Wednesday, 11 February 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Gallagher): I welcome this opportunity to discuss the introduction of electronic voting and counting at the European Parliament and local elections next June. In the short time available to me, I wish to reply to some of the points put forward by opponents of the system. I stress that the system that will be used is secure and reliable. It can be trusted by the people. It has been in use for over ten years in the Netherlands, for some years in parts of Germany, at pilots in the United Kingdom and at two polls in this country in 2002. It has recently been approved for use in France, where it will be used for the first time in Brest in March and in several locations at the European Parliament elections in June. Governments, Opposition parties and the public in such countries would not and do not operate a system which is insecure or unreliable. Their democracies are not damaged or reduced by the use of the electronic voting system. What is so peculiar to this country that a similar system cannot operate satisfactorily here?
The voting machine hardware and software that will be used have been rigorously tested on two occasions. They were tested in 2002, before the pilot use of the system, and again last year, following the modification of the voting machine to make it easier for voters to use and the addition of further security features. The German institute, PTB, stated in its report that the software accurately records the votes cast. One could not get a more definite assurance than from such an internationally accredited testing institute. Would the institute certify in writing the adequacy of the software if it was not satisfied with its structure and accuracy? Its report is available in the Oireachtas Library and on the Internet at www.electronicvoting.ie. While our current system has worked well, one does not hear alarming stories about the security of ballot papers in a ballot box and the opportunities that exist to interfere with such a box. It would be much easier to interfere with a paper ballot than to interfere with a vote recorded in a ballot module.
The system's reliability and acceptance has been proven by its record over the years in other countries and in our pilot polls — in the Dublin West, Dublin North and Meath constituencies in the 2002 general election and in seven constituencies in the Nice treaty referendum a year later. Successful use at all types of polls is the real reliability test, in my opinion.
Returning officers will apply rigid access
security procedures at all stages of the election so
that only authorised staff will have access to the voting machines and the PCs to be used. Security concerns have been raised in respect of the use of PCs. These concerns have been exacerbated by the weekly news of viruses attacking computer systems. We discussed the arrangements for the PCs with experts from two leading companies in the PC and software areas, who expressed
satisfaction with our plans. New election-specific PCs will be supplied to returning officers after they have been security hardened with the software necessary for the election loaded on them. It will not be possible to load other software onto the PCs during the election period. Staff authorised by the returning officer will have access to the PC. There will be specific security access procedures to log in to the PCs, which will be under the control and direction of the returning officers at all times. The voting machines and the PCs will not be linked to a network, internally or externally. This means that hacking and virus attacks will not be possible due to the strict security protocols that will be in place.
I wish to deal with two issues raised by some opponents of the system. There has been an increasing chorus for the addition of a voter verifiable paper audit trail. I sometimes wonder if its proponents understand the system we propose. Do they accept in an uncritical manner the information provided by some individuals? The proponents of a such an audit trail come mostly from the US. Their arguments arise primarily from concerns about some voting machines used in that country. It is necessary to understand that there are many different types of voting machines, some of which are good and some not so good. The Nedap voting machine is not of the same type as the US machines in question, however. Its reliability is confirmed by its successful use in the Netherlands and in parts of Germany for many years and by international accredited testing institutes. We need some reality here. We should compare like with like. People should not accept everything that is handed to them. We should be guided by the past use of the voting machine as well as its reliability here and in other countries for many years and its testing by internationally accredited testing agencies.
Those who argue in favour of a paper audit state that the voter will see, in paper format or by means of an image on a screen, choices made on the voting machine and recorded automatically before pressing the “cast vote” button. It is argued that a paper copy should be available to check later if there is a dispute about voting machine reliability. Certain facts are relevant in that regard. The US machines are generally PC based. The Nedap voting machine, which is a proprietary product produced specifically for voting, has been used for many years in other countries without any doubts about its reliability. The machine, including software for storing votes, has been tested by the German national testing institute and certified so that it accurately stores votes as cast.
Ballot papers are visible on the screen of the Nedap machine. Voters see preference numbers beside candidates' details. Preference details are visible on the bottom line of the display screen as voters record their preferences on the machine. Details are confirmed or may be amended before the “cast vote” button is pressed. The paper trail procedure does not have any advantages in this regard. When a paper trail is in place, voters must trust that the software will record, in the storage device used, the preferences recorded after the “cast vote” button has been pressed. Under the proposed system, the control unit operator can confirm that a vote is stored and the number of votes stored can be checked on the control unit screen.
Printers can be unreliable, especially in high volume circumstances. What happens if a printer breaks down on polling day? Will voting have to be suspended? If some votes do not have a paper copy, the rechecking objective is negated. A task force which considered this matter in California, which included representatives of the electronic industry and election officials, could not reach a consensus on the use of a paper trail. The task force highlighted technical problems with the use of printers as a major obstacle. In the Irish context, printed ballot papers could raise issues about the secrecy of the ballot, as a link between voter and printed ballot paper could be established.
Ballot papers printed at the time of voting and used in a manual count later would not give the same precise result as the electronic count due to the mixing of ballot papers. This would negate one of the main reasons for a paper trail. In fairness, this was recognised in the Labour Party's report on electronic voting. In an election petition, the system can print a ballot paper for each vote cast after the mixing of the ballot, thus enabling a manual count to be conducted. I am happy to rely on the proven record of the system in other countries and the certification by international testing institutes rather than automatically reacting to some doubts raised about different types of PC-based voting machines used in the USA.
People have mentioned the possibility of making available the source code to the public. The Minister has indicated he will review this issue, taking account of the security of the system and secrecy of the ballot. It should be noted that very few countries make election source code publicly available because of security concerns.
Another area in which mischief was deliberately spread last week related to the matter of the so-called right to spoil one's vote. It has never been a purpose of electoral law or administrative arrangements to provide a facility for people to spoil their votes. The primary and essential function of an electoral system is to allow people to choose their public representatives. The electronic voting system is rightly designed to facilitate this rather than to collect and register protest votes. However, the legislation took particular care to protect the privacy of a person choosing not to press the “cast vote” button. Detailed practical guidance on these provisions will be included in the general guidelines that will be issued by the Department in connection with the June 2004 elections. If people are disaffected by the political system, while one would not advocate abstention, they are free not to vote. Alternatively, a person may attend at a polling station, be marked off the register of electors, approach the voting machine and leave without pressing the “cast vote” button. In this case the machine will be deactivated and it will record the occurrence for inclusion in the election statistics. It is not necessary to communicate with the polling station staff in this regard; one must simply walk away from the voting machine.
This country has adopted a cautious and sensible approach to electronic voting. The proposal to introduce the system has been in the public domain since 1998. We can hardly be accused of rushing after six years. We have successfully piloted the system at real polls. It is now time to move on, having secured a trustworthy system and validated and verified its ability to store and count votes securely. In introducing it in Ireland, the approach was to use an electronic voting system of proven and robust performance. This is what we have done and we have procured a system that comes with its own proprietary hardware and software and has enjoyed the proven advantage of wide-scale and successful use in other democracies. This successful operation in practice, in some of the most sophisticated societies in the world, is the most worthwhile possible test of reliability. The public has rightly always had confidence in the people who administer our elections and it is important to remember that these people will continue to administer our elections. This time they will have the benefit of a system which will eliminate human error in voting and counting to assist them. It is a system which will, more closely than any before, ensure that the results it declares reflect the exact intent of the voters.
