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Senior returning officer Rob Hughes
"We've had a few machines which have gone pear-shaped"
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banner Friday, 5 May, 2000, 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK
Dust clogs electronic count

Manual counting would have taken three days - at least
Static and dust in a counting hall have been blamed for "bunging up" electronic vote counting machines - making their UK debut - in London's elections.

The system, which was used in 1998 in elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, had been given a dry run in mock elections earlier this year.

But several machines in the Enfield and Haringey constituency of the London assembly elections "went pear-shaped", according to the senior returning officer Rob Hughes.

It is thought the dust had collected on the table coverings.

All but two of the new machines broke down, and engineers had to be brought in to repair them.

"It caused static and stopped the machines working," said Mr Hughes. "They have just got bunged up.

ballot paper
Machine's sensors detects voters' crosses on ballot form
"This is a brand new system of voting and a brand new system of counting. It isn't surprising we have had a few problems."

Other counts were hit by large numbers of forms being filled out wrongly and delays in getting ballot boxes to the counting centres.

When working, the new counting system is able to count two-and-a-half ballot papers a second.

X marks the spot

It was designed to allow Londoners to know who their new mayor would be on Friday morning rather than having to wait until Sunday or Monday, if manual counting had been used.

Voters were still required to put a cross by the names of their preferred candidates.

But they were asked not to fold their ballot paper in the traditional way as the machine can only read unfolded paper.

Notices in every polling booth told voters to put their papers in the box with the blank side upwards to ensure privacy.

The machine works in the same way as equipment used to mark students' multiple choice exam papers - with sensors able to detect where crosses have been made and translating it into votes.

Regional hiccups

Computer glitches also affected counts in other parts of the country.

At Stratford-on-Avon District Council, an experiment in which computers were used for the actual voting as well as the counting produced the result only 30 minutes quicker than the traditional hand counting method because of an unexplained technical glitch.

In Bury, Greater Manchester, where one ward was chosen for electronic voting, the result was declared 56 minutes after electronic polling booths closed.

Council staff had hoped to announce the result in just five minutes but were delayed by technical problems.

"These were pilot projects and were never going to be 100% successful," a Home Office spokesman said.

"The idea was to find out what works and what doesn't, and the systems will all be evaluated.

"In a way, it's quite helpful if one or two have technical problems because it helps us learn from our mistakes," he said.

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