5 May 2012

Result for Brent and Harrow GLA Constituency, Sloppy Count Processes & Avoidable Delay in Declaration

Shahrar Ali on polling day, 3 May 2012, at Neasden underpass
The final result for the Constituency Election of Brent and Harrow is as follows:

Shahrar Ali, GREEN PARTY: 10,546 (7.27%)
Charlotte Henry, LibDem: 15,690 (10.82%)
Michael McGough, Fresh Choice for London (UKIP): 7,830 (5.40%)
Sachin Rajput, Conservative: 40,604 (27.99%)
Navin Shah, Labour: 70,400 (48.93%)

I thank the 10,546 Green voters of Brent and Harrow for their confidence in me. We have increased both our vote and vote share across the electoral constituency and we will be back for more. I look forward to receipt of the detailed results in a few days, which I think will show big advances in places where we campaigned the hardest.

I congratulate Navin Shah on his excellent win, where he will be joined by our two London wide Assembly Members Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson. Across London, the Greens came third and we have overtaken the LibDems across London for the first time in electoral history [press release].


I think it is worth commenting on the prolongation of the count for Brent and Harrow. The count officials will have been acutely aware that the whole city was awaiting news of the result, a day after the actual poll. Given the responsibility carried by each constituency for completing the counts not just for their respective constituency elections but also for their share of the London-wide ballots for the Mayor of London and the proportional list element of Assembly Members no result could be declared by City Hall for those two ballots without completion of each and every constituency.

In the event, the count for Brent and Harrow was not only last to declare, but some three hours (by my estimate) behind the penultimate declaration for London (also at the same count centre).

As a candidate, I had something of a ring-side seat at the count. Alongside other candidates and agents, we took our democratic participation to extend beyond the narrow interpretation of seeking to win our seats, but also to the collective interest of assisting democratic outcome through observation, solicitation of information and occasional intervention.

My agent, Matthew Butcher tweeting at the dog-end of the Count,
whom I did remind of the Representation of People's Act prohibitions :) 

I arrived at Alexandra Palace, where four such election constituencies were being counted under one roof, with my agent soon after 8am. I was present until 11.15pm, with plenty of breaks in between, once key stages had got underway and I and others were satisfied that things were under control. Unfortunately, things got off to a late start due to "electrical and power problems". Of course, the lights in the building were on but why were the computers and scanners not operational?

Upon fuller investigation it transpired that a ground staff for the building had cut power to the building in the early morning in order to use the sprinkler system outside and avoid any electrical risk of shorting the supply (an occasional, but routine operation). However, unbeknownst to that staff, the computers in the building had been set up and logged in the night before, all systems go for the following morning, precisely in order to save time. The temporary power outage resulted in all these machines having to be rebooted, with consequent delay. I haven't been able to corroborate the exact sequence of events, but it sounds too ridiculous for somebody to have made up - perhaps a case of bad luck combined with failure of co-responsibility of both venue and count staff managers to anticipate such a risk.

The late start was given as a subsequent reason for delay by a count official being interviewed by a member of the Open Rights Group, when the bigger problem of uncounted ballot papers was being addressed in the late evening (and the campaigner had rushed back to the count upon hearing the news). In reality, that would have accounted for a one hour delay, not a three hour delay.


Early in the count, I made representations to first one, then two, then three returning officers, who were taking joint responsibility for the Brent and Harrow count (I was later told there were four, taking responsibility across the twin borough constituency), not including the Chief executive, Gareth Daniel, who would be ultimately signing off the result and making the declaration. Firstly, I should say I found all these staff to be responsive, responsible and dutiful. I would even say highly competent and experienced, yet somehow processes were starting to look laxidasical, either through lack of clear line management or under- or over-staffing at that level. (Daniel I have met at numerous counts and he has seemed to perform this part of his role extremely well. He appears to enjoy both knowledge of electoral systems and knows when to use his discretion when soliciting advice from officials or interested parties.)

The main problems at the outset were to do with count clerks (some of whom were core electoral services staff and others of whom were clearly casual workers who were trained up especially for the day or days). I witnessed clerks performing the duties of opening ballot boxes and sorting papers from the wrong side of the table, ie. the side which is meant to be reserved for observers. This might sound like a trivial point, but actually, the separation of space is surely of paramount importance, both to ensure that observers are enabled to see what is going on (should they wish to do so), otherwise impeded by having the official's back toward them, and to minimise the risk of ballot papers falling on the wrong side of the table. The very reason for staff perhaps populating the wrong side of the table, ie. that there wasn't enough space on the right side of the table, was precisely a reason not to come to that side - since that would have increased the risk of crowding and papers spilling on to the floor. I made this objection known (without the explanation), and although it was not acted on immediately, or universally, it eventually was corrected after a second complaint to another manager.

Another problem was to see ballot boxes finding themselves in a path to which all and sundry non-officials could have easily gained access, ie. the wrong side of the table. At one point, I observed two boxes the wrong side of the table, unsupervised. I complained about this.

Then I observed a general commotion of activity, to do with ballot boxes being taken out of cages (that they had been stored in overnight) and unsealed (with some difficulty in some cases) and turned into a haphazard pile awaiting emptying onto a row of tables (again, inlcuding from the wrong side of the table). This was ostensibly a prelude to the stage of Registration, whereupon papers carried in numbered black boxes would be transferred to cardboard boxes and their cover sheets entered into a computer using barcoded entry.