The education and awareness campaign the Minister launched last week will employ a range of measures including TV, radio, Internet and poster advertising, countrywide roadshows and direct mail. Each element of the campaign has been developed in light of the experience of the 138,000 voters who used the system at the general election and the 270,000 who used it at the referendum in 2002. Its purpose is to inform voters about the system and how to use it and to provide opportunities for members of the public to acquaint themselves with it before polling day. It includes the largest series of information demonstrations ever undertaken by the Department, with a total of 120 full-day roadshow demonstrations of the new voting machine taking place. This will touch on every part of the country. Briefing sessions will be held with local media and candidates. Information materials will be available to anybody interested, ranging from answers to basic questions to details of technical features. The campaign will also have another significant element beyond making people familiar with the new system. It will include a module to encourage people to vote, a measure which I hope we can all support.
The move to electronic voting and counting is progressive and responsible. We are using well tested equipment and software which has been subject to rigorous independent examination. I hope the Opposition Members will, while retaining their reservations about the new system, join with the Government in implementing and supporting it for the benefit of the voter rather than creating doubts among members of the public.
Mr. Bannon: It was evident during his speech that he was not au fait with the system. I felt he was rushed in at the last moment by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to take these statements. However, I welcome him.
Mr. Bannon: I always found the Minister of State to have a good grasp of local and national government. I regret that he is in the passenger seat rather than the driving seat, but it is to be hoped his time will come.
With Ireland holding its own at the top level of the European information technology sector, the introduction of electronic voting is to be welcomed as a logical and essential way forward. Fine Gael is fully committed to such progress, but in this case we are advocating progress with caution. The electronic system the Government is pushing to implement is unfortunately dangerously flawed, with many questions still to be answered. It is not up to the standard demanded by our democracy. We would like all aspects of the system to be referred to an electoral commission.
Fianna Fáil and the PDs have forced through approval for such a system before the next local and European elections through sheer weight of voting numbers at committee level. The system that has been approved is still subject to numerous doubts in the area of security. The move was vigorously opposed by Fine Gael and other members of the Opposition on the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. One of the principal grey areas for the Opposition is the fact that the Government — through the Department whose political head is the director of elections for Fianna Fáil, namely, Deputy Cullen who unfortunately is not here today — is implementing a system in which the other parties have little confidence. Last week, to add insult to injury, an explanatory leaflet for the system, part of an expensive PR exercise by the Government, gave a clear message to the electorate to vote Fianna Fáil. Was it subliminal advertising or blatant manipulation of the system? Either way, the effects are the same. These leaflets have now been withdrawn due to pressure from Fine
Last week in the Mansion House I was given a demonstration by one of the Minister of State's senior officials on the electronic voting system. I went into the booth and cast my vote for the town council and for the county council. After a minute the demonstrator called on me to vote in the European elections. I replied that I could not. She told me to press the button, but again I said I could not. It was only when she came around and inspected my ballot paper that she realised Fine Gael was not included. This is a total infringement of the secrecy of the ballot, which I hope will not carry over into every polling booth throughout the country. The omission of Fine Gael was no accident. The Minister of State has repeatedly told us that electronic voting is tamper-proof and idiot-proof, but is it Fianna Fáil and PD-proof? We have experience of the many promises made by the Government in the run-up to the last election. The people, therefore, are not entirely confident with the Government. The report compiled by Zerflow Holdings Limited, which the Minister of State did not publish, emphatically states that the system is not tamper-proof. This report was in the Minister of State's hands before the last election, yet the system was partially used in a number of constituencies. As we are dealing with a Government with a track record that does not inspire feelings of trust, it is necessary that there is full transparency and information on this issue before we proceed.
It is unfortunate that voters must assume that errors in the system are likely. I am continually asked for assurances that the system is safe, yet what guarantees can I give? In theory, it is possible to programme the computers to check votes for a particular party and change these votes for another party. Such a system could transfer every fifth vote. The bottom line is that the system is open to intentional manipulation.
It is impossible to verify the safety of the proposed system because the Government has refused to publish the system's source code for a transparent public audit. It is not enough for the Minister of State to be satisfied with the system as planned. At worst, it poses a real threat to democracy and leaves a question mark over its efficiency.
The other areas of concern with the proposed system are the serious delays in the development of the software, the small team of experts involved, including some from the Fianna Fáil Party ranks, and no public scrutiny for the implementation of the statutory counting rules. The process used for testing and modifying the software was not carried out in accordance with best practice. There is a minimum-to-high risk that the system will fail if put into service in the June 2004 elections. The IES computer program to count the votes is still in a state of flux. Some 30 changes have taken place from version 83 in January 2002 to version 115 in September 2003. This indicates the Department and the developers, through the tests, are still changing requirements and finding bugs on a regular basis. It begs the question as to when, if ever, the system will be totally reliable.
If the proposed system is not behaving as one would expect, whether by accident or malicious tampering, the effects on the voting outcome might never be detected. The system must be modified so that a paper record can be made of every vote cast. These records can be used for spot-checks or recounts. As the playwright Tom Stoppard said: “It is not the voting that is democracy, it is the counting.”
Mr. Bannon: The Government has claimed that a paper printout would be too expensive. We have even been told that a printout would be unconstitutional. Perhaps, it would be too accountable for the Government.
According to The Economist, the US is having ongoing problems with its touch-screen electronic voting system. Experts have highlighted the dangers of using a paper free system which does not provide a physical, individual vote. Allied with other problems, it has been predicted that voters, unfamiliar with computers, could make mistakes during the rush to vote in the final hours of polling. This unfamiliarity could also lead to panic and difficulties among the elderly who have a lifetime of paper voting behind them and who may not feel confident with the new technology.
In order to make more than a superficial difference and to sell the concept to voters, other enticements beyond the supposed efficiency benefit should be put in place. The vote of our younger citizens should be courted and made more attractive. For example, if a young person is abroad during a pre-university gap year, on postgraduate studies or a working break, he or she should be able to cash in on the electronic system and vote from wherever he or she is. These young adults are our future with their confidence in and knowledge of information technology. All expatriates should have an automatic right to exercise their franchise rather than feeling beyond the Pale by virtue of living abroad.
In an ideal system, which would eliminate all doubts concerning corruption and vote-rigging, all electronic votes cast should be entered into a central terminal where it would be less likely to dispute the manner in which they were cast. Although the provisions enabling the introduction of electronic voting were included in the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, no timescale was laid down. There is a legal doubt hanging over its proposed introduction next June. This was outlined this morning by Deputies Allen and McCormack in the Dáil, yet the guillotining of the Bill was still imposed. The Taoiseach has admitted that a ministerial order will be required to enable the system to be used in June 2004. This order will have to be made under section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) 2001 which, in turn, will be open to constitutional challenge in the courts.
With this hanging over any proposal to
introduce electronic voting in the June elections, it would be expected, in everyone's interests, to delay full introduction until all doubts of a
constitutional and legal nature have been laid to rest. I ask the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local
Government, Deputy Gallagher, even at this late stage, to abandon the proposals for electronic voting until it is foolproof. I hope to get an opportunity later in the evening to pose further questions.
