Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill fulfils the undertaking of the amended motion passed by Dáil Éireann on 18 February, to apply electronic voting to non-Dáil elections by primary legislation; establish an independent commission to report on the secrecy and accuracy of the arrangements proposed for electronic voting; provide for more explicit arrangements regarding abstention from voting; and set out conditions under which tally data may be made available from the electronic voting system to interested parties.

The Oireachtas has been dealing with arrangements to prepare for electronic voting from as far back as 1999. In the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999, authority was given to my Department to obtain ballot papers used at the local elections for the purpose of research relating to the introduction of electronic voting and counting. In February 2000, my predecessor announced that the Government had agreed to the introduction of electronic voting and counting at statutory elections and to the drafting of the necessary legislation. Subject to satisfactory procurement of the system and to the thorough testing of its hardware and software components, it was also stated at that time that the Government would consider using the new voting equipment at the 2002 general election and nationwide at the European and local elections of 2004.

The fundamental purpose of electronic voting is to improve the efficiency, accuracy and user-friendliness of Irish election procedures. At the core of this is the objective of guaranteeing every voter that his or her vote will not be rejected because of inadvertent errors. The democratic wastage associated with spoilt votes numbered more than 20,000 at the 2002 general election, more than 24,000 at the 1999 local elections and some 46,500 at the previous European election. It is estimated, and this is a conservative figure and that at least 95% of those invalid ballot papers were inadvertently spoiled. I believe that every true democrat should view tackling this issue not as an option but as a priority. Every vote should be counted accurately and every mandate should reflect the exact intent of those who have taken the time to participate. This is what the new system will achieve.

During the first four years of debate on the topic, the Opposition took a different approach to the issue. Those were the days when the people now attacking me for going too far, too fast accused my predecessor of not going far enough and doing it too slowly. Those were the days when Opposition Deputies wanted to move on to Internet voting and they called us timid. Those were the days when the new system could be used over 400,000 times by the Irish electorate and was given very high marks by Opposition candidates. Today the Opposition is calling us reckless radicals.

That was before the Minister suppressed a report on the security of the system.

During this debate it could very well be that the Opposition will take a constructive approach, eschew conspiracy theories and be reasoned and temperate. Unfortunately, we now live in an era of total opposition where no charge can be hyped enough and Deputies opposite feel no need to show any restraint or perspective. So be it, but I hope the Opposition will spare us the cynicism of its line that the Government is somehow damaging public faith in the electoral process.

Will the Minister consult and not lecture us?

The Deputy will have an opportunity to contribute shortly.

It is the Opposition itself which has used this issue to launch a political attack with no objective other than damaging public faith in the electoral process. Its behaviour has been like a person who throws rubbish on the ground and then complains that the place is getting very dirty these days. I also hope that we will be spared another outbreak of Rabbitte disease where Deputies make wild allegations and refuse to back them up. The master himself was at it when he said that Fianna Fáil would try to subvert results. Forgetting the fact that Ministers from their own parties have been in the same electoral position as I hold in my party, I have been accused of being at the epicentre of a wild conspiracy. Some Deputies have been more active than ever in hiding behind parliamentary privilege. The performance of one Fine Gael Deputy in casually slandering an eminent judge, while this was later withdrawn, showed just how far things have gone.

Before getting into technical details concerning the background to the Bill and its provisions, I emphasise one point. Following the introduction of the new system, exactly the same people who have always run our elections will continue to run our elections.

That is not so.

I hope Deputies will have the good grace and honesty in this debate to acknowledge this and not to try to compare our chosen system with fundamentally different ones used in parts of the United States. The new system is also about more than just improving election procedures by the use of modern technology. By modernising and transforming elections in a visible way——

On a point of order, are Members who say Deputies who legitimately question issues are dishonest protected by parliamentary privilege? If I call the Minister a liar, I have to withdraw it, but he is accusing the Opposition of being dishonest.

That is not a point of order, Deputy.

The Minister has no argument, this is purely——

Allow the Minister to continue. Deputies will have an opportunity to contribute.

The Minister is waffling. I wish to call a quorum.

The Minister has a difficult enough job.

We can see the way the day will go, but I am not surprised.

I am not surprised at the Minister's arrogance.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

By modernising and transforming elections in a visible way, we seek to create an opportunity to tackle voter apathy and improve the image of elections, especially for an increasingly young electorate.

As well as permitting electronic voting at Dáil elections, the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 provided for the application of the new system to elections to the European Parliament, the Presidency and local authorities and to referendums. The method of applying the new system to non-Dáil elections was, however, indirect and derived from the primary provisions of the 2001 Act on Dáil elections.

Section 48 of the 2001 Act provides that the provisions of the Act for electronic voting at Dáil elections may be extended to other elections by way of ministerial orders to be laid before both Houses. Such orders could be used to make any necessary modifications or adaptations to the codes, subject to the application of the principles of the 2001 Act. Following the judgment in the recent Mulcreevy case, the Government decided to apply the provisions of the 2001 Act to other elections and referenda through primary legislation rather than ministerial orders as envisaged by section 48. This decision was taken out of respect for the significance of the electoral process and to avoid any doubt. Fulfilment of this aim is the essential purpose of Part 2 and Schedules 1 to 4 of the Bill.

Part 3 provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of the independent commission on electronic voting, the task of which is to prepare a report on the secrecy and accuracy of the Powervote-Nedap system. In view of the urgency of its work, the commission has already been established and is operating on a non-statutory,ad hoc basis. Part 4 deals with miscellaneous provisions, including the conditions for authorising the release of tally information after the conclusion of an election.

As I have stated, the introduction of electronic voting has been in preparation for a considerable time. The project has been in the public domain since 1999 when it featured in the first of two separate Bills. Electronic voting has been the subject of Adjournment debates, detailed consideration by the Joint Committee on Environment, Heritage and Local Government and numerous parliamentary questions. The system has been debated on radio, television and in the print media. It has been demonstrated to the public, political parties, members of the media, election candidates and local authority associations. The successful use of the system in three constituencies during the 2002 general election was widely covered by the media.

Following an international open procurement process, the Powervote-Nedap system was chosen as the most suitable and cost effective solution for Irish electoral conditions. This robust and proven system has been used extensively in elections in the Netherlands for more than ten years and in some German cities since 1998. It is based on a bespoke electronic voting machine, developed solely for the purpose of running elections, which has been refined and improved over its years of use. The lay-out of the voting machine panel facilitates holding multiple polls simultaneously. This is a necessary feature given the nature of Irish elections. All ballot papers are visible to the voter who is not required to switch screens or scroll through pages to see all candidates as might be the case with personal computer based touch-screen systems.

The electronic system was favourably endorsed by 93% of voters surveyed after the last general election and preferred to the old manual system by 87%. Following this success, the Government in June 2002 approved the use of the system in seven constituencies for the referendum which took place in October 2002. This use of the system was also very successful. The Government confirmed in October 2002 its earlier stated intention to extend the use of the system countrywide on the occasion of the June 2004 European and local elections. This position was communicated transparently and received by political parties and the media without controversy.

I stress that the electronic voting system is secure, reliable and can be trusted by the people. It has been in use for more than ten years throughout the Netherlands, which has a population of more than 16 million, for some years in a number of German cities, in pilots in the UK and in two polls in this country. More recently, the system has received general approval from the French Government for use in elections. It has been used successfully in Brest. The Governments, opposition parties and peoples of these countries do not operate insecure or unreliable electoral systems. Their democracies have not been damaged or diminished through the use of electronic voting and counting. No such risk exists in relation to the operation of electronic voting in Ireland.

The voting machine hardware and software have been rigorously tested on two separate occasions. First, before the pilot use of the system in 2002 and, again, last year following some modifications to the voting machine to make it easier for voters to use and the addition of further security features. The German institute for science and technology, PTB, specifically tested the voting machine to ensure that the votes cast on a ballot paper are stored correctly in the ballot module. The institute has certified that the system carries out the recording and storage of votes correctly.

