MINISTERS were warned last night that next year's Scottish elections could be plagued with problems after they gave the go-ahead for a new system of electronic counting that will come into operation as soon as the polls close.
Scotland's returning officers said they supported the move to electronic counting but added that they were opposed to the idea of an overnight count.
The returning officers, who run all the elections in Scotland, appealed for counts to be held the following day, warning that it was a mistake to expect staff to cope with the new system for the first time during an overnight count. They said fatigue could lead to problems and the cost of recruiting expert staff to work through the night would place an extra burden on councils.
Tom Aitchison, speaking for the returning officers, said: "We have explained the risks associated with these changes to the Scottish Executive and the Scotland Office. The independent Electoral Commission, following wide consultation, has also recommended that counting should take place during the day and not overnight.
"In London, e-counting for the GLA [Greater London Authority] and mayor has moved successfully from overnight to daytime counts.
"Returning officers will, of course, do all they can to ensure the elections run smoothly, but insisting on overnight counts is an unwelcome and unnecessary decision," Mr Aitchison added.
Ministers listened to the objections of returning officers but overruled them, and yesterday they announced that the new, hi-tech process will operate on election day next 3 May, and that it will go live as soon as the polls close at 10pm. This means that, for the first time, all votes for the Scottish Parliament and local elections will be counted electronically by a series of high-speed scanners.
Douglas Alexander, the Scottish Secretary, also announced that a single ballot paper was planned for the Holyrood election in 2007, instead of one each for constituency and regional votes, as in 1999 and 2003.
The local elections will also be counted using the scanners, but probably not until Friday, 4 May, the day after polling - only after the Holyrood election has been counted and results published.
The move to electronic counting was prompted by the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote system for local authority elections. The new electoral system is so complicated and difficult to count it would take teams of tellers many, many hours to complete - a process the scanner can do extremely quickly.