NZ Local Government Elections Count on ABBYY

Every election is critical, but a complicated set of requirements will add up to a unique challenge for the 2019 Local Government Elections in New Zealand. A new customised scanning and processing system supplied and configured by ABBYY will help to automate and simplify the task for, the organisation that will be handling the bulk of processing.

The task of running Local Government elections in NZ is the responsibility of the individual authorities, although most outsource the task of printing and mailing ballot papers and counting the votes. Around 2/3 engage New Zealand Election Management company which also runs about 170 elections per year for company boards among others, many of which have an online voting component.

Triennial NZ Local Government elections, however, are strictly postal ballot only (there is no online voting allowed as yet). Council voting papers are also complicated by the need to include an average of five elections on each ballot paper and provide different methods of sequencing of candidates (alphabetic, pseudo random and random).

A double-sided A3 ballot paper must be configured to handle options for the triennial elections of regional councils, city and district councils, community boards and local boards which are all held at the same time as elections for district health boards and licensing trusts.

Steve Kilpatrick, Managing Director, said “We act for 42 Councils. All Council elections are held concurrently with voting running for a three week period. This amounts to about 1.2 million scanned images being processed in a short window.”

Adding to the complexity, there are two different voting methods employed for voting: First Past the Post (FPP, where voters use ticks or crosses to indicate their votes) and Single Transferable Vote (STV, where voters use numbers to indicate their preference for candidates by writing a 1 beside their most preferred candidate, a 2 beside their second most preferred candidate, a 3 beside their third most preferred candidate, etc.).

“Because Council elections are postal elections, we cannot control the pen or pencil used to cast the votes which obviously, can also have a big impact on image processing,” said Kilpatrick has been employing scanning and OCR at its Christchurch processing centre since the 1990s, however in 2017 it has chosen to completely refresh its software processing for vote counting and input into its backend electoral management system.

“Our incumbent supplier gave very poor support. We were definitely made to feel we were a very small part of a large, world-wide customer base. Also, the product was priced on a fixed number of licenced users rather than being based on the volume of work being processed,” said Kilpatrick.

“When you have a business like ours with a massive three yearly peak (for the Local Council elections), we wanted a flexible pricing model based on our workload rather than a model based on the number of seats we needed for our peak as though we were maintaining that level every day of every year.”

“ABBYY, a global provider of content intelligence services, solved these problems for us by providing a volume-based pricing model which meant outside our peak periods, we don’t pay so much (just for our business as usual work) and we pay more during our peaks when we are doing more work.

“An early Proof of Concept system was invaluable in showing how FlexiCapture could interface to our backend Election Management System. The software is powerful, flexible and it works (no strange results). We have been able to configure ABBYY Flexi Capture so that we can confidently defend our results before a court judge and that they will endure a judicial recount.”

Local Government elections begin with supply of individual electoral rolls by the Electoral Commission. These must then be printed and displayed to the public to allow for alterations to be fed back before is supplied the final roll.

More than 1.2 million voter packs must be then mailed out by with up to 1500 different formats of the ballot papers which can vary based in individual council, district or even street or household.

First job when the completed ballot papers arrive back at the processing centre is to scan the unopened envelopes which includes a visible identifier barcode. Voting is voluntary, so typically around 600,000 ballot papers must be processed by spread out over a 16-day period. The envelope scanning is handled by 10 low cost Fujitsu fi-7160 desktop scanners.

Next step is to open the envelopes and extract ballot papers which are supposed to be one per envelope, although occasionally some voters incorrectly include multiple papers in the one envelope and some even throw in their rate payments and perhaps a letter to council.

The ballot papers are scanned by a fleet of six Kodak i4200 high-volume scanners which can handle up to 100,000 pages per day 

“The ABBYY FlexiCapture solution has allowed us to obtain a form definition file from the print company which is then able to be loaded into the scanning platform. This was developed for us by ABBYY and their local support team. It means we do not have to manually configure the software for 1,500 different form types,” said Kilpatrick.

“The form definitions have been imported to define places for numbers, ticks and crosses which it can decide if it is confident otherwise an operator must review and determine what the voter meant. If a 9 looks like a 4 it will be presented to a human to make a decision and a second operator must agree otherwise it must go through to a 3rd person for adjudication. Everything is audited and must be able to stand up in case it is brought in front of a judge.”

“The support we have had from ABBYY has been nothing short of outstanding! From account management through to their technical support, their willingness to make sure we are getting the software to perform to suit our business requirements, has been incredible.”

While there have been discussions of the potential for of e-voting for NZ local Government elections, currently there no publicly announced plans.

Henry Patishman, Sales Director, ABBYY Australasia, said, " was a true test for us as they are expert users of Data Capture technologies and we were placed head to head against their incumbent technology vendor which they have been using for many years.  ABBYY are very proud to have delivered this complex, highly scalable and highly regulated (auditable) solution. It was great to receive external expert validation on the great functionality of FlexiCapture, our technical delivery capabilities and flexible commercial approach.”