Saturday, 15 November 2008

Some voters still don't get STV

I've been meaning to blog on this since the night of the Baillieston count, but found myself with far too many other important things to catch up on! Anyway, what better way to spend my first Saturday off in months that musing on electoral processes...

Glasgow City Council seems keen to pursue e-counting, partly as Glasgow didn't have the massive problems experienced at other counts in Scotland on the 3rd and 4th of May 2007. E-counting is actually quite an interesting process, and gives incredibly detailed results showing transfers and stages of election (follow the link at the bottom of the page). As interesting as some of us find these details, the basics of Single Transferable Vote are still lost on a significant number of people.

The voters of Baillieston are the most experienced STV voters in Scotland, having now been through the 2007 election and two by elections. Despite this, my experience at the count at the most recent by election demonstrated to me that electors appear to remain unsure of how to cast their vote in an STV election.

The process at e-count works something like this. Votes arrive in their boxes from the polling station, and are first fed through scanners and checked to ensure the number of ballots in the box matches what ought to be there.

Questionable marks on the ballot paper are then examined on a screen like this (Key Correction). At all stages, computer monitors are positioned back to back so counting agents are able to see exactly what the clerk sees and chip in with their thoughts (a 1? a 4? a squiggle? an arrow? too faint to see?). Numbers are either confirmed or sent through to the next stage where the mark can be seen in context.

At this next stage (Standard Queue), ballot papers are shown in their entirety so questionable marks can be better understood. As you can see from this picture, what would have looked like a faint line on the previous screen is quite clearly a 1.

It's also at this stage where voters' uncertainty about the STV vote becomes obvious.

Lots of voters are still marking their preference with a cross, instead of ranking. This still counts, but means that their vote is only good for one candidate and one stage of the STV count process.

A good number of voters appear to have put crosses next to more than one candidate. This makes it impossible to tell which candidate or party they prefer, so their vote has to be discarded.

Some people also do things like put a 5 next to the fifth candidate; I think the guidelines could be revised to include this vote, as it's the only preference shown.

Any ballot papers still in question (particularly ones with faint marks) are then sent to the Returning Officer's queue, where representatives from all the parties haggle over what exactly the voter meant when they put that smudgy squiggle near a candidate's name.

I am concerned that there is still a lot of confusion and a lack of understanding in the electorate. The Electoral Commission's report highlighted the problems of 2007 - strikingly, most of the 38,351 local government votes rejected last year were due to over-voting or uncertainty. Less than two hundred were rejected due to the lack of an official mark or being able to identify the voter.

In Baillieston 290 votes were rejected in 2007 out of a total of 10,666. Confusion persists. 65 ballot papers were rejected out of a total of 5261 cast in the first Bailieston by election, and 57 out of 4876 in the most recent by election. What if these votes were some of the same people making the same mistake? You could argue that it's natural selection, electoral style but I don't believe that it's acceptable that any vote gets cast aside. All parties work very hard to get voters out to the polls; it's not easy to pursuade people to come out on a cold dark night to take part in the democratic process. Authorities and parties must do more to make sure that every vote cast in good faith counts.


Iain Lindley said...

Some people also do things like put a 5 next to the fifth candidate; I think the guidelines could be revised to include this vote, as it's the only preference shown.

Does this not count? It's a clear preference.

BellgroveBelle said...

Given what I've seen, I think it should count. The Electoral Commission have a sheet of guidelines which sits on the tables at the count for agents to refer to, but that's not on it.

As I understand it they don't think it's a clear enough preference and, in fairness, there probably isn't enough research.

I can also imagine that, for example, you could have the BNP on the ballot and you go to the polls without any other preference but you want to rank them last. Tiny possibility, but all these details have to be considered.

Last year, we reckoned people might have ranked right across Council and the AMS (dual ballot for Constituency and Regional List) ballots for the Scottish Parliament, particularly given the large number of spoiled ballots for the Parly.

Iain Lindley said...

If they've only left a clear preferential mark in one box, that's a valid preference in my opinion. It would certainly have counted in the STV/AV elections I've been involved in - none on as large or important a scale as a Council election of course...