Irish Politics

Machine counting of STV elections: faster and fairer


As we face the prospect of a fourth day counting votes in the 2016 General Election, it is time for Ireland to consider following Scotland’s lead and implement machine counting of single transferrable vote (STV) elections. First and foremost, I am not talking about revisiting the failed electronic voting experiment. I am quite sceptical about such systems, as they rely on the integrity of the technology with respect to not only the count, but the very process of voting itself. What I am talking about is the counting process. Machine counting of STV elections has taken place twice in Scotland, most recently using systems supplied by a Derry-based company. The process is significantly faster, with counts taking a few hours rather than a few days. It is also, perhaps crucially, significantly fairer.

How does it work in Scotland?

Votes are cast in exactly the same way as in Ireland at present. You simply mark your ballot paper and place it in a ballot box in the same manner you always would records are kept at the polling station of how many people have voted, and should correspond to the number of ballot papers in the box once it is sealed. So from the outset, there is a paper-based poll that can always be hand counted in the event of any systematic failure.

The poll is verified by hand

The poll is verified by hand

Once the count commences, the ballot boxes are opened out onto tables and the poll is verified (checked to ensure that the number of ballot papers in each box corresponds with the number recorded by the polling station) by hand. This process involves counting the ballot papers into bundles of 100.

It is after this process that the machines kick in. The bundles of 100 are placed on top of a scanner and fed in one at a time. A computer then uses optical character recognition software to read the preferences indicated on each ballot. The counting agent operating the computer has to manually verify that the computer has correctly identified all of the preferences indicated on the ballot, and correct any obvious errors in the recognition. Any ballots that are in any way questionable or potentially invalid are referred for adjudication, just as would happen in a hand count. The process typically takes around 3-4 seconds per ballot – so longer than a hand sort – but, crucially, you only have to do it once. The whole process can be overseen by the candidates and their teams. The computers have two screens – one facing the operator and one facing outwards. You can see each ballot as it is fed in and verify that what was on the paper is what’s on the screen. Candidates’ agents still tally votes just as they would a hand count.

Count staff feed ballots into the computer, while candidates and agents oversee the process

Count staff feed ballots into the computer and verify the recognition of preferences. Candidates and agents can oversee the process on computer screens.

However, once all of the ballot papers have been fed in, checked, and disputed ballot papers adjudicated upon, the computer can then run through the whole election count instantly. In my home local authority, STV election counts take the same length of time it takes to conduct a simple first past the post count for the same electoral area, with the same size of count staff, in general elections (approx. 3-4 hours).

fair distribution of surpluses

Aside from the expediency of machine counting, the system is also much, much fairer. A difficult problem with STV is when an elected candidate has a surplus to redistribute, how do you decide which of their votes are the surplus ones to be redistributed? In Ireland, this is done at random. This is obviously grossly unfair.

Consider the example of Dublin South-West. John Lahart was elected at the 11th count with a surplus of 190 votes out of 11,402. If a newspaper were to print a poll with a sample size of 190 it would rightly be ridiculed for being so small as to be in no way an accurate reflection of the sentiments of the electorate. If such a small sample is unacceptable for hypothetical elections in opinion polls, it certainly unacceptable when real votes are concerned.

An example from a local election in Scotland, illustrating the fractional allocation of a candidate's preferences.

An example from a local election in Scotland, illustrating the fractional allocation of a candidate’s preferences.

The much fairer way is to count up ALL of the next preferences of that candidate, and then prorate them according to the size of the surplus. The result is fractions of votes that perfectly reflect the second preferences of the whole of that candidate’s vote. You can do this by hand, but in the above example it would mean counting over 11,000 votes just to allocate 190. It is hugely time consuming. A computer, however, can do it instantly.

So not only is machine counting quicker, it also makes it much easier to allocate surpluses more accurately.

Can it be trusted?

It has been put to me that such a system requires a lot of trust – in the software, the hardware, and the supplier – which is true. Just as the existing system requires a lot of trust in hundreds, if not thousands, of polling and counting agents. We have no reason to believe that counting agents would ever try to manipulate a count, nor should we have any doubt that the makers of the software or hardware would. There is always the possibility of error, which is evident from the recounts presently ongoing in the General Election. But while human error is random and unpredictable, making it much more difficult to spot, systematic error is, by contrast, comparatively easy to identify. Parties will still have been tallying votes at the verification, and overseeing the scanning process, so discrepancies in the system should be easy to spot. The actual code required to allocate votes once they have been fed into the system is incredibly simple, which a freshman computer science student should be able to write. It should be similarly simple to independently verify the veracity of such software.

Ireland is not exceptional. If machine counting of paper ballots works well elsewhere, there is no reason why it wouldn’t also work in Ireland. It is most certainly not prohibitively costly (in particular when you consider how much counting votes for four days must cost). Machine counting is many times faster than hand counting, and more accurate. Ireland should put the failed electronic voting experiment behind it, and follow Scotland’s example in implementing machine counting of STV elections.

