Dáil Éireann - Volume 580 - 18 February, 2004

Electronic Voting: Motion (Resumed).

The following motion was moved by Deputy Kenny on Tuesday, 17 February 2004:

That Dáil Éireann, noting the Government's failure to:

— consult with, or seek the agreement of, the other parties in Dáil Éireann for the fundamental change in our electoral system involved in the extension of the use of electronic voting to all constituencies and electoral areas for the European and local elections;

— establish an independent Electoral Commission to oversee the implementation of electronic voting in a fair and transparent manner which has the trust of all political parties and the general public;

— include the provision of a voter-verified paper audit trail as part of the electronic voting process, in order to be able to confirm the accuracy required of the counting system;

— adequately address the technical concerns of experts raised in December 2003 in the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government;

and bearing in mind the considerable legal uncertainty regarding the legislative basis for the implementation of electronic voting in the local and European Elections in June of this year, calls on the Government to immediately defer plans for the use of electronic voting in the European and local elections and to suspend any further expenditure on, and preparations for, the introduction of electronic voting until an [582] independent Electoral Commission has been established and has addressed the legitimate concerns of political parties and the public on this issue.

Debate resumed on amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“— recalling the approval by the Oireachtas of the legislative provisions for electronic voting and counting set out in the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001;

— recognising the recent endorsement of the introduction of electronic voting and counting at the June 2004 polls by the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government;

— noting that the electronic voting and counting system has been comprehensively tested and validated by a range of independent test institutes and companies;

— acknowledging the proven track record of the system throughout the Netherlands and in the German cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf;

— noting the more recent approval for the use of the system in France in a number of locations at the European Parliament elections in June;

— recognising the earlier successful use of the system in Ireland in three constituencies at the 2002 general election and in a further four constituencies at the Nice 2 referendum;

— bearing in mind the high level of customer satisfaction expressed by Irish voters with the new system in a survey carried out following the use of the system in the seven pilot constituencies;

— recalling the Government's open declaration in October 2002 of their intention to roll out electronic voting countrywide for the European and local elections in June 2004; and

— considering the deficiencies in the manual system with regard to spoilt votes, lengthy counts and recounts;

supports the continued preparations being made for the full implementation of electronic voting and counting to improve and modernise the electoral system in Ireland; and

notes the intention of the Government, out of respect for the significance of the electoral [583] process, and for the avoidance of doubt, to introduce legislation providing for:

— the establishment of an independent panel to verify the secrecy and accuracy of arrangements proposed for electronic voting (this panel to be appointed in advance of the enactment of the legislation);

— the application by primary legislation of electronic voting to non-Dáil elections;

— more explicit arrangements regarding abstention from voting; and

— conditions under which tally data may be made available from the electronic counting system to interested parties.”

—(Minister for Finance).

  Mr. P. Power: I wish to share time with Deputies Cregan, Glennon, O'Donnell, Carey and Seán Power.

I welcome the opportunity to address the House on a subject that has been debated in an ill-informed manner in recent weeks. Before discussing the substantive issue I wish to relate a personal experience in the 2002 general election. Voting was held on the Friday and the count commenced on Saturday morning. It was obvious from the initial figures of the first count that I was in the fortunate position of knowing that I was certain of being elected. My election team, family and friends had to wait from Saturday morning until Sunday evening to hear a declaration of my election. We can do better in this day and age. Two other Deputies in my constituency were in the very unfortunate position that 48 hours after counting commenced, they did not know who would be the last two Deputies elected.

In my neighbouring constituency — Deputy Cregan can testify to this — Senator Finucane, formerly Deputy Finucane, lost out on spoiled votes, votes which were inadvertently spoiled by people leaving the polling booth under the unfortunate but happy illusion, as far as they were concerned, that they had voted for certain people. An analysis of those spoiled votes showed that the then Deputy Finucane lost his seat. Ten days after the last general election we did not know who would form the Government. We can and should do better than this.

Some people inside and outside this House are propagating the myth that somehow we are replacing a perfect system with an imperfect one. We are all aware from our experience in these matters that the present system is far from perfect. The events of the last general election such as the delayed counts, the threats of going to the High Court and examination of ballot papers against the light and the involvement of senior counsel undermine the democratic and electoral process.

[584] If this system was entirely new I would have a lot of sympathy for Fine Gael and Labour and the other Opposition parties in their concerns. If the Opposition had campaigned vigorously on this since it was first introduced into this country, I would have a lot of sympathy for them. If the Opposition Deputies who failed to be elected in the 2002 general election by electronic voting had disputed the efficacy and efficiency of that system, I would have a lot of sympathy for them. It is difficult to escape the suspicion if not the conclusion that all these issues are raised now by the Opposition for purely political motives. That is obvious and I believe it has become obvious to the people.

  Mr. Gilmore: We raised it three years ago.

  Mr. P. Power: I remind Deputy Gilmore that last night his leader made a statement in the House as follows, “When it comes to counting the votes, I do not trust Fianna Fáil.” I have been a Member of this House for only a wet week — 18 months — but that is the most ludicrous statement I have heard since I came into the House. With those words Deputy Rabbitte demonstrated clearly and conclusively that this has nothing to do with the efficiency and efficacy of the system, it has everything to do with propagating a false myth and cynicism among the electorate. I suspect, and I believe I am correct, that what Deputy Rabbitte wants to do is to create a scenario where if people have doubts about the system — as promoted in the Nice referendum, if in doubt, vote “No”— if in doubt about electronic voting, they should vote against the Government parties in the local elections. That is what the Opposition is doing.

  Mr. Gilmore: It is only Fianna Fáil who wants to bring it in. Nobody wants it except Fianna Fáil.

  Mr. P. Power: The contributions of the Labour Party are labelled with hysteria. On the other hand, Fine Gael's contributions are laced with a heavy dose of hypocrisy. I have a copy of a Fine Gael hand-out from the 2002 general election which was distributed to the electorate in Meath. It supports and encourages people to engage with and to use electronic voting.

  Mr. Gilmore: They are civic-minded.

  Mr. P. Power: The heading states “Your handy guide to electronic voting”. It states that electronic voting is as easy as one, two, three, but who are the one, two, three? They are all Fine Gael.

  Mr. Gilmore: At least they paid for it themselves.

  Mr. P. Power: Yet two weeks ago, Fine Gael——

[585] (Interruptions).

  Mr. P. Power: I am glad to see Labour trying to defend Fine Gael, who said two weeks ago that Fianna Fáil had manipulated the promotional literature.

  Mr. Allen: That is what it did. The Deputy should tell the truth.

  Mr. P. Power: There is a huge degree of hypocrisy.

  Acting Chairman: Allow the Deputy speak without interruption.

  Mr. Allen: We paid for them ourselves. We did not ask cronies to publish them at the taxpayers' expense.

  Mr. P. Power: The key issue is the efficiency and the efficacy of the system. My initial remarks show that the system we have at present is an imperfect system. Its replacement is a much better system and I support its introduction.

  Mr. Cregan: I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a contribution to this debate on the introduction of electronic voting. I compliment the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, and his predecessor, Deputy Noel Dempsey, on their hands-on approach to pushing this initiative.

  Mr. Allen: How can the Minister have a hands-on effect when he is in Malaysia?

  Mr. Cregan: The fundamental purpose of the initiative is to improve the efficiency, speed, accuracy and user-friendliness of Irish elections and to eliminate the democratic wastage associated with spoiled votes, of which there were more than 20,000 at the last general election. It is about more than just improving the technology. By modernising and transforming elections in a visible way, the opportunity is created to tackle voter apathy and improve the image of elections, especially with regard to an increasingly younger electorate.

The new voting system was extensively piloted at the 2002 general election and the second Nice referendum, involving the equivalent to 400,000 voters. The reaction of users has been overwhelmingly positive, despite the fact that some commentators said that elderly people would be afraid to use the system. On the contrary, it was welcomed with enthusiasm. No significant complaint or challenge about the fairness or integrity of the process has been made by any candidate or voter in the constituencies covered by electronic voting.