Unfortunately, nobody seemed to be supervising this process, and the man who was directing other clerks, with some haste, seemed not only to be responsible for creating a backlog of unsealed boxes but also turned out not to be a manager of any sort. I established this when I asked him politely, "Are you in charge?" When it turned out that he wasn't but that I was concerned about the haphazard nature of the activity, another manager, to whom I hadn't spoken before arrived on the scene and asked me to speak with him instead. I pointed to an empty black box that had just been placed on top of another box containing ballot papers in it, both of which were next to a growing pile of discarded empties. When I asked why an empty was sat on top of a full, a clerk intervened to apologise and remove it at the same time with the explanation, "That's only there temporarily." Indeed, it was, but the scene was starting to look like one of generalised chaos, not managed count processing.

I moved with the manager to one side and he asked me again what my concern was. Without going into great detail I said, somewhat perfunctorily, "It's disorganised; and it's there for all to see." What was there for all to see was the following, easily comparable to the other three constitutency counts taking place in the same hall:

1. None of the other three counts had their black boxes still in cages, but all of them were in neat and tidy rows and stacks, being fed into the process in an orderly and non-hasty fashion (as in less haste, more speed).

2. None of the other count clerks at the other three counts were working from the wrong side of the table.

3. None of the other count clerks at the other three counts were without high visibility T-shirts indentifying their role and colour coded for constituency (except at our tables, some clerks chose not to wear their T-shirts).

4. None of the other three counts were leaving black boxes unsupervised in the common areas.

5. None of the other three counts were creating back-logs of unsealed boxes in piles next to or co-mingled with empties.

Within a few minutes I noticed that things had started to improve at our count.


Count staff visibly concerned at the discovery of large number of uncounted ballot papers at 8.15pm
The big story was to do with the papers which had not yet entered the computer system as recordable votes, when the count was supposed to have been completed. We weren't just talking about a small number of papers that remained to be verified. This was a large number - the figure of two thousand was given by one manager when he eventually came over to candidates and interested observers to explain what the problem was. This verbal communication happened around 8.30pm. The count software had established that two ballot boxes remained outstanding, ie. that all the votes contained on the papers therein had not been counted yet. How could such a large discrepancy arise?

The explanation given, either officially or at the count, was that a number or papers that had been destined for manual entry of the votes cast into the computers had ended up in storage instead. Now at this point it is worth mentioning that each count centre had a number of shelving units, which were arranged in sequential order and clearly labeled, in full view of all staff and observers. The final shelving unit was marked STORAGE. This effectively translated into papers that had been scanned into the system and verified, having their votes thereby counted by the computer. They had more or less been finished with. A penultimate shelving unit was called MANUAL ENTRY. This was reserved for papers, which, for whatever reason could not be scanned by the scanning machine. The explanation then given for such a large number not having been scannable mechanically is that they were postal ballot papers that had been damaged by the envelope-cutting machine, or could not be read because of the particular kind of glue used on the envelopes for return of those papers. Apparently, papers cut in a certain way (even if not in half) would end up slightly less than A4 size and get thrown out by the mechanical scanners.

Now the question should arise, if such a large number of postal ballots are being rendered unreadable in this way, whether other counts had the same problem, and if not why not. It seems that other counts did not face such extensive delays across London, which raises the question whether the cutting machine was being operated incorrectly, or might require servicing or replacement. It seems more than a coincidence that Brent have had problems with postal votes cut in half by a machine in previous elections and I wonder whether this is the same device? Perhaps they should stop using it.

Unfortunately, moreover, this explanation is incomplete, only half true and too convenient. It is wishful in so far as neglects to mention that of the two boxes that needed to be counted in, only one, ie. roughly half, were not readable mechanically, ie. originally destined for manual entry. The other box, though identified belatedly, was indeed scanned in mechanically. The importance of this fact is that it compounds the prospective charge of incompetence, to have two boxes destined for different stages both find themselves in storage when they had not been completed.

The story doesn't stop there, however. At around 5pm I witnessed another exceptional scene. Some of the count clerks started to pack the papers which had been finished with and had been duly stored in the STORAGE shelves into the black boxes from which they originally had come and then moved them to the far side of the closed off count area. However, this step had not been undertaken by a single other count in the hall, many of whom were completing their counts. Not only did none of the other three counts elect to start moving these completed papers before they had finished their counts, but Brent and Harrow was now at risk of accidentally moving papers which had not been counted in yet into black boxes. Given the proximity of the Manual entry shelving to the Storage shelving, is it an accident that one of the former boxes ended up not only in the wrong section but off all shelving entirely?

Could not this accident have been prevented were it not for the premature movement of boxes from the Storage shelving to a second location? I think it would be good, should Brent and Harrow wish to undertake a review of their processes, for them to ask why they decided to move papers in this way when no other count in the hall was doing likewise. I was apprehensive about that step as soon as I saw it. Given the amount of business going on in between those two ends of the count area, it seemed that it would increase the risk of some piles ending up in the wrong place. Some piles did end up in the wrong place.

Whilst I do have confidence in the eventual declaration at this count, I do think Brent and Harrow's handling of the count was sloppy, out-of-kilter with what others were doing in the very same hall, and could have easily ended  up miscounted were it not for the in-built checks of the computer. However, had the boxes in question not been registered into the computer at the start of the day, could they have been missed entirely?

Contrary to Mayor Johnson's quip at the eventual City Hall declaration that it would have been quicker to have counted it by hand, I aver that Brent and Harrow reputation, though damaged, was saved by the London Elects computer.

Results on London Elects here.

1 comment:

  1. Harrow Times has since published a "leaked letter" from Gareth Daniel to the Greater London returning officer. Leaked Letter