The Liberal Democrats and Labour joined forces yesterday to issue a cast-iron pledge that a switch to the alternative vote (AV) would never require the use of electronic vote counting machines.
The campaign for a No vote in the referendum tomorrow week has claimed that a change to AV would cost £250m – including £130m on machines. It argues that counting will take much longer under AV, in which voters can list candidates in order of preference instead of casting one vote under the existing first-past-the-post system.
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, told The Independent that votes would still be counted manually if the public vote Yes to AV. He said: "It's time to put to bed the No campaign's baseless claim that AV will require expensive new voting machines. I should know. I am the person in Government with direct say over our policy on how elections are run. There will be no electronic voting machines. It will not happen. We do not need them."
Mr Clegg said the past few days had exposed the untruths the No campaign had been peddling "in a desperate attempt to cling on to the discredited politics of the past". He added: "Now the nature of their campaign has been exposed we want to focus on the key benefits that AV would bring; giving voters more power and choice, ending safe seats for life and making MPs reach out to more of their constituents."
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, added: "Australia has used the alternative vote for over 80 years without resorting to these machines. At a time when public services are being cut, there is no need for machines to be brought in if there is a Yes vote in this referendum."
However, the No camp is sticking to its guns. It highlighted a statement by Anthony Mayer, the returning officer responsible for the London mayoral and assembly elections from 2000 to 2008, saying: "If the political classes want results early on the Friday after the 10pm Thursday closure of polling stations then with AV there is no choice but electronic counting. If the political classes are relaxed about results coming in over the weekend then manual counting is feasible, if more costly on account of more counting staff hours."
Lord (Charlie) Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, who favours a No vote, said supporters of AV "should take note of the experience of someone who has actually run elections using a preferential system – and accept that expensive vote counting machines are a necessity with the AV system".
Yesterday the Cabinet met for the first time since clashes between Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers over AV threatened to leave permanent scars on the Coalition.
Downing Street insisted it was "business as usual", that there was "good light-hearted banter in the margins" of the Cabinet meeting but that the referendum was not discussed.
David Cameron sought to lower the temperature in a speech in Maidstone, Kent. "It's time to get back to the real arguments: what this means for Britain," he said. He described AV as "completely unfair, seriously undemocratic and hopelessly unclear" and said first-past-the-post was "clear, democratic and decisive".
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