The State's responsibility is to provide facilities for the electorate to vote, and this is what electoral arrangements have always done and continue to do. The electronic voting system [586] makes it easier for a person to vote and easier for a voter to amend in secret his or her preferences if he or she makes a mistake before pressing the “Cast Vote” button. The electronic system will eliminate all spoiled votes which previously arose inadvertently, for instance, from incorrect marking or non-stamping of ballot papers by polling station staff. No person should be entitled to spoil his or her vote. They should either vote for or against, or stay at home. We should not facilitate in any shape or fashion a person who spoils his or her vote.

My colleague mentioned Limerick West and I wish to speak about my colleague, Senator Finucane, who unfortunately lost his seat to another colleague by one vote. There were several blocks of unmarked, unstamped ballot papers. That may have happened by design or it may have happened for a reason. A block of 70 ballot papers were not stamped by the presiding officer. Former Deputy Finucane could have got five, ten or 20 votes and he could have won a Dáil seat. That cannot happen with the new system. In other constituencies presiding officers inadvertently or otherwise did not stamp ballot papers and spoiled votes for people who intended to cast their votes. The introduction of the system has not been rushed. It has taken place in easy steps over a number of years, with the pilot schemes which I have mentioned. The system has been independently verified as safe and reliable in six checks conducted by six reputable companies.

  Mr. Gilmore: The companies were appointed by the Government.

  Mr. Carey: That is what Governments do.

  Mr. Cregan: The system proved its reliability when it was used 70 million times internationally and at home.

  Mr. Allen: The companies should have been selected by an independent commission.

  Mr. Cregan: It will be the most accurate and the most democratic system we have ever had. I would like to speak briefly about the concept of a paper trail. I have attended committee meetings with colleagues from this side of the House, as well as Deputies Allen, Gilmore and others who have given a great deal of their time to this issue, which they take seriously.

  Mr. Gilmore: I thank the Deputy.

  Mr. Cregan: It has become obvious to me from attending such meetings that there is a distinct possibility that one will not get the same result from examining a paper trail as one will get from the electronic voting process. The form of random selection used in the paper trail involves manual voting and counting, whereas the random selection used under electronic voting is different. [587] One cannot use both systems — it has to be one or the other. It has been argued that when one has cast one's vote, one could be given a receipt outlining the order in which one expressed one's preferences.

  Mr. Gilmore: No, we are not arguing for that.

  Mr. Cregan: I think such a system would lead to corruption and confusion.

  Mr. Allen: Nobody is arguing for such a system.

  Mr. Cregan: It would detract from the secrecy of one's ballot. There have been strong levels of intimidation by certain political parties in this country, and such intimidation will be more likely if people are asked to cast a vote and then to show a receipt to prove who they voted for.

  Mr. Gilmore: We are not suggesting that.

  Mr. Cregan: I do not claim that Deputy Gilmore has made such a suggestion, but some people have argued that one's vote should be verified by means of a till receipt.

  Mr. Allen: The receipt could be placed in a sealed drum.

  Mr. Cregan: I believe that such a system detracts from the secrecy of the sealed ballot and should not be used.

  Mr. Gilmore: How can placing a receipt in a sealed drum detract from the secrecy of the ballot?

  Mr. Cregan: There is a need for one's vote to be verified by the machine. When one presses the “Cast Vote” button to cast one's vote, one's choice should be flashed up on the screen before the vote is stored. The message should state that one has chosen to vote for certain candidates in a certain order. One would then leave the polling booth in the knowledge that the vote one intended to cast has been cast, recorded and stored. In this technological age, it should be possible to examine this possibility. If this system is possible, I believe that it should be introduced so that one's vote can be verified and one's doubts can be eliminated.

I wish to conclude by speaking about the Government's decision to put in place an independent panel. The Government accepts the need to ensure that there is utmost confidence in our electoral system. In response to concerns raised about the proposal of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the Government has decided to establish an independent panel to verify the secrecy and accuracy of the arrangements proposed for electronic voting.

[588]   Mr. Allen: Who will appoint the members of the panel?

  Mr. Cregan: The panel will be established on a statutory basis, but it is proposed to make appointments on a non-statutory basis in advance of the necessary legislation.

  Mr. Allen: It is being done in an ad hoc manner.

  Mr. Cregan: It is important that we have open, independent and verifiable scrutiny, not only before we set the ball rolling but also all the way through, from election to election. Contrary to what Deputy Rabbitte has said, I believe that the public trusts Fianna Fáil. The people have placed their trust in Fianna Fáil for many years and the party has governed this country for many years.

  Mr. Gilmore: For too long.

  Mr. Cregan: We will not print ballot papers.

  Acting Chairman: I call Deputy Glennon.

  Mr. Allen: He will put up a garryowen.

  Mr. Glennon: There will not be any up and unders. I am grateful for this opportunity to speak against the motion moved last night by Deputy Kenny. As one of the 12 Members of the House who were elected at the 2002 general election by votes that were cast electronically, I contrast my experience with that of my colleague, Deputy Peter Power, who was also elected for the first time two years ago — Deputy Power had to wait for a considerable time to be elected.

  Mr. S. Power: He had to wait for five years.

  Mr. Glennon: Some of his constituency colleagues had to wait a lot longer. I was fortunate to have been elected approximately four hours after the close of polling, even though some considerable delay was involved due to teething problems with the system. I fail to see how counts such as those in Limerick West or Cork South-Central, which dragged on for a week, should be acceptable to anybody in this day and age. Politics is enough of a blood sport between elections without adding to this aspect of it at election time, regardless of the entertainment content for the masses. I do not agree with the view that such entertainment is good for voter participation. It may be good for persons in a certain age group who are interested and experienced in elections, but we must do everything we can to ensure that the political system is as accessible as possible to those in an important age cohort, in which there has been a significant reduction in voting and interest in politics and a dramatic increase in cynicism about the political system.

[589] I avail of this opportunity to correct a mistaken notion which has been in the public domain since the night of 17 May 2002. We are all familiar with the famous photograph of my constituency colleague, Deputy Seán Ryan, and the former Deputy Nora Owen, which was taken immediately after the Dublin North result was announced. We are aware that the drama of the situation caused the photograph to be taken. The returning officer for the Dublin North constituency has been unfairly maligned for his part in the particular circumstances of that night. The impression has clearly been given that it was his fault in some way, or the fault of the system, that the traumatic situation arose. My clear recollection is that this was not the case. Just before the result was due to be announced, the returning officer asked the candidates, as a group, if they wished to be informed of the result privately or publicly. Perhaps the candidates' decision to proceed with the announcement in the manner in which it was then delivered was taken in error, but it was our decision nonetheless. It cannot be said that the actions of the county registrar led to the unfortunate scenes that ensued, as the opposite was the case. It is important that I make this statement publicly as I do not think it has been said heretofore.

Two issues relating to electronic voting are worthy of further emphasis. Many people have spoken of the democratic right to deliberately spoil one's vote, but I think it is dramatically overstated. A small percentage of voters exert that right. The vast majority of spoiled votes are spoiled accidentally. My experience and that of my constituents has been that the new system is extremely user-friendly in that regard. I emphasise that there were no spoiled votes in the Dublin North constituency in the general election of 2002. Perhaps some people wanted to spoil their votes but did not bother to do so, but the vast majority of spoiled votes result from an accident rather than a deliberate act.

I do not believe that a viable argument can be made for a verifiable paper audit trail. The loud group of activists which is seeking a paper trail is comparing the proposed and piloted system in this country with several different systems in the United States. They are not comparing like with like. We have not received complaints as a result of the 2002 general election. There were some minor teething problems — I do not belittle in any way the traumatic experience of my constituency colleague, Mrs. Nora Owen — but the reality is that we have a good and modern system. If we are to make politics more relevant to the age cohort about which there is so much concern, we must proceed with an electronic electoral system as proposed.

  Ms F. O'Malley: I welcome this motion because it has brought attention to the issue of electronic voting which has so far gone unnoticed by the public. For this reason, the motion has been of immense benefit.

[590] The most important and critical aspect of this issue is winning the public's confidence in electronic voting. Establishing that confidence has not been made easier by the variety of expert opinions brought before various committees of the House. It is like a lawyer's opinion; each one has an opinion and it is seen as gospel. This leaves us with the choice of deciding which one we believe.

