Tuesday, 4 May 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Bill is before the House because the Government has been in a mad rush to get the electronic voting system in place for 11 June. The Committee Stage debate, which took place last week, took place prior to the interim report of the Commission on Electronic Voting. That report changes the context for the Bill. First, electronic voting will not be used on 11 June. Second, there are issues which arise from the report of the commission which require the Bill to be amended on Committee Stage.
On pages 12 and 13 of the commission’s report, there are comments by the commission on its terms of reference. The terms of reference for the commission, when established on a statutory basis, are contained in a Schedule to the Bill. The implications of the comments by the commission in its report relating to its terms of reference would require amendments to be tabled to the Bill. For example, the commission states: “Issues such as the existence of a voter verifiable audit trail, the removal of the possibility of abstaining or spoiling a vote, voter acceptance of the system, alternative electronic voting systems and issues surrounding the procurement of the chosen system and the procurement of previous testing of the system were outside the Commission’s terms of reference”. It appears, given the comments made by the commission, that the terms of reference for the commission, which are contained in a Schedule to the Bill, need to be amended, thus requiring a recommittal.
Other issues have been raised by the commission which require a Committee Stage type debate. For example, the finding by the commission that “the system has not been tested as a whole or certified as being suitable for use in an Irish electoral context by an accredited testing and certification authority” would require a Committee Stage amendment, as would the finding that: “certain of the tests performed at the request of the Commission identified an error in the count software which could lead to incorrect distributions of surpluses; there is a possibility that further testing will uncover further software errors;”. The finding, which is alarming, that:
—in particular, experts retained by the Commission found it very easy to bypass electronic security measures and gain complete control of the “hardened” PC, overwrite the software, and thereby in theory to gain complete control over the count in a given constituency——
Mr. Gilmore: There are so many issues and so many criticisms made of this electronic voting system by the commission that I would detain the House a long time if I were to go through them all. Therefore, I do not propose to do that. We were not aware of all these issues in the report of the commission when we debated the Bill on Committee Stage. Report Stage amendments arise out of Committee Stage debate. It is not possible to have these issues addressed on Report Stage and, for those reasons, I ask that the Bill in its entirety be recommitted.
Mr. Allen: The Chair intervened continuously and interrupted me. I agree with what Deputy Gilmore has said. The Taoiseach said earlier that the commission had further work to do. That may be so but its work will be ineffective because the Taoiseach should realise that the narrow terms of reference of the commission makes it impossible for it to deal with a number of issues, one of which is the question of the verifiable paper audit trail.
Mr. Cuffe: I echo the sentiments expressed by Deputy Gilmore and suggest the detailed discussion we might have here is akin to a debate and discussion as to what music should be played on the Titanic. Given that a dramatic decision has been made and a dramatic report has been published, we should not proceed on this basis.
Mr. Morgan: The best message I could hear from the Government side of the House would be that the Minister was resigning, which is what he undertook to do on Committee Stage. Given that he will not do that and that the Taoiseach appears unwilling to dispatch him, we will have to carry on with this legislation. I support the motion from Deputy Gilmore that the Bill be recommitted because we are starting from scratch. If only the Minister had consulted from the beginning, this problem would not have arisen. In the absence of that consultation, we are in a cul-de-sac with this system.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Cullen): As I have already stated, it was my understanding that the Opposition fully supported the view that the commission should be put on a statutory footing. That was the starting point in all of this and a core reason for the debate and the legislation. It is quite clear from the report that the commission wants to see that promise fulfilled as quickly as possible. I have no doubt if I told the House this afternoon that the Government was not proceeding with the legislation, there would be uproar on the other side of the House and the Opposition would accuse me of trying to undermine the commission. The games are over. The Government will proceed on the commitment given that the commission would be set up on a statutory basis.
