The claim
“Should AV pass, the cost of electronic vote counting necessitated by AV will be £130 million”
No to AV Campaign group

The background

With just a couple of months until the referendum on 5 May, the gloves are off.

And with good reason – an Ipsos Mori poll has found that 13 per cent of those planning to vote, are not sure which way they’ll go.

The Yes to Fair Votes Campaign has the edge so far, with 49 per cent of those planning to vote, supporting the AV system. Meanwhile, 37 per cent are against it.

This week the scrabble for votes moved up a notch, when the No campaign took out a two-page advert in the Birmingham Mail claiming that a sick baby “needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system”.

The Yes campaign was outraged, branding the move a “new low” for No to AV.

The analysis

As the Ipsos poll showed, the  No to AV campaign clearly has some catching up to do. Cue a headline grabbing press release that claims AV will hit people where it hurts the most: their wallets.

No to AV claims that the combined costs of a referendum, implementing electronic vote counting and educating voters will cost Britain a cool £250 million. And just over half of this will be splashed out on shiny new electronic vote counting machines, the campaigners say.

They produced 12-pages of calculations supporting their claims – but are they right?

Electronic voting machines would more than double the present cost of British elections, but not improve the way elections are run,  No to AV said.

In fact, there was a 50 per cent failure rate when the Electoral Commission ran e-counting pilots in 2007.

The estimated cost of the 2010 general election is around £82m, justice minister Michael Wills told then-Shadow Housing Minister Grant Shapps last year.

The Government has done no cost analysis of how much it would cost to run an AV system, but No to AV estimates that the lion’s share of the bill will come in the form of electronic voting machines – costing between £90m and £130m.

That’s an estimated figure, based on looking at Scotland’s use of electronic voting systems in 2007, and pilot schemes in England during the same year – all adjusted for inflation.

The problem is however, that there are no current plans to implement electronic voting machines in the event AV passes.

The Electoral Commission, the independent elections watchdog, told FactCheck: “The Commission hasn’t considered whether electric machines are necessary or value for money.”

Despite pointing out the high failure rate of electronic machines, No to AV maintains that counting AV votes is far too time consuming for manual vote counters to do it.

“Yes we know there are no official plans (to bring in electronic machines) but it’s almost a given. The Yes campaigners are getting off on a technicality,” a spokesman for No to AV told FactCheck.

Manual counts would take up to four times longer, he said, pointing to evidence in Scotland and the USA that shows you couldn’t do without machines.

For example, the Electoral Commission’s independent review into the Scottish elections in 2007, led by Ron Gould, concluded: “…the traditional manual counting of the ballot papers would not be effective for the 2007 elections and electronic counting technology would be required…if the STV electoral system is here to stay, the electronic count cannot be reasonably abandoned.”

But the Electoral Commission told FactCheck today: “Cost benefit analysis hasn’t been done yet, but we have called on the Government to do it.”

Claiming that £130m would be spent on voting machines is “totally bogus”, Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Oakeshott told FactCheck.

“There’s not a shred of evidence to support it,” he added. “Anyone can work out costings, but the plan to bring in machines doesn’t exist.”

He brushed off No to AV’s examples of voting systems in Scotland and America.

“Have they heard of Northern Ireland, do they know what STV is? It’s a rather more complicated system than AV but they don’t have voting machines,” Lord Oakeshott pointed out.

Meanwhile, Anthony Green – the election specialist for Australian broadcaster ABC – has written reams debunking the myths surrounding Australia’s AV system “for those readers in the United Kingdom” who he says have got it all wrong.

“We’ve used AV for 90 years at all levels of government. And Australia has never used voting machines to conduct its elections,” he said.

“They need to get their facts right about Australia and AV. The point is you get better representation. That’s what AV is all about.”

The verdict

Take another look at the Electoral Commission’s comment; at this stage it hasn’t even considered if electronic voting machines are necessary – let alone looked at the potential cost.

Today, the Tories lined up a string of new spokespeople to join No to AV patrons William Hague, Ken Clarke and Sayeeda Warsi.  Of the seven MPs and two party activists joining, one of the latter – Maggie Throup – said: “Our country just cannot afford the millions it would cost to implement any new system.”

With George Osborne’s spending cuts only just beginning to bite, and with the Office for National Statistics revising its GDP estimate down again today, the public don’t need any more scares.  No to AV needs to keep the fight for voters clean.