During the previous Administration, the House agreed in principle to introduce electronic voting. Its introduction can hardly be described as rushed as the legalisation dated from 2001 and, in the 2002 election, some constituencies had experience of the system. The experience of the Dublin North constituency, alluded to already, demonstrated how both cruel and crude the pilot system was. In light of that experience, the pilot scheme has proved to be a valuable lesson and the system has been modified. It must now be put to a further test and this can only be done through an election.

Unlike some Members, I believe in the right to spoil a vote. Participation includes the ability to spoil a vote. If large numbers of the electorate spoil their votes, it tells us something about the system because they have gone to the trouble of participating in it. We may not be happy with their full participation, but spoiling a vote is equally valid in making a statement. The recognition of this in the Government's amendment to the motion is important.

I agree with the Taoiseach's comments on the paper trail. One is either choosing one or the other system. One cannot sit on the fence and have an electronic system on the one hand and a paper one on the other. If one is asking people to have confidence in a system, one must ask them to have confidence in the automatic system rather than the paper one if it is progress we want. I do not agree with the request for a paper trail verification.

Random selection was referred to in the Minister's speech. I believed that one of the benefits of the new system was that there would be absolute accuracy in transfers. I am grateful to Deputy Gilmore who has explained that it is not the case. I recommend and will insist that it does become the case. I am not sure if it will be modified because, as Deputy Gilmore explained, of the reasons for random selection in the previous election. If electronic voting is to be introduced, there must be complete and accurate transferability of votes because it is the greatest merit of such a system.

I will lament the passing of the blood sport of the tally and the count. I enjoyed it because it was all part of the experience. The one time when I was subjected to it, I was grateful that it was clear I was to be elected. However, I have enjoyed many counts where the results were not clear. As an avid campaigner for many years, the drama around the tally and the wait for the count was always part of the enjoyment. I will miss it.

[591] It is the young electorate on whom we are most focused. They will also be the most enthused by electronic voting. I have concerns for the elderly, which is probably one of the reasons such a lavish public relations campaign has been undertaken. The issue of how the public relations contracts were awarded should not cloud the issue of the principle of the introduction of electronic voting, as the Opposition has done. It does a disservice to the function of electronic voting. These issues should not be clouded and brought together. It is important that political parties arrive at a consensus for this new voting system as it cannot be seen as a Government-forced decision. There are probably one or two Members opposed to electronic voting. However, most Members recognise that it is the way forward. I find the Opposition's objections perplexing because concessions were made in an attempt to arrive at a consensus on the matter.

  Mr. S. Power: The Dáil and Seanad gave approval for the introduction of electronic voting when the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 was passed. Following that, the Government introduced electronic voting on a trial basis in three constituencies in the previous general election and in four constituencies for the second Nice referendum. There was widespread approval for the system. On that basis, the Government decided to proceed with introducing electronic voting for all elections. In October 2002, it made it clear that was the road to be taken.

When Deputies Allen and Gilmore raised concerned about the system several months ago, the Committee on the Environment and Local Government decided to deal with the matter in some detail. A number of experts came before the committee who made excellent presentations and opened our eyes to some of the details. However, no matter what system is introduced, there will be faults. There is no such thing as a perfect system and there are many deficiencies in the one we have used. As we are all Members, we have benefited from them but we cannot be blinkered and must realise the serious deficiencies that existed.

People have expressed concerns about introducing the new system. It is vital that the system introduced is not just good enough for Members but also for the public to have confidence in.

  Mr. Allen: Hear, hear.

  Mr. S. Power: Spoiled votes were referred to. I confess that I spoiled my ballot paper in the first referendum on divorce as I could not make my mind up on the issue.

  Mr. Allen: Did the Deputy inhale?

[592]   Mr. Gilmore: How did he vote in the next referendum?

  Mr. S. Power: I rectified the matter at a later stage. It could be put down to experience. I had the opportunity to spoil my vote, so I cannot see why others are not given the same facility. The Opposition claim that Fianna Fáil cannot be trusted elections. We do not run elections.

  Mr. Gilmore: Fianna Fáil does now.

  Mr. S. Power: We fight elections and we have won our fair share of them. It is obvious that the electorate does not mind putting its trust in Fianna Fáil when it comes to elections.

  Mr. Carey: Electronic voting is the way all elections will operate in the years ahead. The secrecy of the ballot is assured and there is no linkage between the electoral register and the voting machine. Those in the Dublin North constituency were the small group who used it in the previous general election. I recall Cathal Boland's slogan, “Boland on the Button”. I was in the RTE studios on the famous election night when the former Deputy, Ms Nora Owen, lost her seat. It was not a happy sight to see some of the shots that fortunately did not go on air.

This morning, I heard Marian Finucane on RTE saying that, as few people are turning out to vote, we should stick with the same system. That does not make sense. It is important that voter participation, especially among young people, is increased. I believe many elderly people will vote through this system. Up to 30 million people voted electronically in “I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here”. On RTE every Sunday night, people vote electronically for “You're A Star”. People use 365 Banking and they can send text messages to beat the band. We must not be condescending to the electorate as it is sophisticated and will know how exactly to vote.

I was not a great fan of the blood sport of the count. Our friends in the press gallery got more mileage out of the trauma we underwent, and sold more books because of it, than any enjoyment we derived. Let us not hanker after an imperfect system. It is important that we have this independent panel and that we scrutinise properly, and have absolute faith in the system. We need a more participative democracy.

There has been a great deal of confusion between electronic voting and e-voting, a distinction which Deputy Gilmore expressed very clearly. We should move towards e-voting but let us take it one step at a time. I support the Government amendment to this motion.

  Mr. Gormley: I wish to share time with Deputies Gregory, Healy, Connolly and Morgan.

I was one of the first Deputies to call for the introduction of electronic voting, following the famous recount for my seat in Dublin South-East in 1997. I must disagree with Deputy O'Malley [593] on this because having endured that blood sport, having been that soldier, I can report it is not humane. This is perhaps the only point on which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, and I could agree. It is about time that we did introduced electronic voting. I said that it would eliminate the uncertainty, the discrepancies, the spoilt votes and give us a pure form of proportional representation. In theory all of this should be true but unfortunately electronic voting as introduced by this Government will serve only to increase the uncertainty.

My party unequivocally supports the principle of electronic voting. Many of the party members are interested in technology and many of them, including Mr. John Lambe whose letter appeared today in The Irish Times, have raised serious questions about the methodology employed by the Government. The key issue as has been repeatedly emphasised is the lack of a verifiable paper audit trail. It would increase the voter's confidence in the system as it would show directly that the choice made by the voter was printed on a hard copy and would be deposited in the ballot box. That is what we want because for all our IT literacy skill, people like the reassurance of the hard copy. If they did not, the concept of the paperless office would have made great advances by now.

The Government must choose between the convenience of the operation and the confidence of the voter. Our proposal is slightly more inconvenient than the Government's proposal but it increases the confidence of the voter in the process. If I understood the Taoiseach correctly this morning when he spoke on this, he argued that the printing sometimes can go wrong but if that is so, computers too can go wrong. The difference is that if one has a printer one sees the error. If the computer is wrong, one has no way of knowing without a verifiable ballot whether the vote one cast has been registered properly. That is the key argument in this debate.

Our system of PR is a complex and brilliant one which is fair, democratic and has served the people well over many generations. It has been so democratic and fair that Fianna Fáil twice attempted to get rid of it. For these and other reasons many people do not trust this Government when it comes to changing the way we vote. Its intransigence in the face of such reasonable opposition only increases the suspicion that an unscrupulous Government could use the electronic voting system for its own ends, to maintain power. This is not fanciful. If it is technologically possible then obviously in the absence of a verifiable paper audit trail, it is a distinct possibility. The aim, therefore, of the Opposition is to remove any suspicion that something could be amiss. To ensure fairness and increase confidence in a system which in principle we support, it is time that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, [594] Deputy Cullen, and the Taoiseach started to listen to the concerns of ordinary people and acted on those concerns. It is not too late to change direction. I urge the Government to rethink this. It is under serious pressure on this issue.