We should acknowledge the considerable imperfections of the paper-based voting system. Anyone who has attended counts knows that errors are unavoidable under the old system. We should be clear that the flaws in our current system almost certainly impact on the results of elections. During the most recent local elections, 24,000 people had their votes disallowed. This was overwhelmingly due to inadvertent errors such as the occurrence of indistinct numerals or the failure to properly stamp ballots. At the same time, 40 councillors were returned with differences of less than 50 votes. In Borris-in-Ossory, where ballots had been ruled out due to simple human errors, there was a tie for the final seat. In Ferbane, more than 300 votes were ruled out because a presiding officer had failed to stamp the ballots. On the same day, more than 46,500 votes were ruled out in the European elections. Anyone who has been at a close recount has seen ballots held up to the light to check if the paper had been fully perforated. In the 21st century, there must be a better way of doing things. Every vote should be counted accurately and every mandate should reflect the exact intent of those who have taken the time to participate in an election. This is what the new system will achieve.

In the development of the electronic voting system for use in Ireland, the security and integrity of the electoral system have been of paramount importance. The system incorporates security and audit features at all stages from initial set-up of a poll to the production of the count result. The system has also been benchmarked with the five objectives of integrity, confidentiality, enfranchisement, availability and verifiability. The integrity test seeks to ensure that preferences and votes are recorded and counted as intended. It should not be possible to add, modify or delete votes during the poll and vote counting stages. The voting machine software has been tested by PTB, which is an independent internationally accredited testing institute in Germany. Its report has confirmed that the voting machine software complies with the requirements and that any attempted interference with the ballot module in the voting machine will be detected.

The voting machine incorporates physical security features to prevent tampering during polling day and it will be rigorously supervised and securely maintained before polling day and throughout polling hours. The physical components of the voting machine and programming unit have also been successfully tested by a separate international testing institute, TNO Electronic Products and Services, in the Netherlands. The software for the election set-up and vote counting has been subject to an architectural and code review by an independent Irish software company which had access to the source code. The application of the count rules by the software has been further functionally tested by the Electoral Reform Society in the UK. The society confirmed recently that each of 2,807 cases tested was successful.

According to the confidentiality aim, it should not be possible to associate a vote with a voter, duplicate a vote or view the results before the close of poll. There is no link between the marked register of electors and voting on the voting machine. Votes recorded on the voting machine are stored randomly in the ballot module. This was tested by PTB, which stated in its report that each of the votes stored in a module in the voting machine could not be associated with particular voters. The system's software further randomises the votes at constituency level after all votes have been read into the system and before the counting of votes commences.

The enfranchisement objective means each eligible voter should be able to vote only once. Access to the voting machine will be strictly controlled by the polling station staff. The number of people accessing the voting machine can be audited at any time during the day by checking the number of voters marked off the register of electors, the number of permit tickets issued and the number of voters who have used the machine.

When a voter presses the "cast vote" button and the vote is stored, the voting machine automatically deactivates itself until the polling staff activate it for the next voter. These procedures functioned perfectly when the system was used on two occasions in 2002.

Was there a recount?

The fourth aspect — availability — requires that the system must be operational throughout the voting period. The voting machines will be available for use for the polling hours appointed for the poll or polls in question. There will be a voting machine to replace every ballot box, with spare voting machines on standby on the off chance that a machine develops a fault or for use at the busy period in buildings with a large number of polling stations. Arrangements have been made to provide battery power back-up in the event of a power failure.

Will that be a dry battery like in the old days? I hope the Minister has his batteries charged.

Deputy Durkan should allow the Minister to continue without interruption.

Do not forget that the small system we have here failed to work on three or four occasions.

Deputy Durkan will have an opportunity to make a contribution.

There is no point in responding to the nonsense emanating from the other side of the House.

Is the Minister saying that everyone who disagrees with him is wrong?

The verifiability objective provides that the key functions should be able to be verified. The various test reports on the voting machine and software confirm that the voting machine and associated software are fit for the purpose intended. If an independent internationally accredited testing institute certifies that a product or software is fit for the intended purpose, it is not unreasonable that such certification be accepted. This has occurred with the system to be used in this country and elsewhere.

Some opponents now argue that this system must be validated by a paper trail. They are flying in the face of international practice with electronic voting. In common with electoral authorities in a wide range of countries, my Department does not consider that the addition of a printed ballot paper to accompany the electronically stored vote would improve the administration of elections.

Will the Minister give way?

I will not.

I am not surprised.

Electoral authorities have the practical responsibility of ensuring that conditions are in place on national polling days to allow millions of voters to exercise their franchise quickly and without problem. The authorities must also ensure that the possibility of breakdowns and confusion are minimised.

The addition of a printed ballot paper to the electronic voting and counting system would greatly increase the risks to the smooth running of elections.

The Minister might get found out.

The Deputy will no longer be able to claim that he knows who votes for him.

The purpose of the exercise is to cloud the issue.

I understand that similar considerations have dissuaded other administrations that use electronic voting machines from adding on a paper ballot. The limited adoption and subsequent abandonment of this approach in Brazil and Belgium are the exceptions that prove the rule. The add-on of a paper ballot would restrict the optimum deployment of an efficient electronic voting and counting system.

Members must consider the practical implementation of such a process running in tandem with an electronic voting system. The idea that a paper receipting process can validate an electronic voting system is highly questionable and creates many practical difficulties. Its introduction could lead to confusion and disruption in the practical conditions of an election in a number of ways. First, it would create a dual system of vote storage and counting. This could encourage candidates, on a more widespread basis than now, to seek a paper recount of a poll in the hope of improving their position. A dual system would also enable every voter to put in question the accuracy and validity of his or her electronically cast vote. The facility of re-checking a cast vote has never been provided to voters under the paper ballot system, even where a voter has second thoughts or realises an unintended mistake in his or her preferences.

The ballot paper is always visible.

Paper trail proponents offer no advice on how the proposed right for every voter to question the electronically cast vote can, in practical terms, be accommodated at busy polling stations, or how presiding officers should adjudicate on claimed discrepancies between the paper and electronically cast votes.

The paper trail notion is premised on the uninterrupted and proper functioning of a printer throughout the 14 or 15 hour continuous period of polling. The risk of printer interruption, including that of poor or unreadable print quality, is a real one and certainly higher than that of malfunction of an electronic storage system. In an arrangement that demands parallel paper and electronic storage systems, any failure or malfunction of the paper storage system puts into question the individual voting transaction. Difficulties with the printer function at a pilot project in Waasghoot, Belgium, in May 2003 caused this approach to be abandoned. Furthermore, supporters of a paper trail in Ireland have provided no research evidence on the interface of this system with users or voters. This would be a reasonable expectation given the potential problems for users. By contrast, the Department's customer survey of the proposed electronic system shows that 87% of voters surveyed after the 2002 general election preferred the electronic system to the paper ballot.

It is worth noting that there is strong and serious opposition to the paper trail idea in the United States. The Help America Vote Act group, led by senior US lawmakers, has recently expressed concern about the movement towards the provision of a voter-verified paper record which it feels will undermine disability and language minority access requirements and could result in more, rather than less, voter disenfranchisement and error. According to the group, the mandating of a voter-verified paper record would: "take the most advanced generations of election technologies and systems available and reduce them to little more than ballot printers ... and would likely give rise to numerous adverse unintended consequences". Moreover, the group maintains that the proposal for a paper trail: "would do nothing to ensure greater trust in vote tabulations but would be guaranteed to impose steep costs on states and localities and introduce new complications into the voting process".

