Some observations on the European Count and talk of electronic counting

The vacuum of incomplete European election results will be filled today by discussion of the speed of the count and desires to introduce electronic counting.

The verification of the ballot papers had already been completed in the local government count centres, allowing European ballots placed in local government ballot boxes to be retrieved. [The local government and Euro elections will collide again in 2019, and the super councils can look forward to verifying both ballots again.]

countingThe sorting of first preference votes seemed to get off to a good start. Working through the new super councils in alphabetical order, ballot boxes were emptied into huge grey tubs from which sorters picked up bundles of ballots. I counted 108 sorting stations – custom constructions with a 3×4 grid that allow sorters to stack up the ballots for the ten candidates on one side, while other staff ran along the back and gathered up sorted ballots for a particular candidate and fed them through to the checking team and then on for counting.

Staffing levels seemed to be based on the 2009 Euro count with some changes made in the balance between different teams and disciplines. There was a 30% increase in the number of Euro ballot papers between 2009 and 2014 – up from 489k to 636k.

There was a great variation in the speed of individual sorters. Some lacked urgency (though the Chief Electoral Officer is keen to stress accuracy over speed). Sorters seemed to be sorting 1st preferences between 10 and 25 ballots per minute.

Count centres are a great source of information, misinformation and disinformation. Metal shelving along one wall of the hall turns into a giant bar chart as bundles of 1000 counted votes are stacked up under each candidate’s name.

Announcements throughout the morning noted the start and finish of opening ballot boxes from each council area. However, there seemed to be a very long lag between the boxes being opened and emptied into the grey tubs and bundles of counted ballots arriving on the shelving.

Indeed, the stage two exclusion of Mark Brotherston – who’s vote was dwarfed by the number of rejected ballots (the majority of which seemed blank rather than spoiled) – was sorted, checked and counted in a matter of minutes … yet there was a very long delay at the end of the chain before an announcement could be made.

You’d predict that the time taken to complete a stage would be proportional to the number of ballots handled (4,114 in the case of Mark Brotherson’s exclusion, 159,813 when Martina Anderson’s votes needed to be resorted to transfer her surplus) plus a constant administrative time at the end. My observation from last night watching sorters and counters sitting idle for long periods (one was busy revising for an exam this morning!) was that the final part of each stage – double checking the figures, making sure the candidate totals were accurate and labelling ballots was taking much longer than observers could fathom.

Comparisons with counts in other European regions need to come with a health warning. How many other countries are using a multi-stage voting system like STV? Labour rates and staff availability will all have major implications on the end-to-end timescales. But I’d love to see a time and motion analysis of the stages of this major five-yearly STV count.

city hall demoBack at the end of May 2012, Derry-based otp2vote demonstrated their electronic counting solution in Belfast City Hall.

The brochure from the day illustrates the layout they could use in one of the partitioned rooms in the City Hall that are used for council counts.

Observers could watch the opening of boxes and registration of papers; multiple scanning machines reading the ballot papers; adjudication stations where illegible marks could be accepted or rejected; and the final results.

opt2vote software was used by ”all 32 councils in the Scottish Local Government elections” in May 2012. Many other e-counting solutions are also available. e-counting may be faster, but it is expensive to rent the hardware and software, along with the supplier’s staff to be on site to rectify any problems.

Manual counting solutions are very flexible and can work around many unforeseen issues. Hairdryers have been deployed at previous Northern Ireland counts when ballot boxes were left out in the rain. I wouldn’t fancy scanning those ballot papers electronically.

[Note the difference between electronic voting (touch screen computers in polling stations) and electronic counting (paper ballots scanned in rather than sorted and counted by hand).]

And as Comrade Stalin blogged over on Lapsed Communist, the already-complicated STV process will be even less well understood and appreciated by a system that takes a couple of hours to scan in ballot papers and then spits out the results of every stage of the election – exclusions, surplus redistribution and final numbers – in an instant at the end. The pace of the current election system allows candidates to come to terms with potential disappointing results during the day.

Graham Shields, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, is keen to introduce an electronic-counting solution. Earlier today on Good Morning Ulster he noted that a change in legislation would be needed to allow e-counting in Northern Ireland, and that it requires the agreement of local parties to lobby the Secretary of State to proceed.

Elections are not cheap to run, and I don’t believe that the Electoral Office have infinite budget. There would have been the space to nearly double the number of staff in the Kings Hall Pavilion … but would fiscally prudent politicians and tax payers want to bear the burden of the extra wages to shave a few hours off the count?

I’m not at the second day of the count, but with fewer staff available to sort and count, the next few rounds of exclusions and vote transfers may still be painfully slow.

In the meantime, you can listen back to the Stage 1 announcement and hear how the parties reacted to each candidate’s first preference votes being read out.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.