Scotland politics

Scottish council election: Will your vote count?

All you have to do is vote. A sophisticated electronic system will take care of the rest.

Where have we heard that before?

In 2007 the message was the same: a complex voting system would be tamed by technology.

Electronic counting - e-counting - would deliver election results which were secure, fast and accurate.

Instead we got fiasco. Some counting machines initially refused to do their job.

Thousands of voters found the ballot papers confusing. In some places the design of the papers was changed at the last minute. About 140,000 ballots were rejected as supposedly spoiled or blank.

To cap it all, BBC Scotland then revealed that the overwhelming majority of those rejected votes had been ruled void automatically by the machines: no human had ever been involved in the process.

And yet the 2007 burach was born from the best of intentions.

How to drive up voter turnout for local council elections? Why not have them on the same day as the Holyrood vote? For the first time councillors were to be elected by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.

To its supporters a fairer way of doing things, but it's time-consuming to produce a result.

E-counting seemed the obvious answer - and if the machines could count the votes for councillors, it'd be a doddle for them to tot up all those Holyrood votes as well. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, just about everything.

The BBC's Newsnight Scotland programme had raised questions about whether e-counting would work in the weeks before the polls opened. The authorities had given assurances that all would go well. When it didn't there was outrage, which led in turn to calls for reform.

The electoral authorities have spent much of the past five years implementing those reforms, as set out in an independent report by the Canadian election expert Ron Gould.

Andy O'Neill, of the Electoral Commission in Scotland, said that - for a start - we'll know who's running the show this time.

E-counting
The new system has been undergoing testing for the best part of two years

"Ron said he would've blamed someone if he could have found someone to blame," Mr O'Neill said.

"He couldn't find one person."

Now there's an Election Management Board, whose convener is in effect Scotland's chief returning officer.

And there are many more differences from the last council vote.

It's not happening on the same day as the Holyrood elections, so voters don't have to grapple with two different voting systems at the same time.

And there should be no nasty surprises this time - no last minute changes to the ballot papers. The software has been locked down since last August.

And if and when spoiled ballots are rejected, it'll be by a returning officer not a machine.

The Scottish government is in overall charge - in 2007 the two simultaneous elections were overseen by Holyrood and Westminster both.

And a new team of contractors is running the system: the IT consultancy Logica, who're working with the election services company opt2vote.

They have new e-counting machines, document scanners which recognise the numbers voters write beside the candidates' names. These are linked to opt2vote's software which can produce in seconds a result which might otherwise take hours or even days.

Software development

Opt2vote's Siobhan Donaghy said they had been testing the system for the best part of two years.

She added: "For the first stage we scanned 10,000 ballot papers.

"We then took recommendations from local authorities to improve the software for the voters.

"We then went through a phase of trialling the software, and that culminated in a large-scale demonstration in Perth where we scanned 164,000 ballot papers through the system."

This system has already been used in several smaller Scottish elections, including one for a health board which had 70 candidates on the ballot paper.

And - yes - some voters did write a number against every single one.

So maybe this time round all you'll have to worry about is who to vote for.