In any event, the Nedap-Powervote system incorporates an important form of audit trail. If there is an election petition, the High Court, or Circuit Court in the case of a local election, can require the system to print a ballot paper for each vote cast after the mixing of the ballot. This will enable a manual count to be conducted to confirm that the count rules have been properly applied.

In introducing electronic voting, the Government is conscious of need to make continuous service improvements to the operation of the system. For example, after the successful pilots, modifications were made to the voting machine to increase the visibility and legibility of the preference display.

I am including in the Bill for the provision of tally information by returning officers following the holding of a poll. While tally information has been provided in past elections, it was largely done on an unofficial basis. The introduction of the electronic voting and counting system means that if tally information is to be made available, this must be provided for in electoral law. The new system also has the capacity to furnish electoral patterns and more detailed information with 100% accuracy. Consequently, we must ensure that, in whatever manner such data are made available, it does not violate or infringe the secrecy of the ballot. This is a fundamental constitutional obligation that must be respected.

However, taking these considerations into account, it is envisaged that specified percentages of votes from an electoral unit, such as on an electoral area basis or part thereof, could provide valuable information without revealing the vote of any individual elector. My Department is working closely with the Office of the Attorney General to consider the options and to set out the requirements and conditions whereby such information could be made available, while protecting the privacy of individual voters. The precise arrangements for the tally information will be set out in appropriate regulations under section 29.

Just as with the old paper ballot system, the electronic voting process is designed to facilitate the voter to cast his or her vote in a secret and completely secure manner. Polling staff who operate the voting machine control unit are not permitted to approach the voting machine to activate or deactivate it. They can perform their functions remotely using the control unit. When the poll clerk activates the voting machine for a voter, the voter can record preferences for those polls on which he or she is eligible to vote. Once the voter has checked the preferences displayed on the panel of the voting machine, the voter can then press the "cast vote" button, whereupon the voting machine display and control unit will confirm that the vote has been stored properly and the machine will be deactivated by the polling staff. If the voter wishes to record preferences on one or more of the ballot papers while leaving another poll blank, the voting machine will enable that vote to be cast and will register the blank ballot as a null vote. This gives voters the option to not record preferences on one or more of the ballot papers but to register their vote on the others open to them.

Those who decide to go to a polling station but not to vote may have their names marked off the register of electors and be authorised to use the voting machine. Where the person leaves the voting machine without pressing the "Cast Vote" button, the polling station staff will de-activate the voting machine before the next prospective voter uses the machine. This is done by use of a key on the control unit with no need to communicate with the person who has left without voting or to approach the voting panel itself. The abstentionist voter is neither advised nor required to communicate in any manner with the poll clerk if he or she does not wish to press the "Cast Vote" button. The voting machine records the number of such failures to press the "Cast Vote" button and this will be published as part of the election statistics.

I intend that the provisions of the Bill, and of accompanying guidelines to be made under it, will make these arrangements clear and that reasonable provision will be made to ensure the privacy of all persons using electronic voting, including those who come to the voting machine but do not exercise their vote. Having said this, I believe, as I am sure do all members of this House, that voting at free elections should ideally be seen as both a right and a duty of Irish citizens.

I now turn to some of the detailed provisions of the Bill. Part 1 contains a number of general provisions. Section 2 provides for offences concerning unlawful interference or damage to voting machines and other related equipment including software used for the voting system equipment, while section 3 provides for the repeal of section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, which will be replaced by Part 2 of the Bill and Schedules 1 to 4.

Part 2 and Schedules 1 to 4 of the Bill enable the use of voting machines and electronic vote counting at statutory European Parliament, local and presidential elections as well as at referendums. The text is generally the same as that provided for in Part 3 of the 2001 Act which deals with Dáil elections but is adapted as necessary for the other three types of elections and referendums.

Under section 5(1) electronic voting may only be undertaken on voting system equipment approved for such purpose by ministerial order under Part 3 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001. In addition, the Minister must decide whether to make a further ministerial order under section 5(3) of the Bill, based on considerations of public interest, so as to designate particular constituencies or all constituencies for electronic voting at an election or referendum.

Section 5 also provides that the Minister may issue instructions to ensure the smooth and efficient introduction of voting machines and vote counting and uniformity of procedures under this part. This is normal and has always been the position. Sections 6 and 7 provide for the modification of certain provisions of the Presidential Elections Act 1993, Referendum Act 1994, European Parliament Elections Act 1997 and Local Elections Regulations 1995 to enable voting on voting machines and electronic vote counting at the elections and referendums concerned.

Part 3 provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of the Commission on Electronic Voting to consider the secrecy and accuracy of use of the system for the elections in June 2004 and to make recommendations in that regard, including the application or not — as everybody wants and with which I have no difficulty — of the system.

Section 17 provides for the continuation of the independent Commission on Electronic Voting constituted by the Government prior to the Bill and for the continuation in office of its chairman and other members. Section 18 provides specifically that the commission is independent in the performance of its functions under the Bill. The terms of reference given to the commission are set out in Schedule 5. These envisage a first report from the commission to the Ceann Comhairle by 1 May 2004 together with a subsequent report or reports.

Section 19 sets out the membership of the commission. The members comprise a judge of the High Court, who is chairperson, the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad and two other persons with knowledge or experience in the field of information technology. Sections 20 to 28 provide for the usual different functional aspects of the commission relating to such matters as expenses, staffing, submissions, vacancies etc. as outlined in the explanatory memorandum. Under section 22 the commission will present its reports to the Ceann Comhairle who will have them laid before both Houses.

Part 4 has four sections providing for some miscellaneous matters. Section 29 provides that the Minister may by regulations provide for the provision by the presiding officer of election and referendum information after the conclusion of a count, provided such information shall not endanger the secrecy of the ballot. This is the provision designed to authorise release of data analogous to the former tallyman system.

Section 30 provides for consequential amendments dealing with the form of ballot paper at a Dáil election for use on the voting machine. Section 31 makes textual amendments to the personation section of the Electoral Act 1992 when voting machines are used. Arising from concerns, I will also be introducing an amendment on Committee Stage to provide that it will be an offence to make improper use of polling information cards.

Section 32 provides for the repeal consequent to the Supreme Court decision in the Kelly case of part of paragraph 2(a) of the Schedule to the Electoral Act 1997, which deals with the use of property, services or facilities paid for out of public funds at a presidential election, which were exempt election expenses.

Section 33 provides for an amendment to section 61 of the Local Government Act 2001 to enable an order to be made continuing in force arrangements whereby certain local authority staff may become councillors and are not rendered ineligible for local elections in June next.

Nobody can doubt that the Opposition has a responsibility in seeking to illuminate aspects of public policy according to its own judgment. Some of the debate on this matter has been useful — much has been inaccurate, sometimes wilfully so. I have no doubt that at certain times in recent debates, Fine Gael spokespeople genuinely have not known what they were talking about.

That is something with which the Minister is familiar.

This will not have been the first time Fine Gael have looked through the wrong end of the telescope, nor I suspect will it be the last. The public, and indeed Fine Gael's own supporters, deserve a lot better — I suspect they know that already.

The move to electronic voting and counting demonstrates a progressive and modern Ireland.

Sneering becomes the Minister.

Increasingly, people use electronic means for conducting their lives and electronic interfaces between Government and citizen are becoming more commonplace. In this regard I am delighted that the on-line system for payment of motor tax is working so well. Change is part of the human condition and change in the way we vote is an inevitable part of our ever-changing world. The majority of Irish people understand and react well to change. In a different context, the smooth introduction of the euro was a recent positive experience. The electronic voting experience in Ireland to date has been a good one and I am confident that voters in the European and local elections will perceive it so on 11 June next.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I again call on the Minister to formally declare his conflict of interest in the Bill. While he is promoting the Bill, he is also doubling up as director of elections for Fianna Fáil.

The older the Deputy gets the more confused he becomes.

The Deputy should keep his hair on.

