot paper referred
to the RO station were ballot papers where the serial
number could not be determined. This was either due
to a misprint (in some cases) or a mis-scan where the
scanner could not determine the location of the barcode
- this usually happened where the ballot had been incorrectly
torn off. It came as a surprise to the observers that
the serial number was being recorded alongside the vote
as this could be viewed as compromised the secrecy of
the secret ballot.
These mis-scanned ballots effectively
clogged up the RO station and led to severe delays.
Worse still, a flaw in the counting software meant that
any ballot with a missing serial number could not be
"skipped" and looked at later, and this sometimes
held the system up while the paper was located - in
one case this took over half an hour when nothing could
Around 2% of all ballots were referred
to the RO station causing significant delays.
With a pure paper-based ballot there
is complete transparency in the voting process - each
individual ballot can be scrutinised by counting agents
working for the candidates. With the scanning system,
the vast majority of ballots could never be scrutinised.
There were cases when votes could be
seen on the adjudication screen where the papers were
stuck together. I personally saw this three times, but
it is not known how many other papers went through in
this way. In one case three papers were stuck together,
but only one vote could be recorded.
In this particular case, the Spanish
consultants had arranged to leave with their equipment
that night. If the vote hadn't been completed on the
Friday then it would have to be recounted again manually
the next week. In order to get the count done, staff
worked from 10am on Friday morning to almost 2am on
Saturday with very few breaks. In addition, the building
where the count was taking place had been booked for
a wedding the next day so the count could not over-run.
Insufficient monitoring of the count's
progress was taking place. One good feature of the Indra
counting system was that the full statistics of the
count could be observed, including the rate of progress
and number of ballots in the queue. It became clear
to most people at an early stage that progress was slow,
although the full extent of the backlog did not seem
to be realised. This can in part be put down to a lack
of familiarity with the new system.
The counting process relied heaving
on support from the Spanish company providing the equipment.
I cannot believe that this level of support is scalable
to large-scale use in the UK.
As stated before, the ever-changing
ballots required an incredibly high level of concentration.
This was difficult enough as an observer, but for those
actually adjudicating this must have been almost impossible.
The ballot papers should have been separated before
being processed in order to make the task easier.
A minor issue, but an important one
to those involved in the process was that the poll results
for each election were generated with the candidate
with the most votes being read out first, rather than
the standard practice of being read out in alphabetical
order by surname. This meant that the first name read
out was always the winner which rather spoiled one of
the few bits of enjoyment to be had out of this process.
Despite all the problems, there was
one significant advantage with the Indra system: in
the Mayoral election, voters had a first and second
preference vote. If their first preference is eliminated,
then their second preference vote is counted instead.
The Indra system coped well with this, and this negated
the need for further counting (which would be needed
in a paper-based system).
As implemented, the Indra system offered
no advantages over the traditional paper-based approach.
The lack of flexibility and problems with accuracy let
to delays. The low-tech approach offers a great deal
of flexibility and scrutiny, whereas the computerised
version did not.
It was probably not a good idea to attempt
the trial on such a large-scale election with twice
the number of ballots as usual. It was only due to the
dedication of staff (and presumably the glossing over
of workplace health and safety regulations) that allowed
the result to be delivered at all.
Certainly, some delays were due to unfamiliarity
with the process, however the lack of flexibility is
a major disadvantage. I sincerely hope that this system
is never used again in the UK in its current form.