London Authority Defends Electronic Vote Counting

Dan Jellinek

City Hall, home of the Greater London AuthorityThe Greater London Authority has defended its reuse of electronic vote counting for the 2012 mayoral and assembly member elections following the renewal of allegations from one analyst that such systems are less secure and not worth their cost.

The vote will be complex: on 3 May, Londoners will cast four votes on three ballot papers, each using a different electoral system. They will elect the Mayor of London using the supplementary vote system; and 25 members of the London Assembly using first-past-the-post for 14 constituency contests and a proportional representation system for 11 London-wide members. If turnout is similar to 2008, a total of almost 8 million ballots will be counted.

The GLA’s independent elections arm London Elects has awarded an electronic counting contract to IntElect, a joint venture between Data Research Services (DRS) and Electoral Reform Services, the services company set up by the Electoral Reform Society.

London Elects admits that the cost will be “marginally” more expensive than a manual count, at £3.9m compared with £3.6m. However it says the contract will include an option to repeat the service in 2016 at an “estimated” cost of £3.2m, which – if confirmed and exercised – would make the combined cost of e-counting £7.1m over the two elections, or £100,000 cheaper than two manual counts.

“We think this marginal price difference in 2012 is a price worth paying for a quicker and more accurate count”, Euan Holloway, spokesperson for London Elects, told E-Government Bulletin this month. A traditional manual count would take four days, but an electronic count can produce a result within 12 hours, he said.

Under electronic counting, ballot papers are scanned through machines, with those that are unclear referred to electoral staff for adjudication. GLA elections have only ever used e-counting, with no recounts so far required.

However Jason Kitcat, an advisor to the Open Rights Group which campaigns on digital privacy issues, said electronic counting discrepancies found in previous elections by the ORG and the Electoral Commission meant the risks to election integrity were too high.

“It is clear from London Elects’ own cost benefit analysis that e-counting is going to cost more than the hand counted option”, Kitcat said. “In these difficult economic times I think London Elects have been foolhardy to ignore the Electoral Commission’s advice and international trends by spending more than necessary by opting for these troubled technologies.”

Kitcat also questioned whether the security of the system could be counted on, as the source code for the software used was not being openly published.

However Holloway said London Elects had ensured the system’s security by agreeing with IntElect that they make the full source code available for independent testing by an external consultancy, Actica. Actica can also spot-check the source code and software at any point to ensure there are no changes to it, including when the equipment is built and set up in each count centre.

The conclusions of this software review will be published in due course, though the software source code would not be made public, he said. “We believe this would make the system less secure and more vulnerable to potential malpractice. Additionally, the software used is proprietary software that IntElect own.”

Kitcat denied such provisions were sufficient to ensure the system’s security, however.

“To suggest that publishing the source code would make the system less secure shows a fundamental misunderstanding of security principles. They are proposing to rely on “security through obscurity”, which is a novice error. It is best practice in computer security for source to be available – London Elects are ignoring the lessons of so many failed electronic elections around the world.”

NOTE: Article originally published in E-Government Bulletin issue 344.

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