The Deputy should not encourage comment.

The Fine Gael Party knows where I stand on this issue. However, the Progressive Democrats Members did not know where the Minister stood when he did a "Judas" on its members. The Minister should not lecture me about Fine Gael members — at least they know where their representatives stand.

I have witnessed numerous elections in the democratic world, including those in Central American countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Despite reservations from many sources about the legitimacy of those elections, with colleagues from other parties, I was able to certify that their elections, particularly the one in Nicaragua, were legitimate and valid in the 1980s. Unfortunately, if the proposed electronic voting system is introduced in Ireland next June for the local and European elections and I am asked how legitimate and above board the elections were, I will be unable to give the same response which I gave about the Nicaraguan elections. There will be no proof, whatsoever. The Minister can sneer in his arrogant way.

He is laughing at the people.

That is why they threw the Minister out of the Progressive Democrats Party.

Nicaragua — is that the best the Deputy can do?

Deputy Allen has the floor and the Minister should allow him to continue.

The Minister wants to be dictator Cullen and for nobody apart from him to have a say.

Deputy Ring does not have the floor, Deputy Allen does.

I will be unable to give the same response I gave in respect of the Nicaraguan elections because there will be no proof that the intentions have been correctly registered by the voting machines. I will not be able to say for definite that the wishes of the electorate have been registered as votes by the technology within the system because of the absence of a verifiable paper audit trail and the lack of information on the source code.

This proposed system, which was arrogantly presented by the Minister and which has been jack-booted through the House, is offensive to our democracy. It does not have the trust of the people and does not have the transparency to begin to earn that trust. The Minister is like a child with a new toy that he does not want to give up. He behaved like a child this morning by engaging in name calling. Ireland is one of the most advanced countries in the world and, therefore, we should have the best available technology, not a system without proper backup.

Irish experts have disagreed with the Bill's introduction without a verifiable paper audit trail.

Not one of whom is accredited.

The Minister was unable to answer the major questions under 41 headings.

The Minister protests too much. What is wrong with him? Why does he not listen?

I know a ready-up when I see one.

The Minister knows everything. That is his problem.

The Progressive Democrats could not trust the Minister and we do not trust him.

The committee could not trust him.

The Minister is introducing the legislation without listening to independent experts. My primary concern is that the Bill is offensive to Irish democracy and to the democratic principles of trust and transparency.

I wish to make the following key points: the extension of electronic voting to the local and European elections should be suspended until a statutory independent electoral commission has been established and has addressed all the legitimate concerns of political parties and the public on this issue; there must be widespread trust in any electoral system applied because it is clear the current controversy has lead to a situation where such public trust does not exist; there is serious concern about the lack of a voter verifiable paper audit trail as part of the electronic voting process in order to be able to confirm the accuracy required of a counting system; there is serious concern that the source code of the Powervote-Nedap system is in private commercial hands; and many technical concerns raised by independent experts have not been adequately dealt with.

The supervision of elections, and in particular the introduction of electronic voting on a nationwide basis, should be the responsibility of a statutory independent electoral commission and it should not rest with those appointed by the Minister. At present, a number of bodies have an input into elections and referenda. I refer here to the Referendum Commission, the Constituency Commission, the Standards in Public Office Commission and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. My party believes that the time has come to unify these functions into a single electoral commission which can act in a way that is clearly independent of any political influence.

I wish to deal with the matter of trust, on which the Minister is not strong. Trust in the electoral process is vital. It is clear from a number of opinion surveys carried out in recent months that there is a serious lack of trust in the proposed electronic voting system. The Minister may state in simplistic terms that there is 80% approval but that is utter and total rubbish. There is approval for the mechanical process of the voting but there is no trust in what is happening with the mechanism and the technology involved. The Minister should not give us those falsified figures.

The electronic voting system was not lucky for the Deputy's party in Dublin North.

The root of the mistrust to which I refer relates directly to concerns about the secrecy and accuracy of the electronic voting system and, therefore, trust must be central to the commission's work.

The key concern about the system, which is shared by many people, is the lack of a verifiable paper audit trail. The Minister, again in a simplistic manner, dealt with that in his speech. This is an issue which many independent technical experts have highlighted and no doubt the commission will receive submissions from those experts on the technical feasibility of providing such a trail. It is Fine Gael's view that the absence of a verifiable audit trail is central to public mistrust of the proposed system. Trust in electronic transactions is rooted in the user having access to a mechanism of checking that the transaction was carried out in accordance with his or her wishes. This means that when voters cast their votes on voting machines, a permanent paper record of their votes should be made. This could then be checked by voters before the electronic record is made of the vote.

In addition to giving confidence to voters, this paper record could also be retained and used in a number of randomly-selected constituencies at each election to audit the accuracy of the electronically-prepared result, as well as any cases where a result is in dispute. It is, however, disturbing that the issue of an adequate audit trail process was raised as early at March 2002 in paragraph 4.1 of the Zerflow report, which the Minister suppressed until the Opposition demanded its publication and which was carried out on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

I am concerned that there should be public ownership of the rules for conducting the electoral process. Currently the source code for the voting system is in private commercial ownership. This is an unacceptable position and should be resolved before any election using the system is held.

I have in my possession the unedited transcripts of meetings of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government that were held on 10 and 18 December. These shameful documents make for difficult reading because what went on was similar to what the Nazis did in Germany. Jack-boot tactics were used to vote through a system against the express wishes of those who had questions about it. The committee heard from a number of external experts who raised serious concerns about the Powervote-Nedap system. It is clear from the transcripts that these debates did not reach a satisfactory conclusion and that a premature end was put to them. In my opinion, the commission might well review the transcripts of these debates and explore many of the technical issues which were raised therein. I do not understand how the commission, particularly in view of its narrow terms of reference, will be able to examine all these issues and make credible responses in respect of them by 1 May.

Since this issue has become controversial, Fine Gael has received numerous representations from individuals in the technology sector expressing their concerns. We have requested each of these individuals to make a submission directly to the commission and we know that a number have already done so.

Many of the technical issues which will come before the commission are beyond the understanding and knowledge of members of the public, politicians and, possibly, members of the commission itself. It is, however, essential that these concerns be addressed and that sufficient time and deliberation be given to this process. Fine Gael believes that the commission, if it has serious concerns about the public perception of the accuracy and secrecy of the proposed system, should be in a position to recommend that the extension of the system to the local and European elections in June should be suspended pending further consideration. The request to the commission to provide a report by 1 May should not preclude it from seeking further time for its deliberations if that is considered necessary.

The Bill before us may appear to be just technical in nature and of little significance. The truth is, however, that it is part of an effort by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and the Government to push through his electronic voting system. I say "his" because he has point blank refused to countenance any alternative system being used. His only response to anyone with a valid question comes in the form of personalised abuse. This from a Minister who failed to attend before committees and answer questions and who sent his Ministers of State to do his dirty work. The Minister took the easy option of giving soft interviews on television and radio and would not partake in the democratic system in the Houses. That is arrogance of the worst type. I have been a Member of this House since 1981. I regret to say I have not witnessed such arrogance from a Minister, with one exception, and that man has since been discredited.

Hear, hear.

I say this because the Minister has refused to countenance the use of any alternative system. His directive to the Fianna Fáil members of the Committee on the Environment and Local Government meant a premature vote was called on the suitability of this electronic system. Many questions remain unanswered, yet the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, has his own timetable to work to. He wanted to commit the necessary money in December before any impediment could be put in his way. He jack-booted the decision through on 18 December and the contract was signed within 24 to 48 hours. That contract, committing taxpayers' money for many machines already in the country, was signed and the committee was forced to terminate its deliberations by weight of numbers.

