Notes from 29 April briefing for election observers

Welcome from John Bennett, Deputy Greater London Returning Officer

John Bennet welcomes the assembled group of observers, and introduces the first speaker, Kate Sullivan, from the Electoral Commission.

Kate Sullivan, Electoral Commission

Observers in the UK elections are relatively new (introduced in 2006, first observers at an election in 2007).

What is electoral observation?

Electoral observation is "Gathering information from a distance", by people not authorised to intervene in the process.

It has several benefits:

  • Ensures we meet out international obligaitons
  • Demonstrates that we hold ourselves to the same standards we expect others to hold themselves to.
  • Allows us to learn and improve the system
  • Promotes transparency. Elections are about transparency - they not only have to be transparent but they need to appear to be so. Important for people to see that the system is open for people to observe.

Electoral observation and free and fair elections brings the UK in line with several important convenants/treaties:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • International Convenant of Civil and Political Rights
  • OSCE's Copenhagen comittment.

What do observers have access to?

Observers have access to:

  • issues of postal votes
  • opening of postal votes and verification of personal identifiers
  • polling stations
  • count

There is no requirement to give advance notice, however, observers should expect a sign in proces at the count for Health and Safety reasons.

Electoral Commission Code of Practice

Under law, the Electoral Commission have to produce a Code of Practice and observers have to adhere to it.

Observer "dos":

  • be politically impartial at all times
  • be non-obstructive and do not breach secrecy requirements
  • maintain proper personal behaviour
  • show ID at all times
  • wear non-political colours (eg black)

Observers should:

  • talk to candidates and agents (but NB they may be busy - if they are, ask if there's a more convenient time to speak)
  • take proper breaks
  • check out our guidance products (eg guidance for poll workers, candidates and agents, as well as guidance for observers)
  • share experiences (James Steele is contact at Electoral Commission James DOT Steele AT electoralcommission DOT org DOT uk)

Observers "don'ts":

  • do not touch ballot papers
  • do not talk to those immersed in the count
  • do not show agreement with decisions made by returning officers
  • do not use recording equipment or photographic equipment without permission of PO/RO
  • Don't show emotion when someone wins

Questions for Kate Sullivan from the audience

Q: Why does RO have that discretion?

That's how the system works, and RO's need to have authority.

Q: unknown

London Elects - think about when you visit polling stations.If you want to ask questions go when there are likely to be less voters. If you want to observe voters, go at 1700/1800 when people are finishing work.

Q: What checks do you have on observers?

It's part of an open process. But you have signed an undertaking and if we view you are in breach of this we have no problem calling the Metropolitan Police.

Q: Should independent observers be looking for anything specific?

Not really. Electoral Commission will be looking at e-counting and the role of London Elects. What we should all look at is: are electors getting good service? - proper access, good instructions, offers of help?

Q: Do observers need to bring extra ID to get into the count centres?

No - Accreditation badges suffices for photo ID at the count centre.

John Bennett's presentation

London Elects are running GLA elections for 3rd time. Like to think of themselves as elector-centric and a "learning organisation". Elections in 2000, 2004 - much learning been ploughed back into the process. London Elects have also had to incorporate a new set of elections rules which have been set down by Parliament, including last minute changes, partly in response to Gould Report.

Education for stakeholders has been prioritised. Integrity of elections are in the headlines, and as far as the counting element is concerned, we have spoken to a number of you to demonstrate the systems. We have done elaborate and extensive testing and maintain an open approach. It is of considerable significance that they have been heavy on risk management (flooding in City Hall). Spent yesterday looking for alternaitve count centres? Did prove that bizcon worked - we were able to relocate.

The London Electoral Cycle

  • London County Council -1889-1965
  • Greater London Coucil 1965-1986
  • No central body 1986 - 2000
  • Referendum on Mayor and Assembly 1998
  • GLA 2000-present

Makeup of GLA

There are 14 constituencies in London. The Mayor has largest single personal mandate available (5.5 million registered voters).

The GLA is designed to call the Mayor to account and it contains 14 consituency members plus 11 elected as London-wide members.

Voting systems

  • Mayor - Supplementary Vote System (London elects have been educating voters on second prefs)
  • Constituency Members -1st past the post
  • London Members -Additional Member System (modified D'Hondt system)

In 2004, 0.75 million cast votes for candiddates who are not going to make it to the second round - distressing for London Elects officials to see votes wasted.

Keith Hathaway (London Elects Operations Manager)

The Ballot Papers

One of the lessons learnt was that public were confused. Did market research on what people perceived when they get their ballot paper because knew they were confused. In 2004 they had London Member and Constituency member on one ballot paper. Redesigned mayoral ballot paper after market research (crosses not ones and twos). No addresses, simpler visually. Different colours - colour coded info all the way through (eg on popup information stand in polling station)

Who does what

Government: makes the regulations on elections through Parliament. Looking at GLA rules, after 2004 through GLA scrutiny comm, they reviewed the election and came out with a wish list. Set up project board with Ministry of Justice and worked for 2 years on regulations.

