Electronic vote-counting system stands poised at Avalon

The electronic electronic vote-counting system for tomorrow's general election should be twice as fast as that used in 1996 - but the gains will probably be eaten up by the two referenda on the ballot paper.

The electronic vote-counting system for tomorrow's general election should be twice as fast as that used in 1996, which choked on MMP returns and left the country waiting until the early hours of Sunday morning for some final results.

The bad news is that two Citizens' Initiated Referenda - on reducing the number of MPs to 100, and longer sentences for violent crime – mean an additional 4.4million votes to be counted, quite possibly eating up all the speed gains. If a clear trend does not emerge early, the prospect of a meaningful result by bedtime could be slim.

The Chief Electoral Officer, Phil Whelan, says the office's legal advice is that CIR votes must be counted on election night.

The system 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 out of the same system.

Tomorrow night, staff at about 3000 polling places will report by phone to their returning officers, whose PCs will be linked via a virtual private network based on Telecom's IPNet to the main election HQ at the Avalon complex, where results will be monitored by Chief Electoral Office staff.

Returning officers have been on an e-mail mailing list dedicated to the project for months.

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 Website, which will be hosted by Netlink.

Catalyst's Don Christie says he and three other staff have been at Avalon since Monday, "re-connecting everything". A dry run is understood to have been conducted several weeks ago.

"We've been getting returning officers to log and check that their data's correct," says Christie. "Some of them have had extra PCs provided, and we're checking those."

Media have been 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 are 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 simply taken a straight ASCII data feed, but this time they also have option of using colour-coded maps provided by GIS developer Spatial Solutions. The maps, including national, main centre and Maori electorate views, offer the ability to zoom down to see which polling places have returned results. Similar maps will also be available on the Website, 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 translated by the MMP formula, and not projections, says Whelan, "we don't get into that game".

Whelan says prompt delivery of results has been a key goal for the project, and staff counting votes at individual booths have been 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.

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