There is a very disturbing letter in The Irish Times today from one of my constituents, Mr. Joe McCarthy of Claremont Road in Sandymount, saying that the Minister of State has tried as best he can to prevent him getting information on this issue under the Freedom of Information Act 1997. That is very regrettable. This man has long experience in the technology trade, has a wide knowledge of computers, is committed to democracy and is only trying to make things better. All of us in this House should be committed to democracy. If we are committed democrats the Government should change course.

  Mr. Gregory: I oppose the proposed system for electronic voting on two grounds. First, the system does not have a back-up checkable record of votes cast in the polling stations. There must be a voter verifiable audit trail whereby the voting machine prints a record of each vote for the voter to see and then stores it in a ballot box. That is the very basis of the democratic process.

Second, I oppose the Government's proposed system because it is a scandalous waste of €45 million for no apparent reason. A handful of marathon recounts in the last few elections is hardly a sufficient basis on which to squander up to €50 million of taxpayers' money when there are so many other real areas of need whose funding this Government is cutting back. Schools, hospitals, child care, the elderly and, for example, the unfortunate polio sufferers we saw on the RTE news this evening could have benefited from the millions of euro which are being wasted on machines that will be used a couple of times every five years or so.

If the Minister wished to reform the voting system he would have done far better to have concentrated his efforts on the electoral register and the identification requirements for persons casting their vote. I raised this issue numerous times in parliamentary questions and the standard reply I received was that the matter was under review but as the present system is working satisfactorily there was no pressing need to change it. The same logic could have been better applied to electronic voting. It is extremely odd that if a citizen wishes to obtain a resident's parking disc he or she must supply items of identification on a rigidly applied basis but to cast a vote and elect a Dáil and a Government no such requirement is applied except very randomly. At every election, candidates are elected on a margin of a handful of votes and Governments are placed in power by a small margin of seats. If the Minister is genuinely interested in the more effective and democratic running of elections these are the issues he should address: [595] streamlining the reliability of the electoral register and ensuring that those who vote are entitled to do so and cast only one vote each.

Electronic voting can wait as it will have to do, for example, in Britain where the electoral commission has decided it is premature. We are told that following pilot studies on machines rented from the returning officer in Dublin, it has decided that the Powervote system as proposed here should not be used until it is safe. Deputy Joe Higgins argued over a year ago that the Government's proposed system is more appropriate to Robert Mugabe than to Dáil Éireann.

  Mr. Healy: I am not at all sure of the necessity for this electronic voting system on the basis that as it is not broken, why fix it? I am not satisfied that the system we have is broken. As Deputy Gregory said, a few long counts or recounts in elections in the recent past seem to have brought about a certain urgency on this issue. The spending of €40 million or €45 million on the introduction of electronic voting is unnecessary and a waste of money which could be used for many other purposes.

There must be public trust in the system and consensus about its introduction. The introduction of the system must be overseen by an independent electoral commission which is above politics and which has the trust of all political parties and none in the House and of the public. I am satisfied that to ensure the system is fair and balanced there must be a verifiable audit paper trail. That is essential if the system is introduced. It is regrettable that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is introducing this system while he is the director of elections for his party in the forthcoming European and local elections. I oppose the introduction of electronic voting in its current form. I support the motion before the House.

  Mr. Connolly: I support the motion and I would have signed it if I had been asked to do so. We must recognise that the pilot scheme at the last general election was relatively successful. However, the results were badly delivered, which Deputy Glennon mentioned earlier. We must remember it was a pilot programme, but we must ask ourselves if we have learned anything from it. We have been warned about the potential failures in the system and the fact that it is wide open to the threat of rogue hacking and vote tampering. We cannot ignore that. There is no doubt that electronic voting is the way forward, but we should get it right before the people are asked to use it. It is important to build safeguards into the system and that the people trust it. We should not forget that when electronic equipment makes a mistake, it is usually a huge one.

People are more aware of what is happening in this regard. Recent tests in Maryland in the USA [596] showed that computer hackers enjoyed carte blanche and were able to cast multiple votes with impunity and to neutralise the vote recording mechanisms in machines. Everyone who spoke this evening mentioned verification, which is one of the big issues. Should we trust the machine or should there be some form of verification of the information recorded? It is essential to have some type of audit trail. There is a paper trail of every electronic transaction. It is like doing the lottery. There is no reason the machine could not give the result after the numbers are pressed in the same way as the lottery machines. The American experience of electronic voting gives us little reason to believe or have confidence in the integrity of the proposed system. To maximise the security of voting machines, there should be a print-out.

We should remember those who are disabled, particularly those who are visually impaired, when considering a new voting system. There should be a system whereby if a person touches a photograph of a candidate, the name will appear on a screen. That would allow disabled people to vote with dignity without the necessity to have someone with them. It is important to consider that.

The scope for vote tampering with the current manual system was limited to ballots at local level. The infallibility of source codes was thrown sharply into focus in the past week with the unauthorised release on to the Internet of the Microsoft Windows operating system's source code. That has necessitated the urgent publication and worldwide dissemination of a repair patch by Microsoft.

I propose that all voting machines should produce a voter verified paper and that manual random checks should be held in 20% of constituencies, regardless of whether there is a need for a count or the result has been established. We should check the machine and the paper and publish the results after the election results have been announced. Open software must be used in voting systems and wireless communication devices should be banned. Electronic voting systems should be easily assessed by the disabled.

  Mr. Morgan: It is unfortunate that the issue of electronic voting is being handled by the most arrogant Minister in the Government. He has done his utmost to ram through this unnecessary and fundamental change in how we vote while, at the same time, attempting to stifle debate on its potential dangers and implications. I hope the Minister returns from his United Nations engagement in Malaysia with an improved and enlightened attitude to the importance of consultation, discussion and consensus with representatives of the people on issues which fundamentally affect the democratic process.

[597] Sinn Féin raised concerns about the electronic voting process at an early stage. The announcement yesterday by the Government that it had decided to establish an independent panel to verify secrecy and to deal with the issue of individuals who wish to abstain fails to deal with the central concern, namely, the necessity to provide a paper trail. One wonders what this independent board will be able to achieve in the limited time available between now and the elections in June. Numerous questions must be asked about this board. What power will it have? Who will be on it and who will appoint the members? Why is it not possible to have a fully independent electoral commission, which was the request of most parties on this side of the House? Given the Minister's behaviour in awarding the contract for the public information campaign, can we trust him with the proposed board?

There are many outstanding questions about the awarding of the €4 million contract for the promotion of electronic voting to the Q4 public relations company, which is part owned by the former Fianna Fáil general secretary. I expect the Minister to comment on this in his reply to the debate. Is it true that the Q4 public relations company was only incorporated as a limited company on 21 May 2003? Is it the case that a company tendering for public contracts is required to submit evidence of turnover for three years and financial security, banking details etc. for a number of years to demonstrate capacity to complete the contract?

  Mr. Allen: Not if the person is in Fianna Fáil.

  Mr. Morgan: It seems that is the case. As that could not have been the case with a company which is less than one year old, will the Minister confirm whether these requirements were met in full? Did the Minister turn a blind eye to these requirements because of the involvement of a former general secretary of Fianna Fáil? This issue must be clarified. It could be an innocent incident, but I would like to hear the Minister's explanation of such an important and fundamental issue.

Sinn Féin supports the idea of electronic voting using a kiosk type system. However, we call for all source code and design to be publicly available for inspection by citizens and particularly by computer science experts. For the Mercuri method to be applied, a paper trail and a paper copy of the vote verified by the voter must be held for the purpose of an independent recount. If electronic voting is to gain public confidence, as it should, serious concerns about the system being introduced in the State must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The fact that the source code is not available to computer professionals means it cannot be verified that it does what it says it should do. A computer, for example, can be made to display one thing, record another and print a third. If the code is only available to a private company, the report raises the possibility [598] of sabotage from within the company by placing a programmer within that company.

