MOVE to hi-tech democracy ended in farce as borough councillors decided to switch off their new £73,000 electronic voting system – just minutes after it was switched on.

Amid confused scenes in the Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council chamber, councillors complained:

  • They could not see the screen recording their votes.
  • They could still register an “abstention” vote without being present.
  • The system allowed members to vote for more than one option.

The new electronic system was installed last summer and the council has spent months preparing for it to go live.

But when members put it to the test at the first full council meeting of the new civic year – voting on whether Conservative Councillor Robert Taylor or Liberal Democrat Cllr Doris Jones should be elected chairman of the new community wellbeing overview scrutiny committee – the problems started.

A small A and B appeared on a little screen on the combined microphone and voting machine in front of the councillors. They were asked to push a button beneath the A for Cllr Taylor or one beneath the B for Cllr Jones. The results then appeared in the corner of two big screens near to where the mayor sits.

But all was not as straightforward as it seemed.

Conservative group leader Cllr Mark Ruffell piped up with a pressing problem for some members. “We can’t read the screen,” he said. “It’s too far away.”

Fellow Tory Cllr Stephen West then asked: “Why is it the system allows someone to vote for both A and B? If you do, both count.”

Chris Guy, the council’s head of legal and democratic services, replied: “I accept the system could be beaten in that way. I hope councillors won’t do that.” He added that officials would work to resolve the issue.

Council members then asked how they could abstain. They were told that to do so, they should not push either button. However, members noticed that the system had already counted absent councillors, whose voting cards were in the machines, as abstentions.

While a council officer started removing the cards of those members who were not present, Cllr Ruffell had clearly had enough.

He said: “If the system is such that it doesn’t work, we shouldn’t be using it, and I would move we don’t use it and take the vote manually until it has been tested and works.”

Sensing a consensus of opinion, the mayor, Cllr Brian Gurden, agreed the meeting would return to the traditional method of counting raised hands.

But he warned councillors: “Let us be clear, we will have to bite this particular bullet. Those of you who are a bit Luddite will have to be aware that we will have to go through this particular pain barrier.”

Cllr Taylor was duly elected the new committee chairman by a majority show of hands.

Early last year, when councillors discussed the purchase of the hi-tech system – which includes a new camera system for webcasting meetings – opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat members questioned whether it was the best use of taxpayers’ money.

Labour group leader Cllr Laura James said the money would have been better spent on employing extra rat-catchers The then Liberal Democrat leader, Cllr Paula Baker, asked why the council was spending money on the system when the chamber, which is also used for inquests and planning inquiries, still lacks full access for disabled people.