I support electronic voting and counting. As the Minister of State said, this system has been in operation in The Netherlands and in many cities in Germany over the past ten years where it has been shown to be successful in elections. However, when we talk about electronic voting and counting, we must also include the issue of the electoral register. It is important that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government encourages local authorities to ensure that every effort is made to have those eligible included on the register. There are always problems during elections when people say they have a vote but are not on the register. Galway County Council has often recommended that the operation of the population census should be changed to include placing people on the electoral register.
The Acting Chairman will know, having been a member of the council, that there have been many proposals from local authorities and the Department to close the smaller polling stations. I would not like to think the excellent idea of electronic voting and counting will be used to further reduce the number of polling stations. Local authorities should examine their schemes and make it easy for people to get to the polling station. There were proposals in 1985 that there should be a minimum of 1,000 people voting at a polling station for it to remain open. If that were to happen in west Galway or in the Minister of State's constituency people would have to travel long distances to a polling station. That does not make voting more accessible. When we speak of these machines, we should not talk about
replacing people as a number one goal. It should be about making the polling station more
accessible and these machines available. Let us also hope these machines will be for stations with 200 people voting, as well as the 1,000 people threshold that some local authorities have proposed.
It will be exciting to run the local and European elections in June through the electronic voting system. Three million people will have the opportunity of voting on these machines which we saw in operation in the Mansion House last week. Electronic voting can bring many benefits such as making our elections more accurate and democratic. One of the deficiencies of the current system is that many votes are not counted because they are invalid. Senator Finucane has spoken on the Order of Business about his particular difficulties when the count comes down to one or two votes between candidates. He is in favour of electronic voting.
In the last European elections, almost five years ago, more than 6,000 people who went to the polls had their votes ruled out. Some deliberately spoiled their votes but most did not. It is worth considering the change that could make to a few seats because those invalid votes can have a major bearing on the results of elections. In the last local elections in 1999, for example, 21,000 votes were deemed to be invalid while 40 council seats were decided by less than 50 votes. Anyone who believes in democracy should want to improve the system and it should be a key priority for any Government to ensure that every vote is counted accurately.
Elections are crucial to the functioning of democracy. They provide for the ordinary transfer of power but they also help to cement the citizens' trust and confidence in Government. Change in the running of elections tends to come slowly and I can see why people who are
accustomed to the present system would perhaps be loath to change. It can be difficult for candidates if, as we saw in the last general election, the count continues for several days and the votes counted can change from a plus to a minus very quickly. That demonstrates the drawback of the present system, as the Minister of State pointed out.
I am very glad the Minister of State spoke about the Dutch-UK company Nedap, appointed following an international tender to deliver an electronic solution to the voting and counting process. More than 400,000 people used the system in 2002 in the general election and the referendum on the Treaty of Nice and their response has been very positive. Successful operation is the most worthwhile possible test of reliability. The Minister of State made a good point about what people describe as interference. Why have they not talked about the security of the ballot box rather than raising many questions about the security of this new system which has been subjected to rigorous testing by a range of independent agencies? It has been independently certified in Germany and in the Netherlands and an Irish company undertook an independent code review of the software.
The people have always, rightly, had confidence in those who administer our elections and will continue to administer them. This time they will be using a system that eliminates human error in the voting and counting. It is a system that will ensure that the results declared reflect the exact intent of the voters more closely than any system used before. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, has considered the different comments on the new system — some informed, some not — but he has to choose whether to listen to wild conspiracy theories about people wanting to undermine our electoral system or go with an accurate and democratic system.
Mr. Kitt: The emphasis will be on showing how simple it will be to vote in the new way and those of us who were in the Mansion House have seen that. The Minister of State has told us there will be countrywide roadshows or a visit to the provinces. It is very clear that there are benefits from the new system. It is easier to use, very efficient, improves electoral accuracy and administration and, most important, it eliminates the democratic wastage associated with spoiled votes.
The process is straightforward as we saw last Wednesday and I hope that the Minister's information campaign will extend to the whole country, employing a range of media, including television, radio, the Internet, poster advertising and every possible means of communication to ensure that the campaign is successful. A total of 400,000 people have already used the system and their comments have been very favourable. I hope we can make the electoral system successful and that people will be comfortable with it. The Department has said there will be a 120 day roadshow demonstration of the new machine after Easter, reaching every part of the country. I am in favour of this new system and the public has demonstrated a positive response to date. I hope it will be successful for those who use it in June and I wish all the candidates every success.
Mr. Norris: I speak as a confirmed and conscientious Luddite. I have never been attracted to this system for which there is not the slightest demand. Can the Minister of State give any indication that the Irish public demanded this? It seems to be an outbreak of technophilia. I thought I had invented that word until I read a very interesting paper by Mr. Andrew Ó Baoill so I am not alone in suspecting the outbreak of technophilia, the love of gizmos for their own sake. There was no demand for this system. I listened to some of the Minister of State's speech and his opening remarks on the lines that it is good enough for the Dutch and who are we to object. There are many things that are good enough for the Dutch and my colleague, Senator McCarthy, will specify a few for which the Irish people might not have such an appetite. It is a slightly lazy argument to say the Dutch and the Germans use this. So what? They do many other things we would not want to do and if we to invent a system here we need to have it checked; the check by Zerflow showed up several defects.
One of my objections relates to the elimination of the human element. The pap about making things easy is the same nonsense that destroyed the Irish language. I learned this when we had our own lovely cló Gaelach script and there were words in Irish which originated in the Irish culture like “an bóthar” now replaced by “ród”. Grammar was simplified to the point of making the language so dull, boring and uninspiring that nobody would waste ten minutes trying to learn it and that is why it is practically extinct now. The Government is going to do the same with voting by making it so easy that people will just have to sit down and push a button in between stuffing Mars bars into their mouths and watching the television.
Getting out to vote is a very good and sociable activity. I object to spoiling all the fun. It was immense fun in the old days when I went down to Marlboro Street where there would be members of Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil. It was a real occasion. What will happen to the human interest that generated an excitement in politics on election night because the tallymen could be marvellously accurate? This system will be a dull, bland technological exercise in which the electorate will eventually lose interest completely. It is not even secure.
The question of technophilia is illustrated in various answers, including that given by the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Hanafin, who is a decent person and a good Minister of State. She said that the aim of the Government is “to make maximum use of available technology while ensuring that citizens can still get direct access to public officials”. The primary instance is technology, while the human voters come second. We must make maximum use of the technology to show the Germans and the Dutch that we are as slick and sophisticated as they are — I do not care — while the voters come second. That is the wrong order. The voters should come first and the intention of the Government and the technology should be to facilitate the voters.
I mentioned Zerflow consultants because we talked about examining the system and having a test. These are the people the Government commissioned and they found a certain level of vulnerability. Their report described several flaws in the proposed system. These revolved around security shortcomings in the system, with the report claiming that the new system opened up the voting process to several new forms of attack and subversion. Opportunities for fraud included the possibility of pasting a dummy ballot paper over the real paper and a proven instance of the keys securing a voting machine being copied by an unauthorised person. The security has been breached. Where are we now? Perhaps the Germans did not mind, but Irish people would have an objection. As other scholars in this area have pointed out, if all the audit trails are internal to the machine, there cannot be any independent audit as it would be technically impossible. That means there would not be any auditability.