Prosecute Mick Wallace!

“A person shall, without prejudice to any other penalty to which the person may be liable, be guilty of an offence under this section if the person—

(a) knowingly or wilfully delivers any incorrect return, statement or accounts or knowingly or wilfully furnishes any incorrect information in connection with any tax”

– s1078(2) Taxes Consolidation Act 1997

I must declare an interest insofar as I have little time for “Independent” politicians (with the exception, perhaps, of Margo MacDonald or Councillor Ron Shepard), who all-too-often run claiming to be more honest/decent/competent than party-politicians before it transpires that they can be every bit as corrupt or incompetent as any other politician.

Such hypocrisy is certainly true in the case of Mick Wallace, who in 2011 ran with slogans like “For a New Politics” and “They Don’t All Have to Be the Same“, who has now admitted that he knowingly under-stated his VAT liability to the Revenue. With a brass-neck that Bertie would be proud of he claims that he lied “in good faith.”

While the Dáil Éireann may be on maneuvers to have Wallace sanctioned or expelled, there appears to be a relatively straightforward way to root this hypocrite out: prosecute him! The above section from the Taxes Consolidation Act makes it an offence to knowingly mislead the Revenue. Furthermore, subsection 5 clearly extends liability to directors and shareholders of companies, like Wallace’s, that engage in such tax-evasion:

“Where an offence under this section is committed by a body corporate and the offence is shown to have been committed with the consent or connivance of any person who, when the offence was committed, was a director, manager, secretary or other officer of the body corporate, or a member of the committee of management or other controlling authority of the body corporate, that person shall also be deemed to be guilty of the offence and may be proceeded against and punished accordingly.”

– s1078(5) Taxes Consolidation Act 1997

An old friend of mine recently asked “does that man own a single suit?” We’ll hopefully find out soon enough!

Lessons from Scotland for David Norris

Not for the first time, David Norris’ campaign for the Presidency of Ireland is having to pull itself out of the fire – only this time he has to do it with a half-empty office. Though his campaign managed to substantially claw-back ground over the summer the events of this weekend have left David Norris’ candidacy in tatters.

After it emerged that in 1997 Norris used his position as one of Trinity College’s members of Seanad Éireann to write a character reference for a former lover who was facing sentence in Israel for the rape of a 15-year-old, the Senator finds himself without a director of communications, a director of elections, a youth organiser, a social media manager, and many others. My own experience of elections puts the end of the Norris campaign down to two factors: firstly, Senator Norris’ political judgement; and secondly, the difficulties faced by Independent candidates and representatives more generally.

From a political perspective the first makes for better headlines but is, arguably, easier to overcome. During my time at the Scottish Parliament the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was hauled before the Chamber of the Scottish Parliament to explain her decision to write a character reference for a constituent, on trial for benefit fraud, about whose character she had failed to make even the most basic inquiries (unluckily for Ms. Sturgeon he, in fact, had a previous conviction for benefit fraud). These incidents highlight the follies of legislators interfering with the judicial process.

As was rightly pointed out during the Sturgeon debacle it is not entirely uncommon for elected members to write character references for constituents who are facing sentence. However those who are going to do so should be wary of two potential traps:

  1. That you are absolutely certain of the good character to which you are attesting;
  2. That in writing such a letter you are free from potential accusations of nepotism or favouritism, and that such a letter is one which you would write for any constituent in the same situation.

Nicola Sturgeon fell foul of the former of these two traps; David Norris has fallen foul of the latter.

However more generally David Norris’ campaign has always been far more susceptible to falling into such obvious political traps because of the difficulties faced by independent candidates recruiting the very-best in political staff. Representatives from the political parties can usually draw from a very large, very broad pool of talent who’ve been wedded to your cause for years. I used to see the piles of CVs MSPs would have to sift-through when recruiting a Parliamentary aide. Often candidates with years of political knowledge and experience wouldn’t even make the long-list. Conversely, a dear friend of mine from one of the smaller parties regularly speaks of how difficult it is to recruit staff with experience of ‘the political machine’.

If small parties and independents want to recruit staffers with any campaign experience then that often means experience of single-issue campaigns, causes or charities, the private sector, or student politics. While all of these bring unique and valuable experience (and often larger parties would do well to remember that) it doesn’t quite compare to the experience that can be gained through the mainstream of the political parties.

And do not underestimate the importance of political staff. Despite being on a fraction of the salary of their political masters they’re often far more attuned to the political ether. Many have more experience in politics than their employers. Your staff can keep you focussed on your political goals; and rein you in when you’re getting carried-away. They’ll help you spot potential traps ahead, and anticipate the questions you never thought might be asked. These skills can only be acquired through having been weather-beaten by the party political machine. This is the real difficulty faced by independent candidates.