Interesting times for those of us who follow electronic voting in all its guises. Following on from the £91m on voting machines which the No campaign claims AV will (debunked all over!) comes claims that Neil Kinnock will benefit personally from being associated with DRS Limited, a company which makes vote counting machines.
But let’s start at the beginning. Here in London we have 3 councillor wards, all elected on the same day which makes counting a nightmare because of cross-party voting. I’ve seen BNP, Green and Lib Dem, all voted for on the same ballot – I had to rub my eyes to check I wasn’t seeing things! In 2010, Blue Peter won the contract and this hideously complicated ballot was counted in Enfield using the latest in technology – lined cardboard, double sided sticky tape and some conscientious counters. And a damned fine job they made of it too. Compared to this, counting AV is a walk in the park so where’s the call for voting machines coming from?
Perhaps because the London GLA elections have been counted by electronic counting machines (automatic scanners – you still get ye olde ballot paper to mark in the polling station) and it’s worked reasonably well in the past; but there are issues. Firstly, the elections are only held on one day every few years, and for the rest of the time the scanners are idle. This means that the financial overheads of an election counted by machines can be high. Secondly because this is a niche market, there are few players and there are already concerns that the 2012 elections might be short of equipment because it overlaps with other elections. So perhaps 2012 will see a resurgence of manual counting.
But what about electronic voting machines in the polling stations, tallying up as they go? Over my dead body! Firstly our elections run smoothly and calmly (baring some notably balls-ups in 2010) because a dedicated band of pencil pushing volunteers man our polling stations and can handle any minor hiccup such as a spoilt ballot paper. But they’re not expected to be technology experts and even if they were, how many would be totally au fait with the “Votamatic 2013 v4.3” on its debut outing? None – so if anything went wrong, all voting would stop until the engineer could come out and deliver the all important kick. And even with paper receipts (which remarkably few such machines produce) there would always be the concern of tampering with the machines. At least with electronic counting, we can cross-check the paper ballots by counting some by hand and seeing if they match the count done by the machines.
So all in all, electronic counting is used, but it’s hardly revolutionized elections and frankly, most people I know would rather see elections counted by hand, right there in front of you for all to see. Nobody’s suggested that AV will be counted by machines, and there’s no reason to believe it ever will be.
So where does that leave Neil Kinnock’s millions? Well I suspect he’ll continue to make a small income from his shared, and electronic vote counting will continue and perhaps catch on in countries where they don’t have the experience of running a paper count using experienced volunteers, but millions? I doubt it. And whether you vote YES! or No on May 5th, isn’t going to change Neil’s bank balance one bit!
P.S. Some people have wondered how you would count an AV election. Well I envisage each candidates “pile” actually being a number of piles, one for the “first preference for this candidate”, one for the “second preferences transferred to this candidate” and so forth. If this candidate drops out, each pile is then redistributed individually so the counters redistributing the “second preference…” pile need only look for the “3” on the ballot and redistribute based on this. So each set of counters is looking for just one number making the job simpler. In this way the redistribution becomes a small set of simple tasks, not unlike a mini first past the post count. Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, something so simple that even you or I could do it! And not a machine in sight.