The ignorant assumption of unsophisticated people confronted by what they perceive as a sophisticated continental European experience is that the machine is infallible. That is not true. It is obvious that machines can make mistakes. One has only to look at one's ESB bills, for example, to realise what computers can do.
A person called Cringely — I apologise because I am not sure if it is a man or a woman, although the name could perhaps be the reason he or she concealed his or her sexual identity — said something interesting. He or she states:
Mr. Norris: It was a trial vote. I voted three times and no one spotted it. I almost did the same this morning, but then I thought it would treat the operation with contempt. I feel a little contempt for it. We must remember the deep vein thrombosis problem. Getting sedentary politicians to stand up and march around is good. It is also an opportunity to lobby and discuss issues. It allows for human interaction. People are trying to escape from sitting like dummies and pushing buttons in factories. Why have we introduced it here?
I speak as a confirmed conscientious Luddite. There are good reasons for us not to gallop into this and to preserve some of our heritage, such as the tallymen and election night. Otherwise, it will make politics so bland no one will be bothered with it.
I do not know how I will follow that contribution. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome the opportunity to
discuss electronic voting. This issue was discussed at great length at the Joint Committee on
Environment and Local Government. Many of
the questions which have been asked were
comprehensively dealt with at that committee by the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials.
The thrust of the change to electronic voting is to make the process more accessible and accurate and, therefore, more democratic. I disagree with Senator Norris about the human element. As an unemployed tallyman, I know the human element will still exist in the system as proposed to ensure its accuracy. I welcome the eradication of the spoiled vote. The Minister stated that the electoral law was not introduced to enable people to spoil their votes. I remember being told by my grandparent that people fought and died for the privilege to vote in this country. That has been lost in the mists of time, but we must try to bear it in mind.
Those in the House who participated in the process of tallying and verifying votes at a count know that while the process may have been enjoyable, it was inefficient and archaic in many cases. Invalid votes have always been a problem. Some Members in both Houses have had the experience of losing a seat because of disputed votes. The new system will eradicate these
anomalies and ensure the accuracy of all the ballots.
Someone said we should approach this matter cautiously. If approaching this matter for six years does not represent caution, I do not know what does. If we were to wait the length of time advocated by some commentators, we would not get anything done and we would still be talking about it in six years time. The process of changing the system has been painstakingly undertaken.
Mr. Brady: I welcome the Minister's statement that France will introduce the system. It is already in operation in the UK. The Department has always insisted that the system should be tested, adapted to our needs and piloted on a major scale. The majority of the 400,000 people who voted electronically in the last election were satisfied with the system's security, accessibility and efficiency and with the final result.
We have all heard about voter apathy, which seems to have taken root in our democracy. We had a discussion this morning on the Order of Business about the media's presentation of how Parliament works. It is no wonder people are cynical and apathetic when one considers the comments about how we operate here. This change is about more than technology; it is about empowering people, particularly young people.
Mr. Brady: It encourages them to take part in the process. The promotion of the new system will highlight the importance of people having their say and participating in the process. It is important that people know, when they are casting their votes, that their views are being taken into account. They are participating in the system of choosing their public representatives who will represent them and they have to be comfortable with the fact that their views and choice is as valid as the next person's. The information, demonstrations, road shows and training of the presiding officers, polling clerks and count staff will ensure that the system as proposed will be efficient, effective and will assist in the promotion of democracy in the country. The dissemination of information through all forms of the media will ensure that by the time of the next election, everybody will have had a chance to study and understand the new system.
Many of us attended the demonstration in the Mansion House. While questions were asked, they received answers. The officials on hand had a very good grasp of the system. Senator Bannon had a bad experience. The Minister has given an undertaking that the system as it stands will be reviewed on an ongoing basis. I understand that no technological changes can occur in the source code, etc, until October 2004. The Minister has indicated that he will make a decision on it at that stage.
I warmly welcome the introduction of electronic voting. It is a progressive step. Some people believe we should not lead the way and should wait until France, Germany, Spain and all other countries in Europe have such a system and then we can follow them if it suits. The way the system has been tested, retested and piloted has proven its effectiveness.
Mr. McCarthy: I express my appreciation to the Leader of the Seanad, Senator O'Rourke, for organising this debate, which we have sought for some time. I acknowledge her efforts in acceding to the Members' request in this regard. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to the House. It is unfortunate that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, is not here as I prepared on the basis of speaking directly to him.
It is interesting that the argument being used in some quarters to support electronic voting is that it is being done in the Netherlands, Germany or the UK. We all know the experience of the judicial system in the United Kingdom, which incarcerated those such as the Birmingham six and the Guildford four. We will not necessarily emulate that system. It is possible to smoke cannabis in the street in the Netherlands — it is not illegal. Does that mean we will all smoke cannabis after we vote electronically in June? It is a lazy argument to justify doing it here because it is being done in those countries.
There has been some good scientific research in this area. I believe in the spirit of electronic voting for a multiplicity of reasons. However, I disagree with the manner in which it is being introduced. Much of the scientific research in this regard is being ignored. I know it worked well on a pilot basis at the last general election. There is a very good case to be made for electronic voting on the basis of the count in the Cork South
Central constituency where two candidates slogged it out for two weeks, which was inhumane. That is not a satisfactory way for candidates to fight for the last seat. This was one of the failings of the manual system. On the other hand, we had the infamous announcement of the result in the Dublin North constituency and the shock and horror that was visited on one of the candidates.
Electronic voting was used extensively in the second referendum on the Nice treaty in a number of the commuter areas and in many Dublin constituencies. However, during that
contest some areas experienced failures of the system, to which I will refer shortly. It is not wise to ignore the scientific research. There have been comprehensive reports by computer scientists in NUI Maynooth and by experts who have observed the American, British, German and
presumably Dutch systems. It would be anti-democratic for us to end up with a system such as that used in Florida where the person with most votes was not deemed elected. The most powerful figure on the globe is in his position because of the failure of an electronic voting system. The State has not learned from those notorious examples.
The manner of introduction of the system
borders on arrogance. I do not suggest that the Minister, Deputy Cullen, is trying to do anything other than improve the system. However, there is an arrogant manner which is clouding the judgment of the Minister in introducing electronic voting. The Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, mentioned a voter verifiable audit trail in his introduction. The absence of such an audit trail means that the openness and transparency, which characterised the traditional manual system, are now consigned to history. To build any trust in the system, this area needs to be considered.
There is a growing level of international and local support calling for the VVAT to be part of all electronic systems. The basic principle of voter verifiable audit trail is to ensure that each voter can be 100% certain his or her vote has been recorded accurately and has been included in the count. This is not the case at present. The absence of these formal control processes and procedures around the usage of the current system exposes the electoral process to possible interference from unauthorised persons.