|Allen, Bernard.||Boyle, Dan.|
|Bruton, John.||Burton, Joan.|
|Connaughton, Paul.||Connolly, Paudge.|
|Costello, Joe.||Cowley, Jerry.|
|Crawford, Seymour.||Cuffe, Ciarán.|
|Deasy, John.||Deenihan, Jimmy.|
|Durkan, Bernard J.||English, Damien.|
|Enright, Olwyn.||Gilmore, Eamon.|
|Gormley, John.||Gregory, Tony.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Higgins, Joe.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Howlin, Brendan.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||McCormack, Padraic.|
|McGinley, Dinny.||McGrath, Finian.|
|McGrath, Paul.||McHugh, Paddy.|
|Mitchell, Olivia.||Morgan, Arthur.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Noonan, Michael.|
|Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.||Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.|
|O’Dowd, Fergus.||O’Keeffe, Jim.|
|O’Shea, Brian.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Pattison, Seamus.||Penrose, Willie.|
|Quinn, Ruairi.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Ring, Michael.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Ryan, Seán.||Sargent, Trevor.|
|Sherlock, Joe.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Ahern, Bertie.||Ahern, Dermot.|
|Ahern, Michael.||Andrews, Barry.|
|Blaney, Niall.||Brady, Johnny.|
|Brady, Martin.||Browne, John.|
|Callanan, Joe.||Carey, Pat.|
|Carty, John.||Cassidy, Donie.|
|Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cregan, John.||Cullen, Martin.|
|Curran, John.||Davern, Noel.|
|de Valera, Síle.||Dempsey, Noel.|
|Dempsey, Tony.||Devins, Jimmy.|
|Ellis, John.||Fahey, Frank.|
|Finneran, Michael.||Fleming, Seán.|
|Gallagher, Pat The Cope.||Glennon, Jim.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Haughey, Seán.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Jacob, Joe.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Killeen, Tony.|
|Kirk, Seamus.||Lenihan, Brian.|
|Lenihan, Conor.||McCreevy, Charlie.|
|McDaid, James.||McDowell, Michael.|
|McEllistrim, Thomas.||McGuinness, John.|
|Martin, Micheál.||Moloney, John.|
|Moynihan, Donal.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Mulcahy, Michael.||Nolan, M.J.|
|Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Dea, Willie.||O’Donnell, Liz.|
|O’Keeffe, Batt.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Malley, Tim.||Parlon, Tom.|
|Power, Peter.||Power, Seán.|
|Ryan, Eoin.||Sexton, Mae.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Smith, Michael.|
|Wallace, Dan.||Walsh, Joe.|
|Wilkinson, Ollie.||Woods, Michael.|
The purpose of the amendment is to provide for an Irish title for the Commission on Electronic Voting. In his response to my earlier motion, which I regret was not accepted, the Minister stated that his reason for proceeding with the Bill today was the requirement that the commission be established on a statutory basis. While I accept that this is the case, this could be achieved by dealing separately with Part 3 of the Bill which deals with the establishment of the commission. The Labour Party would probably agree if the Minister were to make such a proposal.
The House and the country owe a debt of gratitude to the commission which was established at a time of political conflict and partisan views in the House on the proposed electronic voting system. This was no fault of Deputies on this side who sought at the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government to persuade the Government to approach the issue on an all-party basis. The Government decided unilaterally to proceed with the system and ran into difficulty. As Deputies Kenny and Allen reminded the House, it was only on foot of a motion tabled by the Labour Party, Fine Gael and the Green Party that it was eventually forced to establish the commission.
The members of the commission were given the difficult job of reporting on the electronic voting system selected within a difficult timeframe, a fact to which they drew attention in their report. The commission was also given limited terms of reference and correctly drew attention in its report to these limitations, which prevented it from examining anything other than the system of electronic voting already chosen by the Government. This precluded it, for example, from examining the issue of a voter verifiable audit trail and other matters. While not stated bluntly, it broadly hints in its report that it would like its terms of reference changed to enable it to examine wider issues.
In the report submitted to the Ceann Comhairle last Friday, the commission did a service to democracy by asserting and exercising its independence and severely criticising the proposed system of electronic voting. The report echoes the criticisms contained in a document produced by the Labour Party last autumn and ridiculed by the Minister at the time.
The Minister has many questions to answer about his stewardship of this issue. Deputies have referred to his stewardship of expenditure on the system, for which he did not have authority. At the time he committed expenditure, primary legislation allowing him to do so had not been enacted. The legislation in question is the Bill which would allow electronic voting to be used in the local and European Parliament elections. Despite the fact that it had not been enacted, the Minister proceeded to spend €52 million of taxpayer’s money. He had no authority to do so and has not yet made himself accountable to the House.
