Getting the right results with eCounting

When you have a potential 4.7 million ballot papers to count across 32 councils in a single day, you need an eCounting system that you can rely on. There is simply no room for error. This was the case for the Scottish Government, which needed to introduce a new eCounting system for the councils taking part in the local government election in May 2012.

The challenge

Scotland uses the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which is considerably more complex than the first past the post way of voting – where the public votes for just one candidate. Instead, it is possible for the electorate to vote for every candidate standing – in order of preference.

As a result, the manual counting of ballot papers in an STV election takes considerably longer – on average around three days if done manually. An eCounting system is essential to deliver the election results quickly, accurately and transparently. However, the risks of handing the reins over to technology can be high. A previous attempt at eCounting resulted in the Gould Report outlining essential requirements for any future system. All stakeholders were keen to ensure that the 2012 election would pass without incident.

Our answer

We won the contract to work with the Scottish Government with eCounting software partner Opt2vote. Although the overall project needs were defined by the tender requirements, user feedback was also essential from the 32 councils to determine the details — what would be the exact processes on the day, which reports were needed, even the requirement that was uncovered to change fonts to help visually impaired staff.

Around 40 tests were completed, processing around 10,000 papers, then a further eight or nine tests with 20,000 papers to iron out any issues. but 20,000 papers cannot really test the system to its limits, so a bulk test was completed, scanning and counting 165,000 ballot papers in one run.

In addition, the team ran a disaster recovery day, where Scottish Government was invited to watch a count and then quite literally pull the power plug half way through, in order to see whether the count could be retrieved and completed. It was the final stage involved ensuring the right equipment was in place to manage the counting across the councils and that staff were trained.

A success story

The count started around 9:00 am the day after the Scottish elections. The first count, from Orkney, was completed by 10.30 am and all the others followed throughout the day. The final count to be completed was in Highland by 6.15 pm. This was because the first count was so close — to within five decimal places between candidates.

A recount was called and the second count ended in exactly the same result — something that would shock a seasoned election watcher if it were ever replicated in a manual counting system. Such was the efficiency of the eCounting system that First Minister, Alex Salmon was caught unawares at the speed of the results. He had to cancel a number of scheduled appointments in order to be present for the first declarations.

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