Documentation released by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government indicates there are no formal processes for restricting access to count centre PCs during the count, installation of software on count centre PCs, verification of software installation on count PCs and of voting machines, or purchasing of ballot modules, which are the memory devices needed in the voting machines. It would be advisable to suspend electronic voting until a voter verifiable audit trail is available to give each voter absolute confidence in the system and a guarantee that their votes have been recorded and counted.
Appropriate control processes and procedures should be implemented by the Department with audit and supervisory responsibility vested in an independent body. That body could be one such as the Standards in Public Office Commission. Integrated end-to-end testing including statistical analysis of the randomisation feature must be carried out to verify the accuracy of the entire system. The Department should commit to providing full details of tally information in a database form after each election.
Will we be able to get access to tally figures after the system is used in June? The accuracy of the tallymen and tally women was an integral part of the manual system and, depending on the
success or otherwise of the candidate, added to the excitement of the count. It was an important facet of Irish elections when that system was used. There may have been constitutional issues with the operation of tally people as long as we have had elections. It was probably never challenged as it benefited all political parties and none.
One of the myths about e-voting is that we trust computers for e-commerce and e-banking. I do not and I know very few people who do. When I withdraw money from an ATM, I count the cash and check the slip. I know very few people who blindly — metaphorically speaking — insert their cards and trust the machine to dispense the correct amount of money. Those who know about computers know they are capable of creating errors. Humans make errors and humans make computers. Therefore, computers can make errors. I do not trust that system.
There is no evidence to support the assertion that e-voting will encourage voter participation. E-voting without adequate checks and balances will only undermine voter trust in the system. It is a myth to suggest that the Irish e-voting system is open to independent scrutiny. Even the Government will not have full details of the e-voting software until four months after the election.
Another myth propounded is that the Irish e-voting system has been developed to the highest possible standard. The developers of the Irish e-voting system have not come close to best
practice in developing critical systems. The
system utilises low grade software and runs on ordinary desktop computers. The statement that the system was tested successfully at the last
general election is another myth. The tests showed that the machines did not fail in any obvious way but, on closer examination, one discovered that there were a number of flaws. There is no proof that the machines correctly recorded all the votes cast. This could only be done if an independent paper record of each vote was checked by the voter and placed in a ballot box. It should also be noted that the software has gone through many changes since the last time it was used.
There is an issue surrounding the use of receipts. Some people say it would endanger the secrecy of the ballot but I do not accept that because scientific research proves otherwise. There is no proposal for voters to take home the paper receipt. Rather, the proposal is that the paper ballots be stored in sealed ballot boxes with all of the security and secrecy used in the current paper-only system. I fervently believe that the absence of that process will be detrimental to the success of the system.
In one incident, a failure occurred in a ballot module in Dublin South West. It was used at St. Paul's senior and junior primary schools, Limekiln. It had a “blocked check sum — not in order” failure and was sent to Nedap-Powervote for a report. This shows that computer systems can fail and that part of the Irish system has done so already.
In 1996, a US Senator had shares in the company which produced the machines that counted the votes in the Senate election in which he was the victor. Who owns the shares in the numerous companies involved in the Irish system, including Nedap-Powervote and the Irish and UK arms of that company? There could be a conflict of interest, of which we have seen enough in both Houses in recent years. I would be particularly interested to know what security is used to protect each vote in the access database.
Why is there such a rush to implement this system when we are conscious that good advice is being ignored? Why has the Department not carried out a critical cost-benefit analysis? I do not think a proper risk assessment been carried out on the scheme. Has the Comptroller and Auditor General carried out a value for money audit on the system? If so, what is the result and can we have the report?
These are just some of the 41 questions submitted to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government which have never been answered. The system was accepted by a vote on the committee but that vote was split down the middle, with the Government barely scraping a marginal victory. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State answered and addressed some of those questions.
Mr. Brennan: I too welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his address. I also acknowledge the address of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, to the environment committee some weeks ago. I also welcome electronic voting. Many of the questions, such as those asked by Senator McCarthy, were asked at that committee and everything bar the kitchen sink has been thrown at the Minister since. However, from the replies given by the Minister and the Minister of State, I have confidence that this system is workable.
When the election is over, the electorate will ask what all the fuss was about. It is nice to see Ireland moving in the right direction by
improving voting and counting systems. We all acknowledge the fine job done by returning officers and staff who have run elections over the years. Ministers for the Environment have been responsible for elections and we must
acknowledge that no questions have ever been asked about an election and nothing has finished up in court. It is wrong to state that the current Minister, who happens to be a member of the Fianna Fáil Party, could rig the votes or introduce a system which could transfer votes from one party to another. The machines are stand-alone and the modules from them are treated
independently — it is not the same system as an ATM machine, which is open to the electronic airways.
Mr. Brennan: Questions have been raised about the responsibilities of the returning officers in regard to spoilt votes. To my knowledge, once the electoral register is ticked off in a polling station, the number of votes can be compared to the recorded number of times the machine has been used. However, if there are spoilt votes when a button is not pressed, are they regarded as spoilt votes when the returning officer makes his or her return to a count centre? For example, if 1,000 ballots are issued and 900 are used, one can make up one's own mind about how many spoilt votes there are in a constituency or nationally.
Questions have been asked about carrying out end-to-end election testing. Can arrangements be made to demonstrate the system by conducting a complete end-to-end election, including the
printing of the individual ballot papers, to enable a count to be carried out? If there is a local
election petition hearing request to the High Court or Circuit Court, the election machine will have to print out ballot papers for that
constituency. There will be two numbers on this printout — one which indicates when the ballot was cast and another to indicate at what stage the ballot was transferred. If this were carried out after the next election, or even beforehand, it might allay fears in regard to the validity of the system. The system should meet the concerns of the people as regards confidentiality and the eligibility of people to vote, which is most important. There are four modules in each machine. If there is a malfunction, which one is the most important for the count?
I thank the Minister and the Department for bringing this system forward. It is nice to see a modern Ireland which might not be the last country to declare after the European elections. Perhaps this time we will come in early.
Mr. B. Hayes: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is ridiculous that this side of the House is on a collision course with the other side and that party politics are in action in respect of an issue as fundamental as voting.
Mr. B. Hayes: The reason this is the case is that this scheme has been run politically. There has been no all-party consensus. This goes back to the 2001 legislation, proposed by then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey. We agreed it should go on a trial period or pilot programme for the 2002 elections. However, since then, it has been railroaded through and one cannot deal with an issue as serious and important as the voting system unless one has all-party support. Once there is controversy in this regard, the whole system is denigrated. I regret that the Government chose to handle this issue itself rather than leaving it to an independent commission to make recommendations. That is where the problem lies and, until that issue is resolved, we will continue to do our parliamentary duty in putting the questions which have to be asked on behalf of citizens.
There is no demand for this system. The demand came from the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's predecessor, who decided this would be a good idea, without any consultation with the Opposition or the public at large. He decided the Government would splash out €40 million on it. For €40 million, one would put the best IT software and computers into every classroom in the country. We are talking about the technology age — we should get real. The vast majority of national schools have no computer system in place, yet we are splurging €40 million on a system just to prove we are “technologically advanced”.