The Minister repeatedly assured the House and the committee examining the issue that the system chosen was safe and reliable and had been thoroughly tested. It was a matter of placing our trust in him. The assurances the Minister gave this House were blown out of the water last Friday when the commission published its report. The software has not yet been fully developed for this system. The commission stated that as the software version proposed for use in the forthcoming elections is as yet unknown, it is impossible for anyone to certify its accuracy. There are also issues of secrecy. An individual voter could effectively be intimidated or corrupted while casting a vote. An insider could overcome the random methods used for the storage of votes in the ballot module. The people engaged by the commission were able to bypass the security measures and gain complete control of the PC. The count could be manipulated. All these issues were raised either by Members in the various debates in the House or in the committee, or were raised by technical experts who made submissions to the committee. These concerns were flatly denied by the Minister.
I recommend the amendment but this debate is surreal. We are debating a Bill to enable something to take place that cannot take place. This is happening against a background of misinformation given to the House previously by the Minister. In my speech on Second Stage, I wondered aloud what this was all about. Why was Fianna Fáil so anxious to get a system of electronic voting into place? We suspected at the time that it was seriously flawed and now we know from the commission report that it was seriously flawed. We are owed an explanation and the commission is owed the gratitude of the House and of the country for blowing the whistle on such a flawed system of electronic voting.
Mr. Allen: I want to pay tribute to the commission. I asked how it could carry out its work in the short time span and narrow terms of reference that it had. Yet it did an effective job and upheld many of the reservations raised by Members and experts outside the House. The Minister should make some apologies. He got an opportunity on Committee Stage to apologise to the people whom he described as part of the anti-globalisation movement. There is a letter of complaint to the Ceann Comhairle from the Irish Computer Society regarding comments made by the Minister. That was one small example of the contempt that the Minister had for anyone who dared question his good judgement. His judgement is now as low as his credibility. He should be big enough to apologise, before he is forced to do so, to the Irish Computer Society for his remarks in this House. There is an old cliché that the best form of defence is attack. I protested that people were being attacked who could not defend themselves. I hope the Ceann Comhairle will force the Minister to apologise.
The events of recent months have shown a high level of naiveté on the part of the Minister, followed by incompetence. He continued to press ahead with a system that was known by those who researched it to have problems. That incompetence was followed by arrogance, where everyone who raised concerns was criticised for being Luddites and yesterday’s people.
Mr. Allen: It was then followed by negligence. The amendment should be accepted. It is incredible that the Government decided to press ahead with Report Stage in spite of all that happened. It is now time for reflection and to figure out how best to go forward. I thought the Minister should have learned his lesson last Friday following the publication of the report. He should have insisted that we work together on this to bring forward a safe, secure system that has the people’s trust. The Minister continues to ride a bicycle with the back wheel punctured.
Mr. Allen: He is continuing on, but this puncture will cause the wheel to buckle. He should get off the bicycle and consult all parties on how best to advance a suitable system for our democracy. It is not too late. We must re-examine the terms of reference for the commission. The Taoiseach added insult to injury when he stated that the commission could continue with its work. With its limited terms of reference, it will not be able to bring forward the work that is required to gain the confidence of the people.
The process must be removed from the political realm. The Minister should relinquish his position as the person driving this legislation. The future role of an electoral commission should be examined. Why should there be so many commissions examining different issues concerning elections? Why is there no independent statutory commission which would have the terms of reference to examine boundaries, the way elections are run, and the issue of standards in public office? Control over the management of elections should be removed from the Department. There is an ongoing conflict of interest in the Minister’s position which has been increased by his being director of elections for Fianna Fáil in the local elections on 11 June.
It is time to call a halt to the waste of taxpayers’ money as this will keep going otherwise. The Minister says these machines will be viable or operable for the next 20 years. The cost of storage of the machines while they are not in use and their future is being decided must be considered. There are other major costs associated with this. The commission stated in its report that the issues concerning the storage and security of the machines, whether in use or not, must be addressed.
It is time to call a halt and reflect. Let us all have space. The Minister has the guarantee of my party that if some respect is shown for the Opposition parties, those parties will respond in a mature way. We are not all out to play political games at all times, as the Minister might think. We will be responsible and we can go forward together to bring forth an acceptable system that everybody will trust.
