What now for Breckland election count?

IAN CLARKE Election officials are spending the bank holiday weekend deciding whether to complete Breckland's counting using a computerised counting system or resort to counting the thousands of remaining votes by hand.

IAN CLARKE

Election officials are spending the bank holiday weekend deciding whether to complete Breckland's counting using a computerised system or resort to sorting the thousands of remaining votes by hand.

The count was called off on Friday night amid confusion, frustration and anger nearly 11 hours after ballot papers were first being processed by scanners.

Just 29 of the 54 seats had been declared and the count will resume at Dereham on Tuesday.

Returning officer and Breckland chief executive Keith Davis said he would have to consult the Spanish company Indra - which supplied the computerised equipment - as well as party agents and the Electoral Commission before making a final decision.

Candidates from all parties expressed disbelief that a supposedly hi-tech system could have gone so badly wrong because perforations were not taken off voting papers, which meant the scanners rejected many of them and they had to be processed by hand.

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There was obvious embarrassment that the count had to be abandoned for the bank holiday weekend and led to Breckland being one of the last councils in Britain to declare all its results.

A key question which needs to be answered is whether Indra had told polling station staff how crucial it was for the whole perforation to be removed.

While a number of senior Indra officials were at the count, no-one from the company was willing to speak to the EDP about what had gone wrong.

The Electoral Commission - which is overseeing the e-counting trials - also had several observers in attendance, but they also refused to comment.

A spokesman at the London press office said all feedback from various trials around the country would be gathered and a full report would be prepared.

It was left to Mr Davis to "sincerely apologise" for the delays and he stressed throughout the day that "accuracy had to come before speed."

"This is a pilot and all of the pilots have had problems.

"I did not feel it was fair on staff to do any more on Friday night. We will evaluate where we are and decide how to move forward."

He praised staff at the counting centre and also people who had manned polling stations for their "sterling efforts."

All the uncounted votes had to be put back into boxes and secured and stored until tomorrow.

Of the 21 results declared on Friday, the Conservatives won 19. They made two gains from Labour and one from independents. The Conservatives already had eight councillors before election day as eight seats were not contested.

Breckland Labour leader Robin Goreham - along with Dereham colleague Michael Fanthorpe - are currently the only councillors from the party elected.

Mr Goreham said: "How can we have any confidence in this counting system?"

He is considering a legal challenge after hundreds of votes in Dereham Humbletoft ward were not included in the declared result as they not been scanned.

The error was discovered and the votes checked but Mr Goreham said: "It has undermined the whole thing and if a mistake can be made on one then it can be made on any number of seats."

As well as frustration over the slow counting, many at the count also voiced the view that the e-counting trial left them unaware about what was going on.

Former leader Cliff Jordan - who is still waiting to hear if he has been re-elected - said: "I have never been at an election count for so long in my 16 year political career. This trial needs to go back to the drawing board. The staff have worked very hard and it is the system which is at fault."

Victorious Conservative candiate John Labouchere described the situation as "diabolical".

"More help should have been brought in sooner."

First time election candidate John Savory - who stood for Ukip - said: "I

have never seen anything so inefficient in all my life."

Conservative agent Ian Sherwood said: "It is extremely frustrating for everyone. This is a pilot and hopefully we will have learned from it."

Green Party agent Timothy Birt said he had a range of complaints about the counting trial.

"This has been ludicrous."

Current Breckland leader William Nunn is also still waiting to hear if he has won back his seat.

"I am disappointed and it is unfortunate that technology has let us down. I feel sorry for colleagues and staff and they feel personally responsible that they have not been able to finish.

"I want to thank them for their efforts in very difficult circumstances

A statement on Breckland's website said: "The council will continue the count for the above elections on Tuesday 8th May at 11am. All ballot papers will be securely stored over the Bank Holiday period. The count will take place at Elizabeth House, Walpole Loke, Dereham, Norfolk NR19 1EE.

“The Council apologises for any inconvenience caused to our residents. We would like to thank all of our staff who were involved today for their hard work and support. We would also like to thank the candidates and agents for their patience and support today.”

Among the areas which are still uncounted are Thetford, Swaffham and Watton. Many town and parish councils' results also remain in boxes.

Dereham Town Council's scheduled meeting on Tuesday night has had to be cancelled as all the results are not in.

The saga surrounding the counting trial came after anger continued over postal votes and claims that many people were prevented from voting.

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