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.