New Zealand vote counting to go online

A new electronic vote-counting system for this year's general election in New Zealand will see returning officers in 67 electorates entering totals directly into a Web browser interface, and news media and Internet users being served with real-time results from the same system.

Chief Electoral Officer Phil Whelan offered the first look at the system at a briefing last week in Wellington. He says the new system should be twice as fast as that used in 1996, which left the country waiting until the early hours of Sunday morning for some final results.

On election night, staff at about 3000 polling places will report by phone to their returning officers, whose PCs will be linked via a Clear Net VPN (virtual private network) to the main election headquarters at Avalon where results will be monitored by Chief Electoral Office staff. Returning officers are already on an e-mail mailing list and are being trained to use the system. The Web browser will be Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Although the system is new, a number of staff at the two principal database developers, Catalyst IT and Osmic, hail from the provider of systems for previous polls, QED. Catalyst has also designed the interface to the election results Web site, which will be hosted by Netlink.

Media will be given the choice of basing themselves at Avalon, where they will be able to make direct online queries of the election database and view large screens showing live results; taking a remote data feed the back end of the system -- in which case they will be required to cover their own telecommunications costs -- or joining the public in monitoring real-time results on the Internet.

In the past, major news providers have taken a straight ASCII data feed, but this time they will also have the option of using colour-coded maps provided by GIS developer Spatial Solutions.

The maps, including national, main centre and Maori electorate views, will offer the ability to zoom down to see which polling places have returned results. Similar maps will also be available on the Web site but, to conserve bandwidth, will not offer the zoom feature.

Standings shown in maps and tables will be a straight translation of results-to-date and not projections, says Whelan.

Whelan says prompt delivery of results has been a key goal for the project, and staff counting votes at individual booths will be instructed to contact their returning officers if they cannot balance their totals, rather than counting over and over as some did in 1996.

Reporting has also been streamlined, with each booth entered into the system as its totals come in, rather than in blocks of five and 15 polling places as in 1996.

The bad news is that the citizens' initiated referendum (CIR) on reducing the number of members of Parliament to 100, which means about another 2.2 million votes to be counted, will eat up much of the gain in the new system. Another CIR, calling for longer sentences for violent crime, could yet be added to the poll at the discretion of the government. In which case, the prospect of a meaningful result by bedtime would be exceedingly slim.

Whelan says the office's legal advice is that CIR votes must be counted on election night.

The 15,000 staff involved in the poll will account for the bulk of the CEO's $NZ4.6 million ($3.8 million) budget, and it is possible that more vote counters will be recruited, especially if the second CIR is added. A dry run will be conducted about four weeks from polling day.

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