Mr. Cuffe: It is a time for reflection and a time to pause. The science of report writing is a sober one. One must put down one’s recommendations on paper quite cautiously and carefully. Section 4.4 of the report, which lists recommendations for action, states quite carefully that we should be quite cautious in proceeding with electronic voting. However, the most damning part of the report is the page on other issues which precedes this section. An entire page of the report is devoted to these. The language in the report is screaming at us to stop, go back and reconsider. This is the lesson that must be learned from it. My party believes an independent electoral commission is necessary if we are to have confidence restored in the electronic voting system. It is incumbent on the Minister to provide vision rather than continue on the route he has taken until now.
There are small parts of this legislation that need to be in place for the election in five weeks’ time. I am happy about this, but the Minister should pull back and set up an all-party committee or procedure to allow for the kind of input evident in the submissions received and to feed into a review of the voting system. A total of 162 submissions were made by some of the best and brightest brains in Ireland who approached the issue from technical and political points of view among others. The majority of these individuals advised that we should proceed cautiously and carefully and many stated we should have an independent electoral commission. Rather than simply criticise the Minister, and there has been enough criticism of him, we should move on. We need to see some commitment on the part of the Minister to set up an independent electoral commission. This would start to restore confidence lost due to the fiasco of recent years.
I hope the Minister will take on board Deputy Gilmore’s amendment which refers to the highest standards of transparency and accountability. We can only achieve these by pulling back and re-examining the entire process. I thank the commission for its work. It produced a carefully worded document. Each of the paragraphs on page 23 is a tremendous addition to what we know about electronic voting and each needs to be taken on board by the Minister’s Department. I hope we will start from scratch again and I encourage the Minister to do so.
Mr. Morgan: I support this amendment and welcome the opportunity we now have to stand back, re-examine the legislation and consider what is really needed in terms of putting in place a proper voting system. If the Minister wants to avoid further disaster, he will consider carefully the proposition on offering support put by a number of people, not least of whom is Deputy Allen. I, too, would offer support in working constructively with the Government to make sure we get this right.
I noted how this matter can cause vexation in the Chamber. When Deputy Durkan was making his point of order, he reminded me of a fellow at the back of the dance hall years ago who was about to throw off his coat. I refer to a reasonable man who wants to work with the Minister to try produce something sensible rather than fight with him. As I stated, we welcome that the Government has abandoned its plans to introduce electronic voting in the forthcoming election following the publication of the findings of the commission on electronic voting. It was surprising that the Government took so long to take that decision given the overwhelming concerns that existed about the secrecy and accuracy of the system it proposes to use. These concerns were voiced by a broad spectrum of people, including independent software experts from outside the House. The magnitude of the Minister’s arrogance in this matter was on a grand scale.
There was real concern for a while in my party that the Government might try to ignore the commission’s findings and plough ahead with the introduction of electronic voting in June. Again, I welcome the Government announcement to put it on hold. In the absence of a voter-verified paper audit trail——
The absence of a voter-verified paper audit trail and the failure to publish the source code represented fatal flaws in the proposed system of electronic voting. I hope we can start again, engage in consultation, solve this problem together and create what everybody wants, namely, a fair and open system for all.
Mr. McCormack: While I join other Deputies in thanking the commission for its report, unfortunately I do not share their optimism in believing we can stand back because the Government intends to give people space and re-examine the issue. What occurred during the Order of Business only reinforces my suspicion that the Government intends or wants to proceed, irrespective of the views of the Opposition.
The Taoiseach stated during Leaders’ Questions that it was only in mid-January, when a row started about electronic voting in America, that people in this country began to question our electronic voting system. I had no opportunity to advise the Taoiseach at the time but I advise him now to consult the minutes of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government of 18 December, in which he will note the serious concerns outlined and ignored by the Minister on that occasion. On 18 February, on the all-party motion on electronic voting, I alluded to the fact that it is the people who will thwart the attempts to introduce electronic voting because the essence of power rests with them. As a result of that Dáil debate, the Government, in the absence of the Minister who was abroad at the time, conceded to the establishment of the commission that has now made its report. It is a pity the Minister was not abroad on more occasions because we might have made more progress on this matter. That was the only progress made since the committee debate in December. On 18 February, reluctantly and at the eleventh hour, the Government conceded the establishment of a commission. It was, possibly, rumblings in the minor Government party which led to that concession. Either way, we were lucky to get it.
