E-voting in Stratford is much ado about nothing

The Count
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Indy Politics

Technology made a disappointing debut in yesterday's elections as electronic voting and counting systems went into operation for the first time.

Technology made a disappointing debut in yesterday's elections as electronic voting and counting systems went into operation for the first time.

Ballot managers in locations from Warwickshire to Greater Manchester sought to harness the benefits of the microchip to make voting more efficient and counting more rapid. But the pilot schemes brought mixed results, with some declaring themselves defeated by the combination of chips and politics.

Stratford-on-Avon became the only local authority in the country to use the technology for all wards up for election. The system was introduced with a promise that it would make it easier for voters, increase turnout and make the final count quicker.

But it became clear from early on that the system had failed to deliver. Delays in making the ultra-quick technology work meant the results were not available any quicker than if human tellers had been used.

A spokesman for Stratford-on-Avon District Council said: "Generally we are a bit disappointed. It was not as quick as we expected and we will have to look at what happened.

"It was about half an hour quicker than the paper vote in 1996 for the same wards. Perhaps it was a logistical problem or a technical one, we just don't know yet."

Votes were cast on free-standing machines using a key pad with a similar layout to the traditional ballot paper. Instead of marking a cross in the box, voters pressed a button next to the candidate of their choice. When polling closed, a cassette containing the recorded data from each booth was taken to the council offices in Stratford. The total votes cast were then downloaded on to a computer and the results collated and announced by the returning officer, as well as being displayed on a large screen.

Bury, Greater Manchester, held the first election using touch-key electronic voting. The result was declared 56 minutes after polls closed. Council staff hoped to announce the figures for Besses ward within five minutes, but were delayed by technical problems.

Counting in the election for the London Mayor and Assembly was also conducted with the aid of technology. A system to count completed ballot papers electronically was used after testing in local council polls.

The machines, supplied by Milton Keynes-based Data & Research Services (DRS), can scan more than 100 ballots a minute and are claimed to be far more accurate than the traditional manual system.

But some London returning officers doubt whether electronic counting is quicker than using rows of counting staff at long tables. Wandsworth Council chief executive Gerald Jones, returning officer for the Merton and Wandsworth constituency, said he believed it would have been better to wait until reliable systems could be introduced for electronic voting as well.

Electronic counting was also used last night for the first time in the Hertfordshire districts of Broxbourne and Three Rivers.

DRS, a manufacturer of data recognition technology, specialises in electronic scanning of documents. The company processes more than 10 million UK exam papers each year.

Mr Jones professed himself confident with the counting equipment but admitted that speed would not be of the essence. He said: "I am sure it will work. The machines are incredibly accurate. They are more accurate than human beings, but rather slow."

He added: "Obviously the Government was determined to go for something which sounded modern. But in reality we could have got a much quicker count by hand.