There is no opposition to introducing electronic voting in this State. We are all in favour of it, but it must be done right. It should not be messed up in the way it is currently. If this is seen by the public as merely an attempt by the Government to plaster over the deep concerns about the electronic voting system, it will undoubtedly further erode public confidence in the voting system. If we want a truly democratic and representative electoral system, we must address the issue of voter turn-out. Many people in rural parts of this State are being disenfranchised because of the requirement for voters attempting to get on the supplementary register to have the form stamped by their local garda. It is difficult for people living in rural communities to get on the supplementary register because local Garda stations have been closed. Would the Minister consider amending this legislation to remove this requirement or at least to allow it to be done at a post office?

  Mr. McCormack: I wish to share my time with Deputies Pat Breen, Cuffe and Durkan.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Mr. McCormack: I am sorry the Fianna Fáil backbenchers who spoke earlier have left the Chamber as they could have participated more than simply reading their scripts and going. It is regrettable that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is also unavoidably absent as he bears much responsibility for the position we are now in. A number of the Fianna Fáil backbenchers tried to indicate that Fine Gael and other Opposition parties were opposed to electronic voting. We are not opposed to the principle of electronic voting. However, we want it done right and want to ensure it is done above board in such a manner that the general public can have trust in the system. If we cannot have trust in our democratic system we are going nowhere.

Since this motion on electronic voting was tabled, the Government parties have been forced into a partial climb down. The proposed establishment of a committee to examine electronic voting only goes a small way and does not satisfy us. Nothing short of in independent electoral commission and a printout of the ballot paper to go into a separate box for verification purposes would satisfy the general public at this stage. Fianna Fáil backbenchers should have grasped that the general public have lost confidence in anything politicians do from any side of the House. This is because of what has been exposed as having happened at the highest level in Fianna Fáil in the past ten or 12 years, which is only now being exposed. This is why the general public cannot trust anything that is not verifiably tested.

[599] One of my colleagues on the Opposition benches asked why we should fix something that was not broken. We should not interfere with our electoral system unless we have fully tested the system to replace it. While we are all for modern IT, etc., the matter must be fully tested so that everybody has confidence in it. When a Government has been in office continually for a period, it can lose track of itself and get so arrogant that it believes it can do what it likes when it has a majority. That is what has happened in this case. Twice in the past when Fianna Fáil was in Government for long periods, it tried to abolish our PR electoral voting system. The public rejected it on both occasions and on this occasion the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, is trying to bulldoze this system through.

Initially I could not understand what was the hurry. However, this became clear and I then lost confidence in what the Minister was doing. As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government, I would have liked that committee to have been able to unanimously support a system for electronic voting. However, we did not get the opportunity to do that. As some members of the committee had concerns about some aspects of electronic voting, we arranged a meeting involving officials from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, representatives of the manufacturer and independent IT experts.

We met on the morning of 18 December and had a very useful exchange of views. Some questions were posed and we adjourned for lunch. We were due to resume after lunch for an afternoon session and were scheduled to meet early in January when 41 questions posed by the IT experts could be answered. While the Minister was not present at the committee, he was in the building and keeping in touch. Immediately after lunch, the Government members of the committee proposed we should proceed with the system without having to wait for the answers to the 41 questions and the meeting was terminated within ten or 15 minutes.

On 19 December, the contract for the machines was signed. Following information obtained by Joe McCarthy under the Freedom of Information Act, and other information we obtained subsequently, we discovered that not alone was the contract signed on 19 December, but also that 20 million worth of machines had been delivered here before the contract had been signed.

  Mr. Durkan: That was very slick.

  Mr. McCormack: When I found out about this kind of carry on, the Minister lost my confidence. To have the machines delivered before the committee agreed, before the Dáil agreed and before the contract was signed shows the arrogance of the Minister. This is unheard of. I repeat a question I asked at the committee. [600] Where were the Government watchdogs, the Progressive Democrats, when all this was going on? The Progressive Democrats have woken up in the past few days and not because of what we are saying here. Just as contributing at the committee was a waste of time, so is speaking here tonight because we know the Government majority will defeat the joint Opposition motion.

However, we need to consider the general public. It is not possible to defeat the general public. The public have lost confidence in this IT system and the Minister should slow down and take heed of this. This was the reason the Progressive Democrats forced the Government into the slight face-saving climb down of establishing a committee to examine the system.

The Minister was determined to proceed with purchasing the machines regardless. What was driving him to do so in spite of the reservations expressed and the failure of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government to agree? He proceeded because he had already made up his mind and was already committed. He had 20 million worth of machines in the country before anybody made a decision to proceed with this system. The public want answers to this and will not be satisfied with a committee appointed by the Government to examine it.

As nobody has been killed, there is plenty of time for the Minister to call a halt. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said this week in another context, how wonderful it would be if politicians could bring themselves to admit they are only fallible and not God. By this definition they can make mistakes. The Minister will not be diminished by admitting to having made a mistake. He should acknowledge the public have no confidence in this electronic system. This is not because they have no confidence in electronic business and machines in general. They have no confidence in the manner in which this issue was pushed through the committee. They have no confidence because the 41 questions have not yet been answered two months after they were posed.

How could the general public have confidence in the system? How could the Fianna Fáil backbenchers expect the public to have confidence in a Government or even in politicians when they see what has been going on in the past ten years? This is what has eroded the confidence of the general public in anything politicians propose. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who is the director of elections for Fianna Fáil is spearheading this campaign. If it were spearheaded by an independent electoral commission, perhaps it would have support and we might have got the answers to the questions we asked.

I offer the Minister some friendly advice. He should back down now before it is too late. The Minister will not gain the confidence of the [601] people by trying to push this through. Unfortunately he is absent tonight. I hope the investigation committee that will be established to look at this is merely a red herring to give the Minister an excuse to back down. If that is the case I will be the first to congratulate the Minister. If he backs down he will not lose face and will help to restore the confidence of the general public in this Parliament and its committees. He will never win the confidence of the people given the way he is going about this issue.

  Mr. P. Breen: I welcome the opportunity of speaking on this motion and amendment. Ireland is a modern nation; we have come a long way. Technology plays an important part in our everyday lives. In my constituency in County Clare, where Ennis was chosen as the information age town in 1997, PC penetration is twice the national average. Eight out of ten residents use the Internet. Nationally, ATMs are no longer found only on the street but are now available in-house in many food stores. Twenty-four hour banking is available to customers. Soon we will be able to tax our cars on the Internet. We book our flights on it as well. For all these transactions we receive receipts. As my party leader, Deputy Kenny, said during the debate, under the system proposed by the Government one casts one's vote by pressing the button and hopes for the best.

8 o'clock

A leaflet about electronic voting was recently published by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. There should be no doubt that the people are ready for electronic voting, but the Government is not. It has failed to consult, seek agreement on the issue or answer important questions. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, launched his electronic voting campaign in a blaze of glory at the Mansion House two weeks ago. The publicity alone cost €5 million. However, within 24 hours, he was forced to have his glossy leaflets reprinted because the image clearly showed a voter casting his vote for Fianna Fáil. I thank our party spokesperson, Deputy Allen, who noticed that.

Little thought went into this leaflet, just as little thought has gone into the electronic voting system. The system was rushed in because Deputy Cullen wants to be remembered as the Minister who introduced electronic voting nationwide. I have a word of caution for the Minister. He should remember what happened the Taoiseach in the Bertie Bowl fiasco. If the system goes wrong, the Taoiseach and the Minister must take full responsibility for their bullying tactics. We should remember the words of a senior official of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who warned last month that the rolling out of electronic voting for the local and European elections, which are only 14 or 15 weeks away, could be risky.

[602] We need openness and transparency from the Government. The questions and technical concerns raised by the experts must be answered. The Taoiseach has said that an independent panel will be appointed to deal with concerns raised. When will the panel be appointed? What will be its remit? Will it be allowed to examine the issue of a voter-verified paper audit trail? What provision is being made to train staff for the June elections, in light of the proposed new legislation, to deal with issues such as voter abstentions?