The vast majority of countries in the EU have not gone down this route. The Minister of State referred to “these countries” but to whom is he referring? Is it the Dutch and some regions of Germany? The British have not used this system — it is a pilot scheme, with which they are not proceeding — and the House of Commons rejected it. Let us get real. If we have €40 million to spend, let it at least do something technologically important for children, such as putting decent computers into schools rather than splurging money on this issue.
Time is being wasted on something that does not matter. If this goes wrong, it will only add to the level of cynicism about politics in general. Is the Minister accepting that primary legislation must be put in place before the June elections in order to implement this system? The 2001 Bill gave the Minister power to do this in a number of named constituencies for the purposes of a pilot test. Does the Minister concede that primary legislation is needed? When will we see that legislation?
The paper trail is a key issue. I remember what Senator McCarthy said about the ATM machines. I recently looked for €100 and the ATM machine gave me €50. I got a receipt for €100, so I went straight into the bank and told them about the problem and asked them for the €50 that I had been swindled. The notion that ATM machines and other forms of electronic banking work perfectly without glitches is just not true. The Government needs to respond to the issue of the paper trail. It is important that when people vote, they get some receipt which they can place in a ballot box and the ballot papers can be added up to see if they are close to the actual result. That will give extra validity to the machines. Will the Minister comment in the course of his remarks on what now happens in the US as a result of the fiasco in Florida because since the last US presidential election, every new machine bought in the United States for the purpose of electronic voting must now issue a receipt? Every voter must now get a receipt and this was not the case in the past. If the United States of America have introduced that measure after the fiasco of Florida, surely we should follow their example and spend the extra money, if it necessary, on this device. People are afraid that their vote will not be counted. The way to deal with that is to issue a receipt which will then be placed in a ballot box and the number of receipts can be tallied against the number of votes cast. I accept that one would allow a 1% margin of error, but if it comes within that range, we will know we have counted all the votes. People are looking for such an assurance and I ask the Minister to reply to that point.
Let us consider the doomsday scenario of the crash. Everyone knows that a computer crash happens from time to time in this House on a smaller system. As I understand it, and I stand corrected if I am wrong, a Microsoft Access programme tabulates all the votes. Assuming there is a crash, it stops. Microsoft Access, which is a very basic system will tabulate all the votes for all the candidates so we can get a printout if that happens. People in the IT industry accept that Microsoft Access is a dated, historically deviant programme — I use it in the office — which is out 15 years and I understand that a spokesperson for Microsoft said when replying to this issue, that if the application needs transaction support, even in the event of a network server, client computer or client application crash one will want to use an MSDE or SQL server, which I understand are the most secure modern top of the range forms available. Why are we going for a dated system, which to use the words of a question asked recently “would not be used for the storing of critical information”? Casting a vote is not comparable with an e-banking transaction, it is vital and absolutely essential that the people have confidence in the electoral system. They have had confidence in the paper trail system, since the foundation of the State. The system is open and transparent and people can see what is going on. I am very concerned about this, even more concerned now than I was six months ago. It is probably my own fault for not having been brought up to speed on the issues.
Electronic voting is not an issue that can be rammed though because that will only fuel the cynicism about politics. Until the Opposition is ready to move on the issue, the Government should not move. The issue was badly handled. From day one it was driven by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government under a politician. This question should have dealt with by an independent commission on which all the parties could be represented. Unless there is cross-party support for this, it will not happen. It needs to be changed.
Mr. Moylan: I welcome the Minister and thank him for the information given to us to date and the work he has done, which is very much appreciated. I welcome the introduction of electronic voting, which has been in place in certain constituencies. It is very important to look back at the old system and acknowledge the problems that existed. I can recall at the last local elections where a Fine Gael and a Fianna Fáil councillor sweated overnight as a full box of ballot papers, containing 360 votes, were discovered unstamped and deemed invalid as a result of human error. Those two councillors, who I thought were dead certs, only hung on by the skin of their teeth and either one could have lost his seat by one vote.
This is a better system and I compliment the people who have pushed it forward. Candidates had to ensure they had personal agents inside the polling station, principally to watch that the ballot papers were stamped before the voters took them. The onus is on the voter to ensure his voting paper is stamped, but that does not always happen. I have been involved in a great many counts and have seen votes spoiled simply because the ballot paper was not stamped. I saw that happening down through the years in all elections.
With electronic voting, all preferences will be examined. In the past, a bundle of ballot papers would be taken, which could have positive or negative implications for a candidate. I heard a man on radio say that he was not happy because he could not spoil his vote. The best thing a person could do in that case is to stay away altogether and join the 40% who do not vote. I recall that in 1998 a system similar to this was shown by some of the Department's officials who are here today to members of the General Council of County Councils at an annual conference. At that time, it was considered to be a move in the right direction, that we were moving forward with technology. I listened to people on the Opposition benches say they disagreed with this but I speak every other day to their party supporters who say this has to be a new and better system. I cannot fully understand the Opposition's position. Members on all sides have questions but they are prepared to take on board a new system.
The Minister has said that the results of each count will be announced and candidates will not have to wait, as happened in north County Dublin, to hear the result as the announcement is made. Candidates will get an indication as each count progresses and that is to be welcomed.
We must go out there and sell the system and we must ensure that the people who will vote in June will have an opportunity to look at the system and see how it works. It not good enough to go only to the bigger centres; people in rural areas must be afforded the opportunity to see the system at the post office or local library.
We must also bring this system into our schools, particularly secondary schools, so that young people will be interested in the political process and will be only too glad to employ the new voting technology. We hope that a larger percentage of young people will vote as a result. Electronic voting affords an ideal opportunity for disabled people to vote. In the past, elderly bed-ridden people could not exercise their right to vote in elections, but electronic polling booths could be brought into institutions for the elderly to enable them to vote. We already have postal voting but electronic voting will provide increased opportunities, especially for the elderly.
Electronic voting was introduced for divisions in both Houses of the Oireachtas. In the past we thought it could never happen but time moves on and it has happened. There are no problems with voting results in the Houses of the Oireachtas and it will be the same with the new voting system for European and local elections.
Mr. Moylan: Each independent machine is not linked to the national network so each module will be brought back to the count centre in order that the results can be fed in there. This country has pioneered such technology, which I welcome. I look forward to making further progress in this respect in future. I compliment the Minister and his officials for the way in which they have set out and explained the relevant information. I have read the report of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, at which the proposal for electronic voting was explained in great detail.
Perhaps the Minister of State can explain when and where postal votes will be put into the electronic system? Will they have to be brought to the particular area in which they were cast in order to be inserted in the local module, or will that be done at the count centre? I appreciate that the Minister of State will deal with our questions in his reply.
Mr. Coghlan: I am sure the Minister of State will agree that, as other speakers have said, the voting system belongs to all citizens. Public ownership of the process is important. It is a fundamental tenet of our democracy that we must have trust and confidence in the system, otherwise we would have a crisis on our hands. If we have to delay the introduction of electronic voting for a while until agreement is reached between all parties, it will be in the best interests of democracy. There are too many doubts and we must eliminate all of them. Electronic polling machines must be capable of being checked and the system generally must be verifiable. There must be some kind of audit or paper trail, otherwise the European and local polls will be guinea-pig elections, run on a trial and error basis. Citizens suffering from disabilities, including short-sightedness, are wondering how they will cope with the new machines. I would also like to hear the Minister of State's reply to Senator Moylan's point concerning postal ballots.