The Fine Gael Party has consistently advised the Minister to ensure everything is in order before introducing electronic voting. We said at the committee meetings that we would like to emerge fully supportive of the Minister in its introduction. However, there was too much bulldozing, too many unanswered questions and too many disparaging remarks about the case we made. I will not quote some of the remarks made by the Minister during Dáil debates about the Opposition and, particularly, the attitude of Fine Gael. Some very disparaging remarks were made for which he should have the grace to apologise. What we were saying has now beem included in the commission’s report.
That is exactly what we said. The public did not have confidence in it because of its lack of knowledge about it and the way it was bulldozed through by the Government. The commission also said: “In addition, the commission recognises that the threshold of proof required”——
Mr. McCormack: If the Minister continues with that attitude, I despair of him doing anything to correct the mess he is in. He has displayed arrogance throughout the debates on this issue. It was evident at the committee meeting on 18 December when experts from both sides, departmental officials and representatives of the manufacturers of the equipment appeared before the committee to discuss the issue and answer questions. We should have been allowed to continue that meeting on the afternoon of 18 December but Government members of the committee suddenly put a motion before the committee which resulted in the collapse of the meeting ten minutes after it had resumed its deliberations after lunch. The committee had intended to sit all day.
Mr. McCormack: This concerns its essence. If there is a statutory commission to deal with this and remove it from the Minister’s hands, there might be an opportunity to generate a consensus which would permit the introduction of electronic voting.
Nobody has a difficulty with electronic voting per se. The €5 million spent by the public relations company showing people how to switch off electric lights and press buttons was irrelevant to the debate. Everybody knows how to do that. The relevant issue in the debate was the trust people had in the method of voting at elections and the trust, or mainly lack of it, people had in the Government parties which were pushing this through despite the reservations of the Opposition and, more importantly, people outside politics who were experts in information technology. They had far more knowledge than us and were, and still are, extremely sceptical about this.
Eventually, the media, the Joe Duffy programme and everybody else forced the Government to set up the commission which has now rejected what the Minister tried to bulldoze through. Originally, he did not even concede that legislation was necessary. He eventually conceded that it was. Bit by bit, he is being forced to climb down on this issue. He should be more careful and a little more conciliatory about the valid points being made about the mess he is in. There is an old saying that when one is in a hole, one should stop digging. If the Minister would stop digging, it might be more helpful to the cause he is promoting.
Mr. McCormack: Who am I to advise the Minister? Perhaps he knows better. I might not have the Minister’s expertise in other matters but I have enough common sense to know that when one is in a hole, one should stop digging and be careful about what one says.
Mr. McCormack: My opinion is clear. I have listened to members of the public at meetings and other places. They wonder how one can trust, after the exposure of what happened in political circles over the last ten years, any Fianna Fáil Minister or Government to introduce electronic voting without believing — I am only quoting the general opinion — that there is some fiddle attached to it. That is what the people are saying. That is the reality of the situation in which the Minister finds himself with regard to electronic voting.
I will not waste time because the Minister is anxious to reply. If he starts well by agreeing to amendment No. 1, a reasonable proposal, we can have a short Report Stage debate on this important issue.
Mr. J. Higgins: The scaffold was only half built when they had to leave. It is truly farcical to have Dáil Éireann, the representative assembly of the nation, tied up for hours today and on further days discussing this Bill for nothing when so many pressing issues should be brought before the Dáil. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is like a man at the church door, about to be married, but unable to get his bride to be to the church on time — she is locked up in a storeroom somewhere — and yet he insists on putting us through the ceremony anyway. Talk about being all dressed up and nowhere to go.
This is a farce. A number of Deputies have mentioned the word “surreal” and it is true. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Cheshire cat begins to disappear in the course of the story and all that is eventually left is a grin. The reason for this Bill has disappeared; it has melted before our faces. All we are left with is the Bill and another bill to the taxpayer for €50 million. It is incredible. We could debate a disability Bill or a Bill controlling land prices. There are a number of issues that Dáil Éireann could debate profitably. However, sitting for days on end to deal with a matter that is now irrelevant as far as the local and European elections in June are concerned is outrageous.