We were once told by former Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, that a commitment on the introduction of electronic voting would have cross-party support. That commitment has been grossly dishonoured by a Minister of this Government. In a democracy, a person's vote is of paramount importance and one's ability to exercise one's vote freely and fairly is vital to the health of that democracy. What is at issue here is public trust in our election system. The Government has reneged on its commitment to cross-party consultation and support and has misled the people in terms of the new system saving money when it will cost a great deal more as further information on costings becomes available.

The uncontrolled spending of money in this manner is a scandal when one considers the cuts in widows' benefits, a matter recently discussed in this House. The cost is estimated at €45 million upwards. Storage of the machines in Waterford, the Minister's constituency, will cost €50,000. I obtained the contract under the Freedom of Information Act and noted that the figure €25,000 had been crossed out and replaced in handwriting with a figure of €50,000. Is there a story behind that?

They are probably in a garage somewhere.

They will not be too safe there.

The matter of storage has nothing to do with me. I do not know who is involved.

Is the Minister saying he does not know about it?

The Minister should know about it.

The Minister is in charge.

The Minister should know about it. It is costing €50,000.

The Minister is supposed to be in charge.

Who owns the warehouse?

The Minister should watch out. There are gremlins about trying to catch him. He should be careful.

Allow Deputy Allen continue without interruption, please.

The Minister does not know what is happening in his constituency. If he is trying to tell us he has trust in an electronic voting system, God help us.

The people concerned are appointed by the Department.

Are there no regulations on the storage of the machines?

Is the Minister saying there are no regulations in that regard?

The machines may already be contaminated.

God knows what is going on down in Waterford.

Allow Deputy Allen speak without interruption, please.

The Government promised to deal with the issue of spoilt votes. The Minister stated that people can spoil their votes but only by breaking their anonymity. I have noted what the Minister said earlier but do not understand it. The presiding officer will know if a person spoils his or her vote. Votes spoiled during the trial of the system in the constituencies concerned were not announced so as to maintain the image of electronic voting as being perfect. Initially, we were told there had been no spoiled votes and, later, we were told only a small percentage had been spoiled. It is the issue of perfection on which we need to focus. The Government has implied the system of electronic voting is perfect; that it has been so well tested and developed it is beyond reproach and does not require a voter-verified paper audit trail because the software is perfect. There are few things in life that are perfect and this electronic voting system is not one of them.

The testing procedures have not been up to standard. Independent companies were asked to test very specific aspects of the components of the system but no one did extensive independent testing of the entire system from vote casting to vote counting. Testing of the system was done a number of years ago and, we were recently told in committee, it is still being worked on for the June elections. There will be no extensive independent testing of the completed system before the June elections. If such testing has taken place, it was not independent because we were not consulted on it.

Computers are programmed by people and people make mistakes and so, computers can also contain mistakes. Computers have back-up systems in regard to important transactions or business. Whether such transactions or business come in the form of receipts or balance statements, there are ways of verifying they have been carried out in accordance with the person's wishes. Aircraft contain back-up systems so that, if things go wrong with one system, it can switch to another. We are expected to believe that the hard learned lessons in other areas of computing are irrelevant in this case. I submit that they are very relevant. The Minister can bluster all he wants about modernising and international embarrassment but, when it comes to our democracy, a vindication of the voters' intentions is infinitely more important than the Government's latest gimmick. This electronic voting system, which is second rate and fundamentally flawed, is probably unconstitutional.

Electronic voting is a good idea but this system has been badly thought through and public confidence has been badly shaken by a Government unwilling to listen to anyone but its own so-called experts. The Government has called the introduction of this system a step forward, a point reiterated by the Minister. I submit that it is a retrograde step based on insufficient knowledge of the use of technology. The Minister has a new toy and thought everyone would like it. They do not. The Irish Computer Society said: "Any electronic voting system must include a paper-based voter-verified audit trail." The Minister in his arrogance recently said these people were cranks and Luddites

Are they cranks?

They are linked to the anti-globalisation movement. The Deputy should check them out. They are all the same.

It is all a——

If Fine Gael bases its policies on such people, it is no wonder it is in decline.

The people concerned are computer experts.

We do not know what the Minister's policies are and where he stands on any matter.

The Minister should know more about policy having been a member of more than one party.

Irish technology experts have told the Government its system must include a paper-based voter-verified audit trail.

They are not experts in this field.

The Minister has made a serious allegation about genuine people——

They are not accredited to anything. They have no expertise or international accreditation.

(Interruptions).

Fianna Fáil are experts on everything. They have filled every tribunal in the country.

The Minister has come to this House and——

Deputy Allen should direct his comments through the Chair.

The Chair should ask the Minister to cease interrupting.

Such comments are pathetic. It is no wonder Fine Gael is in such a disorderly state.

Fianna Fáil are the experts.

I remind Members that this is not a Committee Stage debate. We are dealing with Second Stage and I ask Deputies to allow Deputy Allen to continue without interruption, please.

The Minister has vilified people who cannot protect themselves.

Outside the House.

The Minister should withdraw the allegation against——

I have not vilified them. I said they are not accredited——

The Minister said they are linked to the anti-globalisation movement and suggested we should check them out.

Yes, they are.

Deputy Allen, please continue.

The Minister should withdraw that allegation against people who cannot protect themselves.

I will not.

Deputy Allen, please continue.

The Minister has cast aspersions on people outside this House. In accordance with Standing Orders——

I think they are proud of their links.

On a point of order, the making of such an allegation is not in accordance with the Standing Orders of this House. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment.

The Chair has ruled on that matter.

With respect, the Chair has no authority to rule on this matter. Standing Orders apply.

That Chair has ruled on the matter.

No, I am sorry, I do not agree. On a point of order, the Minister has cast aspersions——

I paid them a compliment.

The Minister has cast aspersions on people outside this House.

They will regard my remarks as a compliment, a badge of honour.

Perhaps the Minister will repeat the compliment.

Deputy Durkan, the Minister has not cast aspersions on an individual. Deputy Allen, please continue.

I will continue but I believe the Minister has sunk to a new low. Anybody who does not agree with his policies or party are cranks, anti-social and anti-everything. That is the Minister's standard.

Irish technology experts have told the Government its system must include a paper audit trail but the Government will not listen to them, nor will it listen to public opinion and certainly not to Opposition spokespersons. Surely, the Government knows by now that this system cannot proceed. It will have to be convinced that our democracy is worth more to us than this system.

A paper audit trail will solve many of the problems of trust and suitability inherent in the design of this system. A person will be able to press his-her buttons of preference, view a print-out of it behind a perspex window, verify it is the vote he-she wishes to cast and watch it mechanically dropped into a sealed ballot box.

The Minister said today that there had been a pilot project in Belgium that did not work out. That is the first that we have heard of that.

The Brazilians abandoned it.

Why did they try?

Deputy Allen should address his remarks through the Chair.

I am doing so, but the Minister is interrupting.

The Minister should not interrupt. Deputy Allen should continue.

Such a system would solve issues of transparency and accuracy, as well as making it as secure from tampering as our present system, with all the bonuses of electronic voting in saving time and eliminating spoilt votes.

That is what I proposed to the Deputy this morning.

Please allow the Deputy.

The Minister has his own system and does not want to hear suggestions.

Which is the valid vote?

The Minister refused to give way to Deputy Durkan, yet he keeps interrupting me now.

The Minister should allow the Deputy.

He asked me a question, but he does not want the answer.

The Minister likes the sound of his own voice.

He has set up a Commission on Electronic Voting, but I regret that it is hamstrung with incredibly narrow terms of reference before the June elections. He ensured that Ms Emily O'Reilly, the Ombudsman, who had raised concerns, was not involved as would traditionally have been the case.

I wonder why.

The Minister does not want to hear criticism or alternatives. He is trying to stage-manage the issue of electronic voting in the media, and it is no coincidence that he waited to introduce this Bill until this week, when the smoking ban is being implemented.