The Government is now beginning to acknowledge the failures of its proposal because the public does not trust it. The public is asking questions. It is entitled to a fair and transparent system. All options must be considered. The voter is entitled to a receipt which could be verified in the event of a recount or any apparent irregularities. I urge the Minister to postpone the introduction of electronic voting so that the concerns of the political parties and the people may be dealt with. This is a democracy. Polling day belongs to the people. It is their day. It is the day on which every citizen over 18 has his or her say. The Minister should listen to them. After all, they elect us.

  Mr. Cuffe: We are not Luddites, but we believe this project is proceeding with indecent haste. We do not believe the necessary safeguards are in place. We simply wish to see a voter-verifiable audit trail put in place. I do not even insist on a paper audit trail. It could be a computer audit trail, but it must be verifiable.

Many concerns have been expressed and there has been much hyperbole and rhetoric about the extent of those concerns. However, they are real. When professionals in the computing world bring those concerns to our attention, we should listen to them. When professionals from the accounting world tell us they use the principal of double-entry bookkeeping, we should listen to them. When professionals from the accounting world talk about doing a manual tot, even if one has an Excel spreadsheet in front of one, we should listen to them. The source code for these machines should be released. The myriad of examples of flaws from abroad point to the difficulties of the system. I believe it was Al Gore who, in a particular ward of one US state, received a vote of minus 20,000. It must be the ultimate indignity for a politician to receive minus votes. That certainly did not occur in the days before electronic voting.

Within the Irish voting system there is a good hierarchy of understanding and knowledge, from the returning officer down to the individual who counts votes. That is being lost at the stroke of a key with what is being proposed. The Green Party wishes to see the introduction of electronic voting, but we do not believe the current safeguards are good enough and we wish to see its nationwide adoption postponed until the questions that have been asked are answered.

[603]   Mr. Durkan: I thank all the Deputies who contributed to this debate. I congratulate the Opposition parties for coming together on this motion. Unlike many others in the House, I have a fundamental suspicion of and objection to the whole concept of electronic voting. No reason put forward by the Government has been sufficient to convince me there is any need to go this road. There are other reasons, however.

The Taoiseach said this morning that the Opposition appeared to wish to obstruct the modernisation of the voting system. I do not hear the public demanding modernisation of the voting system. If the Government wants to modernise, it could start with the health service. It could modernise the education system or the housing system or it could consider the problem of crime. It would spend its money well. The system of electronic voting is suspicious, expensive, unworkable and unverifiable. There is no system yet available under which the voter can be certain that the vote cast is the one that will be counted. That has been proven beyond a shadow of doubt.

The other reason I have a deep suspicion about this proposal is the indecent haste which has been referred to by previous speakers. What is the rush? The Government could have improved the health service over a year and a half. This was urgently needed, but nobody did it. What is the real reason? This is what makes the public suspicious. The public, for one reason or another and not necessarily to do with elections, does not trust the Government. It is suspicious of the haste with which this legislation was introduced and it does not trust the motives of the Government. Why is this?

Let us remember the dormant accounts issue. This was a good and holy cause and a great idea. An independent commission was established to disburse the funds from dormant accounts. First the total was said to be €70 million, then €200 million. Now it seems to be in the region of €500 million, which is a sizeable sum. What did the Government do? It dispensed with the commission immediately. It handed the dormant accounts fund over to a Minister who will treat it as the national lottery fund has been treated over the last number of years. This was a despicable action, and it is despicable of the Government to expect the Opposition and the people to accept it. The people are deeply suspicious and, after the last previous general election, they have every right to be.

Where are the guardians of democracy, the Progressive Democrats? I thought they would be campaigning for the process to be slowed down. I thought the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, would be up another telegraph pole calling for the people to come to his assistance to ensure they did not have this system forced upon them. Where is he? He is not even on the plinth. Where are all his party colleagues? Will the Progressive Democrats stand [604] up for democracy? Its members are supposed to be progressive and democratic. Will they stand up for the people? Will they tell them they will stand by them and ensure the Government of which they are part will not take from the people their right to vote in a secret ballot however they want?

If we had been told by the people over the past ten or 12 years that they wanted electronic voting or if they had campaigned for it, there would have been a reason for it. All Members would have accepted the need for it in that situation. However, they did not come to us about it. They came to us about the health services, crime, housing, social welfare, taxation and every other issue but not about electronic voting. The first instance of electronic voting in these precincts was in this House, and it has failed on five occasions.

  Mr. Gallagher: My colleague, the Minister for Finance, said in his contribution last night that the new system would remove the arbitrary nature of the current surplus distribution rules of the PR-STV count system. This is a potential benefit of the new system. The Minister asked me to clarify that the existing count rules will continue to apply at the June polls and that examination of any revision of the count rules will take place after the June elections.

Electronic voting and counting will provide a more modern, user-friendly and efficient system of voting to the people. The project has been advanced in a considered and thorough way from the legislation in 1999 and 2001 through to the procurement of a proven and robust system, together with comprehensive testing and successful piloting in Irish conditions. The system will be ready for countrywide roll-out at the June polls. However, to provide extra reassurance, the amended motion will put in place an independent group to verify the secrecy and accuracy of the system.

The public is strongly in favour of electronic voting.

  Mr. McCormack: Who says?

  Mr. Stagg: Who said that?

  Mr. Gallagher: A total of 87% of voters surveyed after the 2002 general election preferred the electronic system to the paper ballot. The benefits of the new system will be available nationwide for June.

  Mr. McCormack: Ask Joe Duffy.

  Mr. Gallagher: Nevertheless, opponents of electronic voting want to deny, or at least to delay significantly, the delivery of these benefits to voters at this time. They want to obstruct [605] progress towards electronic voting because they say it needs a paper trail.

Let us look at the experience and practicalities of electronic voting all over the world. Thousands of electoral administrations use electronic voting systems. Opposition speakers may wish to enlighten us about how many of these also use a paper audit trail. The answer is virtually none.

  Mr. Durkan: California does.

  Mr. Gallagher: The paper audit trail is not a system widely or properly tested in practice but is an aspiration. If electronic voting and counting systems cannot be trusted, why are so many electoral administrations introducing them and why are they content to use them without a paper audit trail?

  Mr. McCormack: They do not have our type of PR.

  Mr. Gallagher: Since 1922, it has been the task of the Legislature and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, acting under legislative authority, to determine arrangements for administering elections in Ireland. In this, the Oireachtas is accountable to the people and the Minister is accountable to this House.

Conscious of our responsibilities to the people and to the electoral process, the amended motion supports the continued preparations being made for the full implementation of electronic voting and counting. Others have made it clear that they do not support this project. That is their privilege. However, final responsibility in this matter must and will be exercised democratically by these Houses.

The Opposition has sought to suggest that this project has suddenly appeared out of nowhere, but this is simply not true. The subject of electronic voting and counting has been in the public domain for many years and it has been debated extensively in the Oireachtas. The Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 specifically provided for the examination of manual ballot papers from the 1999 local elections for the purpose of research into electronic voting. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 provided for a statutory basis for the introduction of the new system. The matter has been the subject of many parliamentary questions. Voluminous design and test documentation have been made publicly available and a number of briefing sessions have been arranged for political parties.

  Mr. Durkan: By whom?

  Mr. Gallagher: With regard to experts, the approach of the Opposition is interesting. It could be best summed up as complete admiration and acceptance of the views of system opponents——

[606]   Mr. Allen: Baloney.

  Mr. Gallagher: ——and, at the same time, a casual dismissal of the expert views of six independent test institutes and companies whose professional reputations rest on their certification of the system.

  Mr. Durkan: There was €4 million for consultants to sell it.

  Mr. Gallagher: After the elections in 2002, 80% of voters surveyed found the voting machine easy to use and 87% of voters questioned said they preferred the electronic voting system to the paper ballot.

Electronic voting and counting is a welcome modernisation of our electoral process. It reflects a broader process of modernisation and an expectation that democratic processes should keep pace with other progressive developments in society. I look forward to its successful implementation at the European and local elections in June.

  Mr. McCormack: The people will not allow it.

  Mr. Stagg: I wish to share time with Deputy Allen.

I thank the Fine Gael Party for making time available to me. I never believed there was a strong case for the introduction of electronic voting. My philosophy is that if something is not broken, it does not need fixing.