It is becoming characteristic of this Minister that he is increasingly involved with matters that turn out to be posthumous. He has wasted €1.5 million on an advertising campaign called “Race Against Waste” based on fraudulent impressions being given to frighten the public into paying his double taxes. If we had any effective leadership in Government, the Minister would not be sitting where he is at present. We would have someone else who would be trying to withdraw this Bill as gracefully as possible. I agree with the Deputy Gilmore’s amendment that “AN COIMISIÚN UM VÓTÁIL LEICTREONACH” should be inserted in the title.
Níl creidiúint ar bith ag baint anois leis an mBille seo. Tá sé dochreidte go bhfuil Dáil Éireann sáite inniu, agus go mbeidh sé arís laethanta eile, ag déanamh díospóireachta ar rud nach dtarlóidh — b’fhéidir nach dtarlóidh sé ariamh — nuair atá rudaí tromchúiseacha eile ar cheart go mbéadh an Dáil tógtha suas leo. Tá an vótáil leictreonach curtha ar ceal dos na toghcháin áitiúla agus don toghchán Eorpach ach tá an tAire go fóill ag iarraidh an Bille seo a bhrú tríd an Dáil. Ba cheart deireadh a chur leis an ráiméis seo agus gnóéigin a mbéadh tairbhe leis do mhuintir na hÉireann a chur os comhair na Dála.
Mr. Cullen: I join my colleagues in thanking the commission for its work. It vindicated the view I expressed to the commission that its members would be very independent in the exercise of their duties. Everybody would accept that they have done that, which I welcome. The report is an important contribution to the debate on this issue and in many respects is very helpful. It is important that people read this report in its totality. I would not like to put on record the number of times I have read the report.
Mr. Cullen: I have read it in great detail to try to understand the issues the commission has raised. I would like to put on the record the paragraph that Deputy McCormack left out, which is singularly significant. The commission went out of its way to ensure it was upfront in its executive summary by stating:
This is where we lie at the moment. As other Members placed much on the record, I also wish to put on the record the commission’s own findings as there is an important reason it did this. The commission’s report states:
They are pretty definitive on much of the testing the commission carried out. The report made little or no criticism of the machines. The commission seemed to concentrate on the software, the counting——
Mr. Cullen: The Deputy is quite correct. It is an interesting point which needs to be teased out with the commission. On the point the commission raised about the error which it said occurred in the machine, the only one of which I was aware was the one about which the Department informed the commission which was an infinitesimal difference on a decimal point. The commission was informed that had been corrected. As I understand it, it had no bearing in any real sense on the distribution of votes. We must keep matters in perspective when considering exactly what has been said. That is important to record. Equally, it is fine by me if the commission rightly says it would have preferred if all testing had finished a month ago. The commission is of the opinion that we should not be testing this close to the elections, which is a criticism I accept. I accept also that the commission’s view differs from that of the Department that one should continue to test. I will not argue a reasonable point which is fairly made. However, the commission’s net point is that it wants time to perform testing of the kind which has already been carried out. The most significant end-to-end testing of the entire system was carried out in real time in a real live scenario by its use in a number of constituencies in the previous general election. It was used in a further number of constituencies during a referendum.
Mr. Cullen: I will wait a minute. I ask the question on the basis of my understanding from what all the Deputies have said that the Opposition wants the commission to be stood down. According to Opposition Members, the commission has done its work and a different type of body should be established. If I am right in saying that, I need it to be confirmed.
Mr. Cullen: Deputy Gilmore implies he is not saying that. That is fair enough. As the Opposition knows, we must pursue this legislation as we guaranteed the commission that we would place it on a statutory footing. This Bill provides the framework to accomplish that. While it sets out a framework for the use of electronic voting in all circumstances, the Bill does not specify the type of system to be used. Equally, the legislation deals with matters imminent in the local elections, including the eligibility or otherwise of local government employees to stand. It deals also with the issue of personation with polling cards which I thought all Members wished to see addressed. I am happy to deal with those issues. That is why we are here to debate the Bill. Members should be clear that a guarantee was given to the commission and that we wish to fulfil it. The commission feels it should be placed on a statutory footing and the Government has no difficulty with making the necessary provisions.