Another smoke screen

There was a point in this debate when I genuinely thought the Progressive Democrats were listening with an open mind to concerns on electronic voting. The Tánaiste was on record as having such concerns. Alas, however, they have been brought to heel by Fianna Fáil and have embraced this flawed system. "Single Party Government — No Thanks" was the slogan which now rings so hollow. This country is not a Fianna Fáil fiefdom, and the Minister cannot dictate to the people or to experts in opposition parties with reservations about the system that we must accept it because Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have decided to push it through and the latter have been unwilling to keep certain standards. That is precisely what is happening. As we saw again this morning on the Order of Business, the Tánaiste does not want to be a watchdog in Government, and the result is a system that cannot be recommended as trustworthy.

At a time when this Government is being pilloried from all sides about broken promises and accusations of misleading the public, it should make an extra effort to reach out to people and be willing to close the trust gap. Instead we have a ministerial diktat and closed-down debate, whether at committee or in this Chamber. This is another case of the Government taking the people for granted. The Government does not care about what the people of Ireland say about their concerns regarding this electronic voting system. The Government would sooner take us down a foolish and dangerous road than lose face. That is arrogance, pure and simple.

People listening to or reading about this debate cannot now make a submission to the commission until after they have decided on whether to use electronic voting on June 11. The commission is not there to allay people's fears. It exists expressly to pass judgment on just two narrow issues regarding the proposed electronic voting system. The very highly esteemed members of the commission should not be hamstrung by the Minister's terms of reference. There will be no report before June on the suitability of this system, and that is the key question. Is this system suitable, is it the best available, and is the trust built up in the current system worth less than the benefits of the proposed system? With the right system, electronic voting will become the accepted norm here, but I demand that the Minister's system be thrown out. It represents €45 million wasted by a Government whose sole aim is to retain power. It is a pity that it did not use the money to pay for the widows' entitlements instead.

The money was wasted when the Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government foolishly voted to endorse the proposed system in the face of fundamental expert criticism. It was a political decision not in the best interest of the people of Ireland but in that of Fianna Fáil saving face. Our losses should be cut, and the Government should stop digging a hole for itself. We must restore public confidence and set up a fully independent electoral commission, letting it start with a clean slate.

The Commission on Electronic voting should immediately be transformed into an electoral commission, its membership increased, and its terms of reference changed to examine methods for the casting, recording and counting of votes. Fine Gael also believes the source code of any electronic voting system should be in public ownership. Fine Gael opposes the roll-out of this system and is opposed also to the manner in which it has been railroaded through in recent months.

How much time do we have left?

The Deputy has two minutes and 22 seconds.

Such is the unsatisfactory nature of this debate. We are subject to time constraints, and I have not even dealt with the sections of the Bill yet.

This Bill effects two principal objects. It provides a statutory basis for the introduction of electronic voting and replaces the temporary electronic voting commission with a statutory one. It also allows for the provision of tally information and remedies, matters raised in the Des Kelly case regarding electoral expenses. In a briefing note to the Whips, the Government claimed that the need for the Bill arose from the recent Carrickmines case, which cast doubt on the use of orders to amend primary legislation, and that the new provisions were intended to avoid any doubt. That is a gross understatement. The Government is trying to play down the gravity of its error, first in enacting section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, and second by proceeding to make other orders pursuant to that section. Section 3 now repeals section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 and, despite assurances from the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, that electronic voting would be introduced by order and that such orders were constitutionally sound, the Government is now acknowledging the position that Fine Gael has been arguing for some time, namely, that section 48 and any orders made under it are clearly unconstitutional.

The introduction of electronic voting is not conditional on the Commission on Electronic Voting being satisfied with the system. Nor is it conditional upon the Government implementing the reports of the commission. That begs the question of what real purpose the commission serves. Most importantly, from our point of view, the introduction of electronic voting is not conditional on the agreement of all parties in the Houses. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform recently feigned all-party consultation on the proposed referendum on citizenship, yet the proposal to change the way that we vote fundamentally does not appear to merit all-party consultation or agreement. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the penalty provided for in subsection 2(2) is €3,500. That is the first time I have seen a summary penalty of that level. It would be interesting to see if this marks the beginning of a departure from the old standard of €3,000. I question the €3,500 penalty. Is that the price we put on preserving the integrity of the system?

This Bill seeks to introduce a completely new regime and system into electoral events in the State. It is clear it does not sit comfortably in the existing legislative framework, which consists of frequent references to ballot boxes, voting papers and so on. What a conflict, and what shoddy draftsmanship, that represents. This Bill's inconsistency with the present regime is such that, in subsections 5(1) and 5(2), the Government has effectively had to override large portions of existing electoral legislation to allow electronic voting to be used in presidential, European and local elections as well as referenda. The same may be said of sections 6 and 31. That point serves to highlight the fact that, if the Government is going to introduce a reform as radical as electronic voting, the electoral laws must be revised and restated.

Subsection 5(3) allows the Minister to designate constituencies and electoral areas in which electronic voting may be used. I know the Labour Party has expressed reservations at that provision. It seems that, from June, electronic voting will be used in every election and referendum in every constituency. In practice, that section means that, before the European elections, the Minister will make an order designating the constituencies in which electronic voting will be used — presumably every constituency. If, as seems to be the case, electronic voting is to be used throughout the country from June, it raises the question of why the discretion to use it remains with the Minister. In other words, if electronic voting is to become a continuous feature, why is its use on a permanent basis not set down in the Bill? What significance lies in the Minister holding this power? Assuming the power will be exercised in good faith, there does not appear to be anything particularly sinister about it.

Whether it is appropriate for a Minister to be charged with the running of elections is something I touched on earlier. If the issue was approached in a proper manner as in any open democracy, these issues would have been suitably addressed in consultations with experts and all parties. However, the Minister has made an unbelievable mess of it. I regret that I have to conclude on an issue that affects the fundamental principles of this democracy. There are issues that still need to be raised, which would take me another half an hour.

I do not make the rules of the House. The Deputy got three minutes extra.

I thank the Acting Chairman for that. I appreciate he is working under imposed rules.

I have spoken on a number of occasions about the issue of electronic voting and contributed to the discussions at the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government in this regard. I have one fundamental question about the introduction of electronic voting in this country. Why is Fianna Fáil so determined to bring in electronic voting? Why is the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, almost obsessed with implementing electronic voting at the local and European elections on 11 June? Why has electronic voting become such a top priority for this Government? Why is this week's entire Dáil business given over to this Bill on electronic voting, ahead of issues, for example, such as the disability Bill, the Bill to reform and modernise the Garda Síochána, overdue legislation on criminal justice, employment permits, motor insurance, health and safety at work, etc. A total of 150 Bills have been promised at some stage or other to deal with the real concerns of the people who sent us here and they have all taken a back seat to this Bill on electronic voting.

Why is electronic voting the top priority for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, claiming two successive days this week of scarce Dáil time and jumping ahead of Report Stage of the Residential Tenancies Bill for which 150,000 tenants in this country have been waiting for nearly four years? It may, of course, be that giving legal rights to tenants is no longer a priority for this landlords' Government, which is more interested in supporting property investors than in meeting the housing needs of the poor. Why has the electronic voting Bill assumed such urgency that it has upstaged the promised legislation to allow for the completion of the M50 at Carrickmines, the delay on which is reputedly costing the taxpayer €250,000 per week and for which the Minister promised emergency legislation? Why is legislation to change the way people vote — the Government's top legislative priority today — being brought forward before the strategic infrastructure Bill which the Taoiseach told Fianna Fáil last September was urgently needed to fast-track the national infrastructure needed to underpin the country's economic well-being?