Electoral Commission: parties registration, electoral best practice and performance, framework advice.

Local government: - Leads, steers, directs, funds. London elects not perceived as LG but come under it for electoral purposes. Although part of GLA, totally independent of GLA - report to GLRO, funding comes from GLA's budget. 9 people team. Prepare and work with Local authorities.

Boroughs: - registration of electors (Aug-Nov = annual canvas, but also opportunity through rolling register), local practicalities, practicalities for elections. Work with LE for 2 year period.

The London landscape

population 7.2 m, of which 5.5 m are registerd. 3.2 million households, 250+ langs spoken throughout London. 4,000 polling stations /12,000 staff. Estimated 800,000 postal votes.

What's new in 2008

  • New rules
  • The timetable - able to extend election timetable by 5 days (on back of having to print mayoral booklet)
  • Barcode and official mark
  • Corresponding numbers list (Equiv to perforated info you used to put on the side of the ballot counterfoil-that is new for london. )
  • The observers
  • Children now allowed in polling stations

John Bennett: Communicating with the voter


Budget from MoJ to administer electoral administration act.

Publicity -£4m education campaign (with EC). Money spent on:

  • How /where to register - Jan-Apr;
  • When,where,how to vote - Apr-May;
  • TV, radio, outdoor, press, field, marketing;
  • Mark the giant print cross,
  • Polling station information.

Major investment for public sector (£4m).

The website

Designed around user needs. New tools including polling station finder, how to vote, results animations, ecounting video, How to calculate the results explained. Received 1,000,000+ page views.

Mayoral booklet

Mandatory element is Mayoral booklet. 5.6 million printed. Other information in the booklet - London wide contest and candidates. How to vote, role of Mayor/Assembly.

Sure it will not be 100% coverage - it never is, but let's hope it's close. Cost £10,000 to get into the booklet for each mayoral candidate(one candidate declined).

Questions to John Bennett

Q: Where does the budget for publicity come from?

£3m on 50/50 basis between London Elects and electoral commission, rest came from LE (training etc)

Q: How are you dealing with the electoral register?

Now if you don't respond after two years, third year they come off anyway. Boroughs are working incredibly hard - now cleansing their registers a lot. 35% annual turnover pretty average for central London.

Q: What was the nature of market research

Qualitative and quantitative-mixture of dragging people off the street cold, here's one set or a different set, please complete them. Then in-depth interviews.

Q: Did you employ usability professionals?

Market research reports are available. (Kate Sullivan: after Gould Review, Commission committed that it would do some standards for ballot papers to include what sort of usability testing should be done.)

Q: Did you abandon combined ballot as a result of the market research?

Yes, but we probably would have anyway - had already realised it was causing confusion.

Q: can you explain the barcodes - can they be linked back to the voter?

Barcodes are replicated human readable number which constitutes unique identifying mark incorporating info about the contest, constituency, borough and ballot paper number, so that e-counting system can ID it is valid ballot paper. As with manual counts corresponding numbers list will go into one sealed packet, ballot into another. The only reading of the barcode is undertaken at the counts.

Q: The ballot paper colours are similar. Are the colours used by the scanners for any purpose? Colours are immaterial so far as scanners are concerned. Different colours are so that the voter can tell the difference. Colours are almost the same as last time. Welcome feedback on different colours, but it's too late to change now.

Q: 3 days ago one of the candidates withdrew - what happens with votes cast for that candidate?

Candidate had passed deadline to withdraw so he remains in the poll, LE got BBC to correct editorial.

Q: What steps taken to communicate to people whose first language is not English?

20 languages - website, 26 languages - information in polling stations. Registration forms available in a number of languages. Braille and audio also available. Used Central Office of Information translators.

Q: Are there any restrictions for campaigning candidates, or do you assist them in any way?

Mayoral booklet costs £10,000 to enter. Then we're talking about expenses limit (£430,000) If a party is fielding candidates in every constituency, london list and mayor, then budget restriction is around £1.2m. Existing prohibitions on electronic ads (tv and radio) restrictions on party broadcasts (BBC and OfCom regulate) otherwise, you can do what you want (provided you adhere to other laws eg, defamation law)

John Bennett - Electronic Counting

Q: What is it that makes this election so complex that it needs an electronic count?

Speed and accuracy were the drivers towards e-counting. Perception in 2000 was that a manual count would have taken up to a week. Last year was a setback for e-counting, so we needed to be confident and sure. Cost - £4.2m for electronic count. Manual count not costed.

Q: Why has there been no demonstration for observers? Have done demos for political parties and media. It would have been good to have done more. But we've put video on website. Had hoped to have been up and running with demo at the last minute, as it is, for a variety of reasons, we hadn't got there.