The old manual system of voting has served us well. If there was a downside, it was that in certain close contests counts and recounts could take a considerable length of time. The only people discommoded by that were the politicians. There was no indication that the public had a problem with long counts and every indication that they enjoyed them. The traditional system of voting was open, transparent and well understood by the people. It had a high level of visibility that voters found safe and reassuring. The voter marked the ballot paper and physically placed it in the ballot box. At the close of polls the voter could watch the ballot box being sealed and, at the count centre the next morning, being opened, the votes being sorted and distributed, the bundles being made, the spoiled votes being adjudicated upon, the counts being totted and the results being announced. All this was done in the presence of the media, the candidates and their representatives and in full view of the tallymen. My constituency colleague, the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, must be getting old or tired. He has organised the all-party tally in Kildare for many years with great accuracy, and now he seeks to end it. What is the reason for that?

There is no case for abandoning the old, reliable voting system. The mad rush to the exclusive use of an untried system of electronic voting was a misguided attempt to show off to our international neighbours. The attitude was that it [607] would impress the Yanks and the Brits. If they were determined to proceed with this project, there was an obligation on Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats to get it right. Instead, the approach of the Government has been characterised by a shocking level of bumbling and incompetence. The partial climb-down represented by the amendment before the House confirms this.

The Taoiseach's position on whether a ministerial order was required to permit the use of electronic voting in the European and local elections changed by the day and sometimes it changed within the same day. He now belatedly acknowledges that primary legislation will be required, something the Labour Party has pointed out over the past six weeks. We are told the new legislation will provide for the establishment of an independent panel to verify the secrecy and accuracy of arrangements for electronic voting. However, the panel will be appointed in advance of enactment of the legislation. Presumably, the independent panel will be appointed by the Government and presumably the process will be as independent as that which led to the contract for the promotional campaign for e-voting being awarded to people closely associated with the Fianna Fáil Party.

Nowhere in the amendment is there an attempt to address the serious questions about the reliability and security of the electronic voting system we are preparing to use. These questions have been put forward by a range of independent computer and software experts. They are supporters of the wider use of computers and they have no axe to grind. It would be an act of folly to disregard what they say.

There is an irrefutable case for deferring plans for the use of electronic voting in these elections. It would give time for a considered approach to this issue, with all potential problems being examined and dealt with. If we are to proceed to an electronic voting system, the minimum requirement is a voter verifiable system that will leave a paper trail which can subsequently be manually checked and counted. If every lotto machine in the country can do it, it can surely be accommodated in the proposed voting system too. If the Government presses ahead with the use of an electoral system in which the people have no confidence, it will do yet more damage to our democratic system. I will quote briefly from a letter we all received today from an electronics expert.

Computers are excellent tools and fix many problems but they are prone to error because they are created and programmed by humans. Furthermore, the source code that makes computers tick can be frightfully complex and vulnerable to misuse without strict controls. I believe this issue to be a genuinely dangerous one for all politicians and their constituents. [608] Please tread very carefully if you don't want to be seen to be undermining our very democracy.

  Mr. Allen: There is a programme on RTE radio entitled “What If”. It brings together expert analysts to discuss what if different decisions had been made at key times in Irish history.

I wonder whether in years to come a “What If” programme will be made about the extension of electronic voting to the local and European elections. The “what if” in that situation would ask what if the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, had constructively engaged with the Committee on the Environment and Local Government which examined this issue last November and December. What if he had not effectively railroaded the committee into a decision endorsing his plans? What if he and his officials had engaged in an open, active and vigorous debate with Opposition parties and technical experts who have expressed reservations about their plans? If that engagement and dialogue had taken place, we might not be in the position we are in now.

We have listened to the Minister, Deputy Cullen, for weeks telling us to trust him and that everything is in order. As late as last Monday night, we heard the Taoiseach say that he had seen no hard evidence that there was a problem with the system. Now, thanks to the combined efforts of Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party and to the articulate external independent experts, some of whom are in the Visitors Gallery, who have taken this issue to the airwaves, we are slowly bringing the Government to a point where they realise that the Minister got it badly wrong last December.

I have been a member of Dáil Éireann for 23 years and, in all that time, I have only once experienced the type of arrogance displayed by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as he tries to introduce electronic voting. I suspect that if the Minister were in the country now, he would similarly have railroaded his Cabinet colleagues into a “no surrender” policy. However, we did get a limited climbdown by the Government yesterday. However, that poses as many questions as it answers.

The insincerity of the Government in announcing an independent panel at this stage is astounding. We are told that an ad hoc committee will be set up and that a statutorily based panel will follow at a later date. There should be no ad hoc approach to the running of elections. This exercise has exemplified the ad hoc approach and been full of indecision and Government bungling. It is hypocritical of the Government to continue to roll out electronic voting and to insist on having no voter-verified paper audit trail while at the same time the independent panel is supposed to deliberate over the integrity of the system.

[609] I do not claim to be an information technology expert but, since this issue has become topical, I have received many e-mails and phone calls from IT professionals expressing their concerns at the way in which the Government is proceeding. For example, one individual has told me that the Food and Drug Administration, FDA, in the United States will not allow the use of an Access database by firms seeking authorisation from it due to issues of verifiability and audit trail. However, the counting software being used in the Minister's system is based on Access. Why is Access not reliable enough for the FDA but good enough to count our votes?

I am not in a position to resolve all these technical questions, but we need to have them resolved. The best way of doing that is to ask an independent electoral commission to do the necessary work. There is a precedent for establishing an electoral commission. India has one and there the commissioner has the status of a Supreme Court judge. Canada established one under its 1920 Dominion Elections Act and that commissioner has the same status.

The Government's intransigence and arrogance has breached the trust between Government and voter. We are not Luddites. Fine Gael accepts the principle of electronic voting, but we insist on the best available system for casting and counting our votes. The Minister for Finance made a speech in this debate in which he used adjectives like “insidious”, “unworthy”, “diabolical” and “appalling”. These comments were over the top. They demonstrate the thin ice on which the Government is skating with regard to electronic voting.

So far, the climbdown on electronic voting has all the hallmarks of delaying tactics by the Government until it is too late to use the paper based system. It is a cynical attempt to deflect from a flawed system. The introduction of an electronic voting system must be managed only by an independent statutorily based electoral commission and must include a verifiable paper audit trail. We must also ensure that the 41 questions posed at the Oireachtas committee on 18 December 2003 by computer experts are answered by the Minister and his officials.

Confidence in the voting system is the bedrock of democracy and anything that diminishes or damages that confidence should be avoided. Serious concerns have been raised regarding the proposed electronic voting system and I do not understand the Taoiseach's statement, to which I referred earlier, which suggests that he is ignorant of the fact that a major report submitted to the Committee on the Environment and Local Government on 18 December contained 41 questions. Those questions were passed to the Secretary General of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who undertook to engage with the experts to answer the questions within the briefest interval. Two months later, the questions have not been answered.

The critical all-party consensus that was promised with the introduction of legislation to cater for the change to electronic voting has been [610] cynically dumped in favour of ramming through a system that has fundamental question marks about its transparency and accountability and which has lost the faith of all the major political parties and, most importantly, the public.

The condescending attitude manifesting itself in the advertising for electronic voting — pressing buttons — is doing damage to the credibility of the future introduction of electronic voting. The campaign has been marred by partisan leaflets and website demonstrations of voting options and will do little to aid public confidence in the concept of electronic voting, especially a system that is being presented to the public by a company over which there are major question marks concerning how it obtained the contract.

The Fine Gael leader, Deputy Kenny, asked questions about the awarding of the contract.

  Mr. McCormack: They were not answered.

  Mr. Allen: I submitted a freedom of information request to the Department on the matter some time ago and I would like answers on how that contract was awarded.

Electronic voting cannot proceed in June and the sooner the Government accepts this, the sooner it can spend the PR money on extra voter registration and turnout campaigns. The system is fundamentally flawed and for the Government to put democracy in the hands of a private firm should concern any democrat. What course can we take if something goes wrong? The only solution of which I can think is that the political leadership in this country would have to take responsibility. That means the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach must have the courage to admit that his Minister has made a mistake in proposing this system. This was followed by Cabinet's mistake of accepting the system without it having gone through an independent electoral commission. It is up to the Taoiseach to make the decision. Be it on his head alone if this system is introduced and fails to register the full democratic will of the people. The Taoiseach has long shirked responsibility. However, in this instance, the buck stops with him and him only.