Amendment No. 1 is technical and seeks to include additional text in the long title which makes reference to the commission on electronic voting. The amendment is not considered necessary. The title of the commission is included in both languages in section 17 of the Bill. The parliamentary counsel is the expert in drawing up the Long Titles of Bills. The Long Title of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004 was prepared by the counsel and is considered satisfactory. On that basis, I ask Deputy Gilmore to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Gilmore: I find it remarkable that the Minister has shifted ground. The original purpose of this Bill was to introduce electronic voting on 11 June. That is the reason it was hurriedly brought to the House. Time was taken up on Second Stage which the House could more usefully have used to consider legislation to address tenants rights, the price of land and houses and the other urgent, inadequately dealt with issues which come under the remit of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Government’s hurry to introduce electronic voting was the reason the Bill was on Committee Stage last week. The ink was hardly dry on amendments made on Committee Stage before the Bill was brought back to the House on Report Stage. The Minister is now telling the House that the Bill is not really about electronic voting. He says it is about putting the commission on a statutory footing.
As far as the Minister was concerned, the commission was always incidental to the entire issue. It was an afterthought which was established under pressure from the Opposition. It was given limited terms of reference with which to carry out a difficult task in a limited timeframe. It must be acknowledged that the commission has done an outstanding job in those circumstances. The Minister relies on the fact that the commission said it was reasonably happy with the voting machine hardware. The criticisms we made of the system had little or nothing to do with the hardware. Our criticisms mainly involved the software and its possible vulnerability.
Mr. Gilmore: The criticisms involved both the software of the machines and counting system software. The report published by the Labour Party last autumn was rubbished by the Minister because its authors were members of the party and declared themselves to be such. The Labour Party report identified the very issues referred to in section 4.5 of the commission’s report. The authors of the Labour Party report made four or five particular recommendations, one of which was that there should be a full end-to-end test of the system. This is precisely the same as the commission’s recommendation of an independent end-to-end test. The Labour Party report recommended that the introduction and operation of electronic voting should be the responsibility of an independent body. In essence, that is what is contained in the second, third and fourth bullet points of the commission’s recommendation. I will return to these points when I respond to the Minister.
Mr. Allen: I am quite flabbergasted listening to the Minister. I thought he would come to the House and show a little flexibility towards the views of the Opposition. As I said earlier, I am quite flexible in dealing with some of the major issues. The Minister quoted selectively from the commission’s report and I do not know what point he was making. The Minister accused me of looking through the wrong end of the telescope. My point is that the Minister is looking down the barrel of a gun in terms of his position. He was quite insulting when we raised the core issue of a verifiable paper audit trail.
Mr. Allen: It is an issue as far as I am concerned. On page 23 of the commission’s report, it is certainly an issue. The commission says that although they do not fall strictly within its terms of reference, the following observations have a bearing on the successful implementation of the system at elections in Ireland. According to the commission, the system cannot accommodate voters who wish to register an abstention and it does not have a voter-verifiable audit trail for voters. This trail is argued by many to reassure voters that their votes have been correctly recorded.
The Minister is repeating his mistakes this evening. While the Government will maintain the commission, its terms of reference will remain narrow. I ask the Minister to show his hand and tell the House exactly how he thinks we can go forward in the quagmire he has got us into. I would say also that the absence of a verifiable audit trail significantly raises the standard of proof for a positive opinion. I and many others are concerned about the €4.5 million wasted on this ludicrous programme and the Minister’s statement that it is as simple as “one, two, three”. Nothing is as simple as that. Will the Minister inform the House how much of the €4.5 million has been spent? Will he use the remainder to encourage people to register to vote——
Mr. Allen: ——and vote on 11 June? The problem of getting people out to vote is a core issue. Instead of throwing good money after bad, the Minister should ensure the remainder is used in positive way.
Mr. Cullen: On the Deputy’s final question, less than half the amount remains with €1 million of the total budget being set aside for use in encouraging people to vote. The Government will proceed with that aspect. I welcome Deputy Allen’s support in that regard. We should try, if nothing else, to get people out to vote.