Why is the Minister giving so much of his time and effort to changing what happens in the polling stations when he could be tackling the way we deal with illegal dumping, poor water quality and the housing crisis? What has happened, for example, to the Water Services Bill we need to comply with EU law on the environment, which was published last December but has not yet got an airing in this House? Why has that legislation, which will affect every household in the country, been moved out of the way for the electronic voting Bill? Why, of all the reforms needed to our electoral law, is priority being given to electronic voting? What has happened to the promised legislation on the full implications of the Kelly judgment? Would we not be better off considering how to improve the dilapidated state of the electoral register?

Why, at a time when most people cannot even post a letter or get it delivered, is this Government insisting that the most pressing business for the national Parliament is to change the way elections are conducted so that electronic voting may be put in place on 11 June? Why is the Government unilaterally forcing the implementation of electronic voting when it had initially promised to implement it by agreement? The Labour Party opposed the Electoral Act 2001 which permits the introduction of electronic voting. I am on record as criticising that Bill on Second Stage, proposing amendments to it on Committee Stage and urging a cautious approach to any switch to electronic voting. The then Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, former Deputy Bobby Molloy, assured both Houses when the Bill was being debated that electronic voting would only be implemented by agreement with the political parties. I was surprised, therefore, that the Government decided, following the trials at the 2002 general election and the second Nice referendum, to switch over totally to electronic voting for all elections and in all constituencies. That decision was made by the Government without discussion or consultation with Opposition parties. I was even more surprised that when last autumn, the Labour Party, Fine Gael and the Green Party expressed serious concerns about the plans for electronic voting, they were ignored. Was I naive in believing that in our democracy the sitting Government would not use its parliamentary majority to force changes in the way elections are conducted, in the face of unanimous opposition from all the other parties?

When electronic voting was being considered by the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government, last November and December, I genuinely expected the Government to step back from its implementation in June and allow time for a consensus to develop on the introduction of electronic voting, for technical issues to be addressed and for the confidence of the public to be assured. I was astonished when on 18 December last, the Government parties used their numerical majority on the committee to force a vote to approve electronic voting before it had completed its consideration of the issue. I was alarmed to discover that on the day after that vote, the contractual arrangements were completed with the private companies supplying the hardware and software.

When the Government responded to the Opposition motion in February by announcing the appointment of a commission and by conceding that new primary legislation would be necessary, I again believed that the opportunity would be taken to slow down the introduction of electronic voting. By then it had become clear there was no public demand for electronic voting and that indeed there was considerable opposition to its introduction. A growing body of expert opinion warns of its dangers. The Opposition parties are distinctly uneasy at the Government's approach and at the very least this fundamental change in our voting system should not be undertaken within such a short timeframe. I have again been surprised that contrary to all administrative and political logic, the Government intends to determinedly switch this country over to electronic voting on 11 June whether the Opposition likes it or not.

What is all this about? What is behind the Government's single-minded drive to introduce electronic voting? I do not accept it is all down to the Minister's ego. It is tempting to imagine the Minister, as my party leader put it, as a Napoleonic figure throwing a tantrum on his return from the Far East and insisting that he gets his own way. However, the Minister is not like that and he is hardly so desperate as to stake his political reputation on a project which was not his own idea in the first place. In any event, such delusions would hardly be indulged by the Government as a whole to the extent of handing over valuable Dáil time for it if the Government itself were not fully committed to it. It could be down to arrogance. This Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government has been in office for so long that it thinks it owns the country.

Exactly.

The Government thinks that it alone can change the way in which people cast their votes, no matter what the Opposition thinks. If this Bill is indeed the product of Government arrogance, then it is the Government, not the electoral process, which needs to be changed. The question remains, why is Fianna Fáil so desperate to change the way in which people cast their votes?

There is one other country where the ruling party has become obsessed with the same objective of introducing electronic voting universally, and that is the United States of America, where President Bush's Republican Party shares Fianna Fáil's passion for electronic voting. The experience of the United States is illuminating. I accept that the systems being introduced in various states differ from the system being introduced in Ireland, but there are distinct parallels in the systems and the means of introduction.

Following the Florida debacle of hanging chads and so on, the United States Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act in October 2002, with the objective of introducing fully electronic voting all over the country. Different states may use different systems, and electronic voting systems have already been used in US elections. The Republican Party is particularly keen on electronic voting, and with good reason. Journalist Bev Harris, who now specialises in electronic voting, points out that the state of Georgia was the first to introduce DREs — direct recording electronic voting systems, similar to, though not the same as, the new system being introduced in Ireland. In the 2002 elections, a poll in theAtlanta Journal, two days before the election, put the Democratic incumbent Senator Mack Cleland, five points ahead. On election day, however, the Republican challenger, a Mr. Chambliss, won by seven points, a 12-point shift in 48 hours. For the first time in 134 years, a Republican became Governor of Georgia, even though his Democratic opponent was 11 points ahead in opinion polls just two days before the election.

Election results can be surprising, no matter what system is used, but in researching the electronic voting used in Georgia, journalist Bev Harris came across an FTP link which led her to a trove of programme files used by Diebold, the makers of the system, the purpose of which was to make the machines do what they do. One folder was entitled Rob Georgia, and contained material designed to replace the files on the new Georgia voting system with other files unknown. She also discovered that key people in Diebold and in companies hired to test the system were significant financial contributors to the Republican Party - Diebold chairman and CEO Mr. Walden O’Dell was a Bush pioneer, having contributed at least $100,000 to President Bush’s re-election campaign, and on June 30 2003 helped organise a fundraiser for vice-president Cheney, which raised $600,000.

Faced with this, the people involved claimed that this was impugning their integrity. It may indeed be, but some of the people associated with the company are no strangers to computer fraud. One director of an associated company had been convicted of money laundering and tax fraud, while another was convicted on 23 counts of embezzlement, including what a court document described as "a high degree of sophistication and planning in the use of alteration of records in the computerised accounting system that the defendant maintained for his victim."

That sounds familiar.

It is important to keep a sense of proportion about all this and to eschew conspiracy theories, as the Minister promises to do. Just because some people associated with the company were convicted computer crooks, because senior people in the company are contributors to the Republican Party and because the company's computer files for the voting system describe how it can be fiddled, it does not follow that the company which built the electronic voting system fiddled the election in favour of the Republicans, no matter how surprising the result. The problem is that we have no way of knowing, or of checking.

Was it tested internationally?

By which institute?

I forget. Two companies which tested it were named. One was also contributing to the Republican Party.

That is a bit like Fianna Fáil.

It is not because there is no connection between that German institute and the Fianna Fáil Party, or anyone here.

In one case, the company was contributing to a successful candidate in the election. The problem is not whether we believe that the election was fiddled, but that we have no way of knowing or checking. Just like the Nedap-Powervote system being proposed in Ireland, there was no paper record in Georgia which could be audited.

Stories of election fiddling, or just plain error, may be exaggerated or wide of the mark, but every time a plausible one is raised, which cannot be rebutted because there is no paper audit, public confidence in the election process will be dealt another blow. That is why the debate in the United States is now centring on the need for a voter verifiable paper audit trail of the votes cast on electronic voting machines. Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey and Senator Hillary Clinton of New York have brought forward Bills in their respective Houses of Congress to add a paper trail to all touch-screen machines. The State of California has decided that from 2006 all electronic voting machines must have an auditable, voter verifiable paper trail. Such a paper trail was a key reform recommended by the Labour Party in the document on electronic voting, Electronic Voting in Ireland: a Threat to Democracy? published last autumn and rubbished by the Minister. Without such a paper trail, whereby the voter can see a paper record of the vote which he or she is casting electronically, where that paper is stored and can be cross-checked against the results produced electronically, the electronic voting system will always be open to doubt.

The concerns about electronic voting are no longer confined to the computer experts who first raised them and to political participants alarmed by them. They now feature regularly in the popular media. For example, the current issue ofVanity Fair contains a nine-page article by Michael Shnayerson, entitled Hack the Vote, which reports the work of Bev Harris to which I have referred. It summarises the situation as follows: “This is a story of good intentions gone awry, of Congress bamboozled into thinking the machines were ready when they were not.” It goes on to say that “like most American stories, it is about money.”