This matter is about public confidence and public trust. If the Government cannot see that it is losing the trust of the voting public on this, its members are even more remote in their Mercs than we feared. The present electronic voting system is not transparent enough to ensure the integrity of our democratic rights, and trying to get answers to questions on the proposed system is like pulling teeth.

The Government must think its partial climb down has got it off the hook on which the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, has so painfully impaled it. However, I assure it that we will not let this issue rest. We will maintain our demands that these elections be suspended until an independent electoral commission has had an opportunity to review all the processes involved.

We insist on an independent verifiable paper audit trail. We further insist that the source code issue be addressed. The Minister should make a [611] statement on whether trials and tests have yet been finalised on the software in regard to counting. It is ironic that vast amounts of public money have been spent on a system that has not [612] been proven. The taxpayer and the public in general are being taken for a ride.

Amendment put.

The Dáil divided: Tá, 59; Níl, 55.

    Ahern, Michael.

    Ahern, Noel.

    Andrews, Barry.

    Ardagh, Seán.

    Aylward, Liam.

    Brady, Johnny.

    Brady, Martin.

    Brennan, Seamus.

    Browne, John.

    Callanan, Joe.

    Callely, Ivor.

    Carey, Pat.

    Carty, John.

    Cregan, John.

    Curran, John.

    de Valera, Síle.

    Dempsey, Tony.

    Dennehy, John.

    Ellis, John.

    Fitzpatrick, Dermot.

    Fox, Mildred.

    Gallagher, Pat The Cope.

    Glennon, Jim.

    Grealish, Noel.

    Hanafin, Mary.

    Hoctor, Máire.

    Jacob, Joe.

    Keaveney, Cecilia.

    Kelleher, Billy.

    Kelly, Peter.

    Killeen, Tony.

    Kirk, Seamus.

    Lenihan, Brian.

    McCreevy, Charlie.

    McGuinness, John.

    Moloney, John.

    Moynihan, Donal.

    Moynihan, Michael.

    Nolan, M. J.

    Ó Cuív, Éamon.

    Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.

    O'Connor, Charlie.

    O'Dea, Willie.

    O'Donnell, Liz.

    O'Donovan, Denis.

    O'Flynn, Noel.

    O'Malley, Fiona.

    O'Malley, Tim.

    Parlon, Tom.

    Power, Peter.

    Power, Seán.

    Roche, Dick.

    Smith, Brendan.

    Smith, Michael.

    Wallace, Mary.

    Walsh, Joe.

    Wilkinson, Ollie.

    Woods, Michael.

    Wright, G. V.

Níl

    Allen, Bernard.

    Boyle, Dan.

    Breen, James.

    Breen, Pat.

    Broughan, Thomas P.

    Bruton, Richard.

    Burton, Joan.

    Connaughton, Paul.

    Connolly, Paudge.

    Costello, Joe.

    Coveney, Simon.

    Cowley, Jerry.

    Crawford, Seymour.

    Crowe, Seán.

    Cuffe, Ciarán.

    Deasy, John.

    Durkan, Bernard J.

    English, Damien.

    Ferris, Martin.

    Gilmore, Eamon.

    Gogarty, Paul.

    Gormley, John.

    Harkin, Marian.

    Hayes, Tom.

    Healy, Seamus.

    Higgins, Joe.

    Higgins, Michael D.

    Hogan, Phil.

    Howlin, Brendan.

    Kehoe, Paul.

    Lynch, Kathleen.

    McCormack, Padraic.

    McGrath, Finian.

    McGrath, Paul.

    McHugh, Paddy.

    McManus, Liz.

    Morgan, Arthur.

    Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.

    Neville, Dan.

    Noonan, Michael.

    Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.

    O'Sullivan, Jan.

    Pattison, Seamus.

    Penrose, Willie.

    Perry, John.

    Rabbitte, Pat.

    Ryan, Eamon.

    Ryan, Seán.

    Sargent, Trevor.

    Sherlock, Joe.

    Shortall, Róisín.

    Stagg, Emmet.

    Timmins, Billy.

    Upton, Mary.

    Wall, Jack.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Hanafin and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Durkan and Stagg.

Amendment declared carried.

[613]

[614] Question put: “That the motion, as amended, be agreed to.”

The Dáil divided by electronic means.

  Mr. Durkan: Since the issue in question is electronic voting versus manual voting, as a teller on the most recent vote, under Standing Order 69 I propose that it be taken by other than electronic means.

  An Ceann Comhairle: As Deputy Durkan is a Whip, under Standing Order 69 he is entitled to call a vote through the lobby.

Question again put: “That the motion, as amended, be agreed to.”

The Dáil divided: Tá, 59; Níl, 53.

    Ahern, Michael.

    Ahern, Noel.

    Andrews, Barry.

    Ardagh, Seán.

    Aylward, Liam.

    Brady, Johnny.

    Brady, Martin.

    Brennan, Seamus.

    Browne, John.

    Callanan, Joe.

    Callely, Ivor.

    Carey, Pat.

    Carty, John.

    Cregan, John.

    Curran, John.

    de Valera, Síle.

    Dempsey, Tony.

    Dennehy, John.

    Ellis, John.

    Fitzpatrick, Dermot.

    Fox, Mildred.

    Gallagher, Pat The Cope.

    Glennon, Jim.

    Grealish, Noel.

    Hanafin, Mary.

    Hoctor, Máire.

    Jacob, Joe.

    Keaveney, Cecilia.

    Kelleher, Billy.

    Kelly, Peter.

    Killeen, Tony.

    Kirk, Seamus.

    Lenihan, Brian.

    McCreevy, Charlie.

    McGuinness, John.

    Moloney, John.

    Moynihan, Donal.

    Moynihan, Michael.

    Nolan, M. J.

    Ó Cuív, Éamon.

    Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.

    O'Connor, Charlie.

    O'Dea, Willie.

    O'Donnell, Liz.

    O'Donovan, Denis.

    O'Flynn, Noel.

    O'Malley, Fiona.

    O'Malley, Tim.

    Parlon, Tom.

    Power, Peter.

    Power, Seán.

    Roche, Dick.

    Smith, Brendan.

    Smith, Michael.

    Wallace, Mary.

    Walsh, Joe.

    Wilkinson, Ollie.

    Woods, Michael.

    Wright, G. V.

Níl

    Allen, Bernard.

    Boyle, Dan.

    Breen, James.

    Breen, Pat.

    Broughan, Thomas P.

    Bruton, Richard.

    Burton, Joan.

    Connaughton, Paul.

    Connolly, Paudge.

    Costello, Joe.

    Coveney, Simon.

    Cowley, Jerry.

    Crawford, Seymour.

    Crowe, Seán.

    Cuffe, Ciarán.

    Deasy, John.

    Durkan, Bernard J.

    English, Damien.

    Ferris, Martin.

    Gilmore, Eamon.

    Gogarty, Paul.

    Gormley, John.

    Harkin, Marian.

    Hayes, Tom.

    Healy, Seamus.

    Higgins, Joe.

    Higgins, Michael D.

    Hogan, Phil.

    Howlin, Brendan.

    Kehoe, Paul.

    Lynch, Kathleen.

    McCormack, Padraic.

    McGrath, Finian.

    McGrath, Paul.

    McManus, Liz.

    Morgan, Arthur.

    Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.

    Neville, Dan.

    Noonan, Michael.

    Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.

    O'Sullivan, Jan.

    Pattison, Seamus.

    Penrose, Willie.

    Perry, John.

    Rabbitte, Pat.

    Ryan, Seán.

    Sargent, Trevor.

    Sherlock, Joe.

    [615] Shortall, Róisín.

    Stagg, Emmet.

    Timmins, Billy.

    Upton, Mary.

    Wall, Jack.

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Hanafin and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Durkan and Stagg.

Question declared carried.