People have the right to vote and the right, if they wish, to spoil a vote. As democrats, we do not encourage them to spoil their votes; we want to see them cast their votes positively for whatever party or candidate they choose. In his opening remarks, the Minister of State stated:
However, the presiding officer, polling clerk and agents of party candidates will know that such a person has not pressed the ‘cast vote' button. They will know therefore that the person has deliberately chosen to spoil his or her vote and in such circumstances the secrecy of the ballot will be destroyed.
Are the Minister of State and his officials satisfied that all constitutional requirements will be met under the proposed electronic voting system? As a layman, I do not think they will. I refer to Article 16.1.4° of the Constitution, which states that “... the voting shall be by secret ballot.” Specifically, I would draw the attention of the House to the High Court Irish Law Reports, IR 69 of 1972. I am sure the Minister of State's officials are well aware of the High Court case to which I refer, which is McMahon v the Attorney General. In his ruling in that case, Mr. Justice Pringle declared that the words “secret ballot” in Article 16 “mean a ballot in which there is complete and inviolable secrecy”. I contend that secrecy is not provided for in the specific instance referred to by the Minister of State, which I
have already quoted. I would like to hear the Minister of State's response to that point. I have many other questions but that one is very important.
I would also like to hear the Minister of State's response to as many as possible of the 41 questions that arose from the consultants attendance at the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There was a serious breakdown in a Belgian case, which is referred to among those questions.
Mr. Cummins: Governments and Departments list their priorities at election time. It amazes me, however, that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government put electronic voting as one of its priorities, when 50,000 people are on the housing waiting lists over which the Minister of State presides. In addition, many hundreds of people are homeless. The €40 million that is being spent on the introduction of electronic voting could do so much to help such unfortunate people. Who demanded that we should change our voting system? Was there a public outcry in favour of it? Is it being done here only because they have it in Germany and the Netherlands? People want a transparent system they can trust. The way in which the Minister of State, and the Government generally, have gone about this business, has instilled a lack of trust and confidence in the polling system, which is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. If one can get a proper receipt from an ATM machine, one should be able to get a proper record when people vote. People want some sort of transparency in this regard.
People make mistakes but there is no doubt that computers can also go wrong. The Minister of State should address the constitutional position, which was raised by previous speakers. How much will it cost annually to store and service this electronic voting system in each constituency on an ongoing basis? The public relations company that has been engaged to explain the electronic voting system was appointed by the Minister. It should refrain from adopting the biased approach we have witnessed to date. The Minister of State said that explanatory leaflets have had to be withdrawn because of the bias towards Fianna Fáil. As has been stated, the sample ballot papers for the European elections contained no reference to the main Opposition party, Fine Gael. Was this done by accident or design? In my own constituency, Fianna Fáil councillors were invited to attend the information road show that is going around the country, while other councillors were invited only after protesting that they had not received invitations.
Mr. Cummins: Can we be assured that this type of bias towards Fianna Fáil will cease immediately? We should have all-party support for electronic voting but the Government has gone about it in the wrong manner. We want answers to the questions that have been posed to ensure public confidence in electronic voting. We do not want to be negative on this issue. We support the introduction of new technology, but we must have trust and confidence in the system. I ask the Minister to deal with those issues.
Dr. Mansergh: This is a major and important step, and of course it should be critically analysed and discussed, but I regret the partisan approach being taken by the Opposition parties. It seems that the objective is to make the public cynical and that it is part of a broader aim to encourage distrust of the Government, something that is not merited by the system. This system is supervised and run by the public service under the auspices of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am absolutely certain of the integrity of those officials and that it will not be open to political manipulation of any kind.
Dr. Mansergh: All of us have gone through an election. Would any one of us have had a chance to manipulate the officials who conducted our count to get the result that we wanted? That sort of accusation is unworthy, and it would be absolutely devastating, damning and catastrophic for the fortunes of any party which indulged in such actions or attempted to manipulate the vote, which I do not think is possible. That sort of argument should be dismissed. We do not walk away with a receipt from the ballot box at the moment, so why should we do so when we vote electronically?
Dr. Mansergh: Yes. The Minister answered the point and said that, in an election petition, the system can print a ballot paper with each vote cast and mix them, thus enabling a manual count to be conducted. That seems to deal with the matter. I agree with the point made by one of the Senators about not reducing the number of polling stations. There should be an adequate amount of time between each count and the chance of a ten-minute interval. I concede that many things were charming in the past. I enjoyed, 50 years ago, going with a donkey and cart to the creamery, but that does not necessarily mean that that is the way things should be done today.
Senator Norris made technophilia sound almost like necrophilia. If there were a computer crash, I imagine that there would be back-up systems, as there are for most important matters. In the final analysis, I suppose one could order another election in a particular constituency. Electronic counting will be far more accurate. One should not believe that the present system is entirely free from error or abuse. Some examples have been given during this debate of where it was not so. This will be much fairer regarding transfers and so on. I would like the Opposition to stop the partisan politicking, which is unworthy of it.
Mr. Ross: I am not totally decided, but I think I regret the introduction of electronic voting. The arguments on both sides are reasonably powerful. What Senator Mansergh said is true. Ultimately, making this issue into a political football is rather silly. Even if it has been abused in its initiation, it will not be abused over the years once established. While it is quite good fun to point out that it was introduced wrongly and that the advertisement was obviously partisan and should not have been exploited that way, in five years electronic voting will not work in favour of one party. I take on board Senator Mansergh's argument that it will be overseen by public servants and therefore be as impartial as anything else they oversee. We do not have any long-term complaints on that score.
However, I believe that the old system had something special. It has nothing to do with technophobia or electronic voting. As the count went on for so long and was so exciting — an adventure in itself — more people participated. I cannot prove that, but neither can anyone prove the contrary. It was a great adventure for the Irish people. We had something special — a PR system that went on and on. It was like watching a long film or series of films, and people came back to it. There is a real danger that, when we introduce electronic voting, we will have lower rather than higher polls. I may be proved wrong, but there is a serious danger, at a time when participation in politics and voting patterns are falling, that this will further undermine the democratic process, because fewer people will participate. The timing is wrong, and it is unfortunate and unnecessary.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Gallagher): Many questions were asked, and I would certainly like to address as many of those as possible if the House is agreed.
Mr. Gallagher: I thank the Senators for their contributions. It is tremendous to see such interest in the House. It is unfortunate that the same interest is not evident among the entire electorate at election time, as the valid poll would be much higher than normal. I genuinely believe that the new system will make it easier for the new voter, especially the elderly. Senator Norris referred to several views against the use of technology, but there are as many, if not more, in favour. It is a great feature of our democracy that everyone can express his or her views.
I may not deal with all the questions, but a very personal one was asked concerning the Minister's right to extend electronic voting to all other constituencies in addition to Dublin West, Dublin North and Meath. Section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 is very clear. The Minister has that right, and there is no comparison between the case at Carrickmines discussed in this House and the primary legislation. Secondary legislation is sufficient, and the Minister has that right under section 48 of the Act. If it is challenged, that will be a matter for the courts, but we in the Department and our legal advisers are very confident regarding section 48. Of course, no one is infallible. Senator Norris is not here. Perhaps the only man who is infallible, as Senator Norris will agree, is the Pope.