Were the machines PC-based possibly connected to phone lines?

No, they were stand-alone machines. Big money was involved, with $3.9 billion showered on the states to buy the machines and buy them fast. The money in Ireland may not be in the same league, but the contracts for the system are worth about €40 million and the contract for the publicity campaign is worth about €4.5 million. It is a coincidence of course that one of these contracts was given to a company, one of whose principals is a recent senior official of the Fianna Fáil Party.

I have been curious for some time about some aspects of the contractual arrangements for the electronic voting system. The Government committed itself to Nedap-Powervote as far back as November 2000, a month before the original electoral Bill, which became the Electoral Act 2001, was published. I remember that we were told this during Committee Stage of the debate on that Bill, and the record of the debate shows that I expressed alarm at that. The Government has never explained this. How could it have already decided to proceed with electronic voting and have already selected the system to be used, as well as the companies to deliver it, before the legislation enabling electronic voting was even published, much less passed. What was going on?

No Government had an involvement in the system or decided what the system was to be — neither this Government nor the last one.

The system was selected.

It was not.

In more recent times, the Government was in an extraordinary rush to sign off on the contracts. During the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government consideration of the issue, it emerged that the contracts for the system had not been finalised. Members of the committee argued that no final contracts were to be entered into until the committee had concluded its considerations. However, Government members of the committee voted through approval of the system and, the following day, the contracts were signed off.

Another indication of the Government's arrogance.

Why was the Government in such a rush to sign the contracts? Why was the public money used to purchase this system put through the Central Fund which cannot be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and cannot be subject to examination by the Committee of Public Accounts? It appears that nothing about this electronic voting system — the votes and the money used to purchase it — can be audited. All this is odd and has resulted in the privatisation of the system, both the machinery and the software, by which people will vote.

The source code for the system, which is essential for anyone wishing to make a submission to the commission, is the property of a private company and will not be released. I have been told by persons wishing to make an informed submission to the commission that, when they asked for the source code, the commission informed them they could not have it. After further inquiries, it emerged that not even the commission had it.

I wonder why.

The control of our electoral system has been handed over to a private company. As this issue has now become the subject of a partisan political debate, this company has a vested interest in the re-election of the Government committed to giving it the contract. We are asked to take all this on trust. We are asked to trust the Government on spending public money which cannot be audited, to trust the companies that are delivering the system but will not release the source code, and to trust the machines and the software when no one is in a position to check these systems.

The Bill is unconstitutional and makes a mockery of both the electronic voting commission and electoral law. The Bill purports to solve the constitutional problem identified by the Government's initial bungled attempt to introduce e-voting for the local and European elections without primary legislation. However, it does nothing of the kind. The Bill gives general discretionary power to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to make regulations dealing with crucial matters which should have been properly set out in primary legislation. The Minister, who is also Fianna Fáil director of elections, has introduced legislation to give himself critical powers to decide how to conduct elections. This should not be tolerated in any democracy and, if enacted, will undermine the independence of our electoral system.

To determine by regulation whether electronic voting should be used and, if so, to what extent is the most fundamental power contained in the Bill. It leaves this entirely in the hands of the Minister without any adequate parliamentary control. Under section 5(3) the Minister is entitled to exercise this where "the public interest so requires". What is in the public interest is left to the Minister's discretion.

I can well imagine.

The Minister will also have the power to amend the form of the ballot paper by regulations under section 30. When read in conjunction with the existing Electoral Acts, this is a matter for concern and, for constitutional reasons, it should be spelled out in the Bill. The Bill leaves intact the existing discretionary power of the Minister to make regulations amending electoral law, a power which is constitutionally infirm, as has been demonstrated in the recent Supreme Court decision on Carrickmines. The meaningless nature of the safeguards in the Bill is highlighted by what may well be an unconstitutional attempt to oust the jurisdiction of the courts by provisions which state that no action can be taken to question an electronic vote in the event that some of the safeguards are disregarded. Sections 9(2), 11(5) and 12(10) state that no action may be taken to the court where the records produced by the machines cannot be produced.

Even though comparable provisions exist in current law, the Bill was to solve all constitutional problems. It clearly does not. Section 29(4) is also unconstitutional in that it allows a detailed breakdown of votes to be published for areas where there are so few votes that the privacy of voters would thereby be infringed. The section says that in such a case, a returning officer "may" refuse to publish the data. However, it also indicates that a returning officer may decide to publish in any event. The Labour Party believes it is constitutionally improper to leave the matter up to a returning officer's discretion.

The Bill fails to eliminate the random element in counts, a basic requirement advocated by supporters of electronic voting. Section 16(4) and (5) provide that a recount cannot disturb the original mix of votes. The Bill is designed to ensure that both voting and vote counting at local, Dáil, European, presidential elections and at referenda can be conducted on any voting system equipment once it is approved by the Minister under the 2001 Act. Under the legislation, voting system equipment means any kind of mechanical, electro-mechanical or electronic apparatus for use in a voting system.

The term "voting system" can also mean a method of casting and counting votes that is designed to function wholly, or partly, by use of mechanical, electro-mechanical or electronic apparatus. It can include the procedures for casting and counting votes and the programmes, operating manuals, print-outs and other software necessary for the system's operation. There is, however, no provision in the existing or proposed legislation for the Minister's approval of a particular voting system equipment to be subject to the approval of the Houses, or for details of that voting system equipment to be published to the Houses or the public at large. This includes the programmes and operating manuals, which remain the property of the company that supplied them. Once approved by the Minister and without parliamentary approval, any voting system, not just the Nedap-Powervote one but any future system involving electrical, digital, magnetic, optical, electro-magnetic, biometric or photogenic measures, can take over both voting and vote counting at forthcoming elections and referenda.

We might as well abolish elections altogether.

The electronic voting commission's terms of reference are, however, confined to the Nedap-Powervote system. It is designed to stand down once it has delivered its report on the secrecy and accuracy of the chosen electronic voting and counting system by 1 May. In other words, it can neither opine as to the merits of that choice, given that it has already been taken, nor speculate as to what choice of alternative system might be made in the future. The programmes, operating manuals, print-outs and other necessary software will remain private intellectual property, governed by a private commercial agreement between the Minister and the present, or any future, chosen private commercial consortium.

Historically, the integrity of the electoral system has largely relied on a system of giving candidates and their agents a monitoring role at the voting and vote counting process. They have, after all, a major interest in securing the integrity of the outcome. If all of them get to watch the process as it unfolds and to intervene as they think necessary, then most will be reasonably satisfied with the accuracy of the result. So far, it has worked reasonably well. However, if any one of them is dissatisfied, he or she can petition the High Court. However, under the new system, no candidate or agent will be able to say that they have personally monitored either the vote casting or vote counting arrangements. Neither, for the reasons already stated, will the High Court be adequately able to review the result or the process by which the result was arrived.

The principal question on the constitutionality of this legislation revolves around whether it is permissible to privatise the conduct of a quintessential public phenomenon, that is, the election of public representatives, so that the rules by which the election is held become the subject of commercial confidentiality and the High Court is debarred from lines of inquiry that would otherwise be available to it. Under Article 6.1 of the Constitution, it is the right of the people to designate the rulers of the State. Presumably, concomitant with that, is the right to ensure that the process of designation of those rulers is accurately carried out. In 1972, the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Ó Dálaigh, speaking for the majority in the Supreme Court in McMahonv. Attorney General, a case about the electoral system, said:

Constitutional rights are declared not alone because of bitter memories of the past, but not least because of the improbable, but not-to-be-overlooked, perils of the future.

The Labour Party is opposed to the Second Stage reading of the Bill.

Debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.