Q: What sort of testing have you done?

Testing - two lots of independent testing (KPMG-source code; Deloitte - business continuity, risk management etc) It's been a fast-moving situation (late rules from Parliament). Deloitte report arrived this morning, will be on website by tomorrow morning - shows 94% full compliance, with 6% parital compliance( problems: H&S, no generator certification; have been conducting biz-con exercises but hadn't been written up up. Police checks will not be conducted until tomorrow.)

KPMG report due by close of business today. Much later than we had intended. A robust system that will deliver the results. Medium and low-risk issues. EC will email around report...

Q:How can you be sure that the systems tested are the same as those deployed?

Scanners will be installed over tomorrow or Thursday. Software has been held in escrow. Electoral Commission will observe the unsealing of the hardware, but independent observers have not been invited.

Q: There were several other demos, any reason why observers shouldn't have been invited? These happened last Autumn. Those who we knew about were invited. Political parties, media and such groups as had been in conversation with us.

Q: Will there be an auto rejection of blank papers? Yes. The system will capture image, identify whether there is a mark, tally number of papers that are wholly unmarked - at provisional result stage, if number of unmarked papers is more than winning margin, agents may request that those images be streamed onto screens for agents to see.

Q: How will results be transmitted from count to city hall? Computed and cleared at local level. Will then be transmitted by secure link (netowrk) There are alternative arangements (eg fax) if network fails.

Q: Is there a provision for a statistical manual check on the count?

No. One either conducts it under electronic rules, or under manual counting rules. Not a mixture of the two. Have had manual counts before he election. What if you got a different result, what would you do then?

Q: What is backup procedure? You can read about in KPMG report.

Q: Postal votes are folded - how will postal votes be scanned? System can cope with this.

Q: What does happen if it's close and you count it 3 times and get a different result?

e-Counting only happens once. 1st component is verification - same in recorded at polling station as scanned? If yes, great - the number matches. If number matches then that is our confidence that the stuff doesn't need recounting. If variation, then up to CRO (eg does polling place match?) Beyond that you're relying on the fact the software has been independently certified. Therefore, if majority ends up as 50, and theres 75 unmarked papers detected, would expect CRO to look at unmarked papers.

If Mayoral contest proves to be tight, we won't know this until the constituency counts have been tabulated at City Hall, by which time the opportunity for a recount will have passed.

Q: Are there cloakrooms, catering and toilets available at the count centres?

Cloakrooms, catering and toilets all avaible at the count centres

Q: What time do we need to arrive to make sure we can see the zeroing of the counting machines?

Bad news - Could not mail accreditations to candidates last night. Need to make arrangements on the hoof. Accreditation being handed out at count centres which means admission will be slower. Have put out message - do not want CROs to do zero report without a good number of agents and observers present.

Q: If blank votes come into play, will you go get original?

Rules provide that CRO may retrieve a physical ballot paper, but does not have to.

Q: Who is providing the software?

Indra - adapting commercial recognition software.

Q: What happens if the electricity fails?

If electricity fails across London, we will revert to a manual count which will start next Tuesday. If one count centre went down, we could divert to another, if two went down, we could divert to the one left with electricity.

Q: Software was held in escrow between testing and deployment - is there a similar arrangement for the hardware?

KPMG have been present as each PC has been built and have certified each one as it goes.They are then put under seal. Connectivity for each count centre has been tested as a unit. We will retest late tomorrow and polling day. Commission staff will observe that, but observers not invited.

Q: If overall results are contested - are ballots held?

Ballot papers held securely by London Elects for 12 months, then destroyed. Image of every ballot paper, transaction log etc, all burned to drives which LE hold under seal in duplicate for 12 month period at which point they will be wiped.

Q: Count starts with first box gets put into first available scanner - is each station done sequentially?

If more than one box from a particular station, they will be done on same scanner. Will be rescanned several times, and if same number comes up, we will say "this is - 15 like it or not".

Pat Parker - Postal voting

1st boxes to go through on the count will be postal vote boxes. Boroughs will make sure all ballots are unfolded, face up. Postal vote ballot boxes will have maximum number of ballots in them.

Ballot boxes have a shute, which will be taken off at close of polls, and then the boxes secured with tamper proof seals.

The process now is arduous and technology-driven. Designed to ensure that every postal vote is properly scanned and properly matched. At the end of polling day, all boxes will come back to the bourough, checked off, and then sent to the counting centres.

Under the rules, you only have to do 20% matching of sig and DOB. London has given their committment to do 100% checking that sigs and DO match.

Questions to Pat Parker

Q: Signature checking software can set a tolerance, same tolerance across London?

The boroughs are working on different applications, so cannot say. Prospect of high amount of postals being sent to human adjudication - this is probably a good thing.