Mr. Gallagher: Senator Bannon, who spoke initially, referred to his experience at the launch last week. I know the Senator did not intend his remarks to be unfair, but they might have been so if the official was only being helpful. Needless to say, at the real poll on 11 June the polling staff will not approach the voting machine. That will be set out in the regulations or the rules for returning officers, which will be in the form of a booklet. Senator Kitt and other Senators referred to the closure of polling stations. There will be no change in the existing arrangements for selecting polling stations, which is of course a matter for the returning officer. The closure of stations is a matter for consultation with members of the local authority. I will make it very clear that the introduction of electronic voting should not be used as an excuse to close some of the smaller stations in rural Ireland.
I would like to refer to the Zerflow security assessment report. Much misunderstanding was created by its presentation on television. I believe this arose from a lack of appreciation of the report's context and contents. The report was commissioned by the Department in February 2002, four months before the use of voting machines, as a risk assessment of the use of voting machines in polling stations. The report did not cover the integrity of the EMS, which was covered in other reports, but the possible physical threats in a polling station. These recommendations were considered by the Department before the use of voting machines in the general election in May 2002 and those considered directly relevant to general elections and referendums were incorporated into the instructions issued to the returning officers. The conditions covered by the major recommendation could only occur in circumstances of a widespread conspiracy between the returning officer's staff, polling station staff and external parties. It would have nothing to do with the machines.
Reference was made to the accuracy of the register of electors. I am most anxious to ensure the register of electors is prepared to the highest standards of accuracy which we, as public representatives, all have a responsibility to ensure. I recognise there can be human error and that omissions can occur. Changes in the Electoral Act 1997 and in the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 will reduce the extent of errors and omissions. The provision for the preparation and publication of a supplement to the register under the Electoral Act 1992 was extremely important. In the past, if one was not on the register of electors by February, that was it. However, the Electoral Act 1992 provides for a supplement to the register and gives people the opportunity to be added to the list up to a week before the date of the election.
I welcome Senator McCarthy's acknowledgement that electronic voting is a good thing. That is accepted throughout both Houses. All of us support electronic voting, although some may be concerned about the detail or otherwise. Electronic voting is desirable. Some people say we should have long counts but Senator McCarthy's view is that we should do away with them. We have examined the research to which the Senator referred and we are satisfied with the testing regime, the pilot experience, the track record of the system in other countries and the ease with which the electorate has used the system to date. We should remember that we are not starting from a greenfield position. We have had experience of electronic voting in Meath, Dublin West and Dublin North in the general election and in the referendum. We have had no complaints from politicians or otherwise about it. Do we have to look over our shoulder? Naturally, we will look to other countries such as Holland and Germany and at some of the pilots in the UK where Nedap was used and was successful but let us look at our own experience which has been successful. Nedap manufactured the machines, PTB checked the software and TNO of Holland checked the physical pieces and components. The electoral reform society, not to be confused with the Electoral Reform Commission, has cleared the software. All the software and hardware has been accredited by the EC.
There is no electoral commission in this country and it could take some time to establish one. The Public Offices Commission should not be confused with the electoral commission as in the UK. I know tallies are exciting for all of us, and Senator Coghlan referred to secrecy. I will outline my experience on an island off Donegal on which I, and Joe Brennan and Cormac Breslin before me, got three votes out of three. I do not think too many people complained about secrecy. I am not being flippant or facetious and I will deal with the Senator's question on secrecy.
Mr. Gallagher: I will deal with that. We all like to know from where votes come, but I will blend that with Senator Coghlan's question on secrecy. We are anxious to ensure tallies are available and we are in consultation with the Attorney General's office on what information can safely be provided without endangering the secrecy of the ballot. As the Senator said, the tallyman is not part of the statutory conduct of elections, so it is necessary to ensure protection of the secrecy of the ballot. We are anxious to ensure tallies are available, although not 100% as that would raise questions of secrecy and of the thresholds, which we are examining. There is no difficulty if there are thousands but with lower numbers such as hundreds, there may be a difficulty. Senators can be sure we will try to ensure, in consultation with the Attorney General, that we can continue some type of tallying.
Senator Norris referred to the fun of elections. Elections are not about fun; they are a serious business. Perhaps he was being flippant when he referred to them in that way. Elections are a serious business and we want to ensure they are taken seriously. The Senator also referred to those at home being able to vote. I wish to make it abundantly clear that there will be no voting from home. Voting must take place in the polling station. If voting was to take place from home, it would be on the Internet and by text which, of course, can be hacked. As one of the Senators said, this system is not connected to any system either internally in the station or externally. No hacking can take place. We are a long way from voting on the Internet or by telephone. I think Senator Bannon said people who are abroad should be allowed to vote but that will not happen. People can apply for a postal vote if the nature of their business or illness so requires.
Senator Moylan asked about postal votes. All postal votes will go, as is usual, to the returning officer, the ballot paper in the envelope will be checked as will the identification on it and they will be put aside. There will be an opportunity for the returning officer, his or her officials and representatives of the candidates to witness that. Around the close of voting, those votes will be fed into a machine and they will have their own module as postal votes. The idea of doing that at the last minute is that if it was done earlier in the day — it could physically be done — there would be a question of how the vote was going. Sometimes postal votes can be indicative of the overall voting trend, so they will be counted as normal.
Senator Brian Hayes referred to the primary legislation. I made it clear — we have legal advice on it — that section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2002 provides for the use of the system at elections other than Dáil elections. In this case they will be used for European Parliament and local elections, which can be done by way of ministerial order.
Mr. B. Hayes: On a point of order, we have a new Standing Order, of which the Acting Chairman is well aware, that any speaker can give way to a question. Will the Minister of State give way to a question from me on that matter?
Mr. B. Hayes: Thank you. The Minister of State said the 2001 legislation does not refer to the polls in June but given the recent court cases which show the lack of sufficiency of ministerial orders, does he not agree there is a need for primary legislation if he is to advance this for June? If such legislation is not brought forward, will he bring forward separate orders? When will they be put to the House?
Mr. Gallagher: This matter has been raised because of the Carrickmines case. I looked at the Supreme Court judgment on Carrickmines and without going into the details — I do not have the time nor is it necessary — this case bears no relationship to the making of an order under section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001. Section 48 states clearly and, indeed, unambiguously provides that the Minister may make such adaptations of or modifications to the relevant statutory electoral code to enable the election to be conducted using electronic voting and counting.
As one of the Opposition Members indicated in committee, this view may be challenged in the courts. From the legal advice we have obtained, however, we are confident the section 48 more than adequately covers the extension of electronic voting to elections in June this year.
Mr. Coghlan: On a point of order, under the relevant standing order the Minister was to refer to McMahon v. Attorney General, an important case in which the Supreme Court upheld the secrecy of the ballot.
Mr. B. Hayes: With the greatest respect, as Leader of the Opposition, I wish to make the point that we were assured that the Minister of State would respond not only to the questions posed in the context of the debate, but also supplementary questions. This did not happen.
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