Many of the issues contained in the report need to be carefully studied. I do not wish at this point, in the context of this debate, to go any further than I have. That may be for others to do. The commission raised two clear issues. It needs more time to repeat testing undertaken by international bodies. That is fair enough. It that is what it wishes to do, that is fine with me. It will be given the time to do the tests. It also states it has not had enough time to do the tests and the Government is willing to give it more time.
The commission’s criticism of the system almost exclusively concerns the counting software. It questions how it is broken into. I do not wish to be flippant but my understanding is that the concerns raised relate to the extreme circumstance of an unknown person walking into a count centre filled with candidates, party colleagues, returning officers and presiding officers, walk through all those people, take over a computer in full view of everybody, hack into the system with the approval of everyone standing by and, having achieved that magnificent feat, sunder the election results. I ask people for balance in this debate. The chance of that sort of scenario happening is, in my view, is of incredulous proportions.
Mr. Cullen: That said, it is possible; anything is possible. However, we need balance in this debate. The issues raised must be carefully studied and responded to if we are to understand them. My Department is unclear about what exactly is meant by a number of the issues in the commission’s report. Obviously we are anxious to understand and correct the issues.
Deputies have raised broader issues, many of which I have views on although I am not in a position to state them now. Having listened to Deputies, I am between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, people want the commission to complete its work and, on the other, they do not. It is clear that we need to provide the commission the space and time guaranteed to it. That is essential. I have no doubt that if I had come to the House having said I was withdrawing this Bill and abandoning it, I would have been savaged for preventing the commission completing its work.
Mr. Cullen: The money invested in the system is capital money. The system has a 20 year life span. I have no doubt, as I am sure everyone believes, that we will meet the requirements and concerns raised. We will work with all concerned on the recommendations to ensure the system can and will be used in the future.
Mr. Cullen: Not alone does it state what I quoted earlier, it states that it fully accepts that the standard of proof to give a positive opinion would be far higher than the standard of proof required to give a negative one and so it has opted for the lower standard. That is fair enough. The commission needs more time to conclude its investigation of the system. I have no argument with that and never had. It does not, however, mean there is anything wrong with the system or that any of the tests undertaken by national or international bodies are not accurate. All the tests carried out by the commission came up 100% perfect.
The question raised in terms of the count system and its security is a serious one but I would like to know exactly what the commission means in terms of accessing and how one would access the system. The best thing the Dáil and Seanad can do, now that we have an independent commission in place, is to give it what it wants and allow it to continue its work. We should put it on the statutory footing requested by it and guaranteed by Government. I presume everyone in the Houses of the Oireachtas wanted the commission to be placed on a statutory footing. We should now allow it the time and space to complete its work.
Mr. Cullen: I do not have a problem in that regard. Deputy Allen raised interesting questions, as did Deputy Gilmore. Now that this debate has moved on, I have similar views. There are issues coming down the tracks in terms of the conduct and administration of elections in this country. I am open to moving to a different system. I do not have a difficulty with that idea and am quite willing to engage in such a process. However, a shorter timeframe is involved. We owe it to the commission, having established it, to allow it to complete its work. That is a reasonable request. The Deputy raised other issues on which I have an open mind. I have no difficulty with them.
Mr. Cullen: Everybody had two minutes in which to respond. I do not wish to challenge the Chair but it was my understanding that it was only the proposer of the amendment who had two minutes to speak. I am trying to respond to all Deputies who spoke on this matter.
The issues raised are important. I wish to put on the record of the House that, in the broader context of where the future may lie, I have an open mind. In fact, I have more than an open mind. My views on this issue probably coincide with Deputies on all sides of the House. That was always my view, but I was charged with a specific responsibility under particular terms of reference into which, as Deputies will be aware, the commission had a direct input. The terms of reference it received were, as I understand it, those it requested.
We should allow this report to be put to bed fairly and squarely in terms of the issues about which the commission has raised questions. However, the commission is quite clear that it has not produced findings at this stage. We are holding a debate as if on the basis of substantial findings, but there are no such findings as of yet. The commission is clear in pointing that out.
Mr. Cullen: The commission has clearly stated it needs more time to undertake testing. I do not take issue with that. I would have preferred if all the independent testing that had been done was alluded to in this report and given some credence. The bodies which undertook the international testing, all of which was made available, are substantive international bodies. There is no doubt in that regard. In allowing the commission to complete its testing, I would also like that testing to be taken on board.
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