Election fiasco 'damaged public faith'

A damning report by the national elections watchdog says the chaotic breakdown of the local poll at Breckland has damaged public confidence in the electoral process.

A damning report by the national elections watchdog says the chaotic breakdown of the local poll at Breckland has damaged public confidence in the electoral process.

The report by the Electoral Commission released today found that during the May elections details of ballot papers were not properly destroyed in Breckland and a result was declared with less than half of the votes having been counted.

It primarily placed the blame at the foot of the government for not allowing enough time for Breckland and other UK councils trialling electronic counting of votes to prepare and test the systems.

But it also said Breckland had not removed ballot paper information from scanning machines when they were taken away by the Spanish equipment suppliers Indra; did not have proper contingency plans in place; and that it had declared results for Dereham Central and Humbletoft wards without taking all the votes into account.

The count in Breckland was dogged by a series of problems, which led to the electronic count being abandoned in favour of a manual one, with the final votes being counted more than 100 hours after polling stations shut.

The report says that perforations or counterfoils were not properly removed from ballot papers, leading to paper jams and alignment problems with the machines, and to the electronic scanners rejecting many ballot papers because of their “poor quality”.

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Breckland Council has rejected some of the report's findings saying that voting information had been erased from scanning machines and that it did have contingency plans in place.

Andrew Scallan, director of electoral administration at the Electoral Commission, said of the Breckland count: “There were a number of contributing factors, not least insufficient time for planning and testing. There was no contingency plan in place should the system fail.

“Public confidence was further knocked by discrepancies between declared results and the number of votes cast in two areas.”

It said that e-counting could still work but recommends that in future councils are given at least six months to prepare and test the systems, as opposed to the three months they were given to prepare for the pilot.

Spokesman for Breckland Council Amanda McCullough defended the way the council ran the count.

“The council did have full contingency plans in place - contrary to the report,” she said. “Immediately when technical problems came to light the council called in extra staff to assist - first with the electoral count and then with the manual vote.

“On the issue of the audit trail for the scanning machines we understood that everything was deleted from the machines and always had assurances from Indra that this was the case. Election staff did an excellent job in very difficult circumstances.”

She said the council had picked up on the discrepancies in Dereham Central and Humbletoft wards and that the results would have remained the same if all the votes had been counted.

Another council spokesman said it would not rule out the use of the electronic counting in future elections in the district but said the system would need to be tested further.

Twelve pilot schemes were held across 13 local authority areas across England on 3 May, trialling different methods such as advance voting, signing for ballot papers, electronic voting and electronic counting - with the Ministry of Justice meeting the bulk of the £148,831 costs.

The report also recommended that Internet and telephone voting should be abandoned until the electoral system is secured against fraud.

Electoral modernisation minister Michael Wills said the Ministry of Justice would study the Electoral Commission's evaluations and investigate further where improvements could be made.

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