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Scotland - Polling blunders

Mary Southcott sees the problem in the counting not the voting

Tom Stoppard may not have known how relevant his quotation would become but back in the 1990s, Raymond Plant, who had convened Labour's commission on electoral reform, said that once we had devolution to Scotland, the rest of the UK's unwritten constitution would unravel.

Many looking at the May 2007 Scottish elections must have thought that what was unravelling was devolution and new voting systems. This hardly signposted further electoral reform via a putative UK Constitution Convention, anticipating a hung parliament at the next General Election.

Despite Labour's gloom, Jack McConnell's campaign almost saved the day, despite the unpopularity of the Blair government. Alex Salmond became First Minister and the principle of devolution is about to be tested. But the fact that the Parliament broadly reflects the vote cast means that no party with a majority of one over the second party is anything else but a minority party and Salmond will be reminded every time there is a vote without a prior attempt to create consensus.

Second, we had two different elections, three if you count the two votes for the Scottish Parliament, using an additional member system where you vote once for a party, once for the local constituency candidate. The Scottish Executive had decided to introduce a new proportional system for local government on the same day as the Scottish Parliamentary elections to up the turnout in the local elections. We had a first past the post, an additional member and a single transferable vote election running at the same time.

I was an official Electoral Commission observer and accompanied over twenty visitors from the USA. Many of them were not electoral reformers, although hosted by the Electoral Reform Society, with many state and city election administrators interested in how well the counting machines worked.

Visiting an Edinburgh polling station in the morning, I noticed the clear graphic instructions, the vigorous reminders not to fold ballot papers, and to put different coloured votes in specially created boxes to fit into the counting machines. Some voters may have been deterred before they reached the polling station because they had heard it was complicated and from the time people took I observed there was confusion. Some came out and asked if they had done it right or to remind themselves what they should be doing.

One election official was adamant that what was required was a looped video explanation which people could sit down and watch before they voted or rewatch should they have problems when confronted by the two ballot papers. The information officer did his level best with lots of illustrations on the board he used to make his point. He was privately convinced that one of two things needed to happen, either the two elections for local and Scottish Parliamentary elections should be not be held on the same day or that the same system, for him STV, should be used for both sets of elections.

Compared with watching a conventional count, the machines were amazingly quick but reject many more ballots. Adjudication became the name of the game. Was a vote going to be counted or not? Each vote was flashed up on screens watched by two counting agents. They made split second decisions as to whether to accept the vote as valid or leave this to be adjudicated. We weren't expecting so many of the papers to be rejected but the machines rejected ballot papers because of the line caused by the fold. Party officials and observers watched the process whereby X's were counted as 1's and 1's counted as X's. Some voters went over-board on preferential voting and voted 1, 2, 3 … where only an X was required.

Party advice to supporters did not help. Thinking that voting for other parties would disadvantage them they told people to vote only for their candidates. Where they did just that and voted two X's they invalidated their ballot in the STV elections. Some voters cleverly failed to distinguish between the candidates of one party so gave two 1's, two 2's where the parties had put up more than one candidate. All adjudicated ‘VOID'. But the most obvious mistake was on the Scottish Parliamentary elections with many voters doing two X's on the party list or two on the constituency one. I believe it was the design and wording not the red herring one ballot or two what did it. I cannot quite believe it was trial tested and not noticed. What suffered by having one ballot paper rather than two at previous Scottish Parliamentary elections, in 1999 and 2003, was the Green and small party tactic of asking for a ‘second choice' vote on the ballot paper. With both on one ballot form at least it ought to have been clear that it is the party list that determines the make up of the Parliament. The clear fight between Labour and SNP also squeezed the smaller parties' and independents' vote.

Anyway excitement over, we read the spoilt ballots headlines. However when the figures were produced the 1, 2, 3 … voting did not cause the difficulties that preferential voting was predicted to create. 38,341 local government votes were rejected compared to 140,000 in the Holyrood poll. Many voters can do 1, 2, 3 … and the X's don't work if you don't put them in the right place. A former UN elections observer, Ron Gould, has been appointed to head the investigation. Fast forward to the Government's Review of voting systems?