I wish to share time with Deputies Cuffe and Morgan.
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The Bill provides for the conduct of this year's European Parliament, local and presidential elections using electronic machines and counting systems. I cannot bring myself to have full confidence in the e-voting system as reasonable doubts persist. As time goes by, the doubts become greater. Based on the results of surveys it is clear the public does not have complete confidence in the system and a growing percentage of people are losing faith in the proposed e-voting mechanism.
Under the old manual voting system, stealing an election would take some doing. Sometimes the dead needed to be resurrected to cast their votes and this practice may not entirely disappear. However, in America it took the intervention of its Supreme Court in 2000 to determine the outcome in favour of George Bush. That election raised serious concerns over whether the result was fair. We should try to avoid that type of problem here. With the new e-voting cartridges it may be possible to hijack the result with little more than a magnet. People exist who want to spoil their votes and would take greater joy in spoiling everybody's vote if that were possible. If they thought something like a magnet could disturb the electronics and throw up an incorrect result, this would represent a victory for them. I am sure hackers exist who regard this system as an opportunity and challenge to hack.
In June, thousands of polling stations will have voting machines and screens instead of the old manual systems. However, in spite of so-called safeguards, passwords and reassurances to protect the integrity of the e-ballot, the election process has become more vulnerable to systemic fraud than the old system ever was. In the old system a mistake affecting one or two votes could occur. However, a mistake in the e-voting system has the potential to be one of enormous proportions. There is nothing fanciful about something going wrong, as ways have been found to manipulate the source code to produce fraudulent results in the US.
Even more serious would be a rogue or malicious programmer working on the voting machines who might implant functionality to cause the outcome of the election to be determined by a hacker. Electronic voting has been rushed upon voters around the world with little regard for the risks and cost to our democracy. Computerised voting is inherently subject to programme error, human error, equipment malfunction and malicious tampering. Due to the opaque nature of the technology involved, which few understand, it is crucial that the electronic voting system provide for a voter verifiable audit trail — in other words a permanent record of each vote that can be checked for accuracy by the voter before the vote is cast.
On making a small purchase a receipt is given showing the amount paid for a product. There is no reason this functionality should not be added to this machinery. It would be difficult or impossible to alter this paper record after it had been checked by the voter. This could also be achieved without compromising the secrecy or integrity of the ballot. Thus a vote would not be retained by the voter but would be retained in a machine. This audit trail could be used for any possible recount to verify the electronic result. Without a verifiable voting system every election would be open to allegations that it raised doubts over the results. Election returning officers would be unable to disprove such allegations without the benefit of a paper audit trail.
However, a paper trail alone would not be sufficient. All aspects of the voting process would need to be made secure. While not all machines currently produce such paper slips, without one no record exists of how people voted other than what is contained in the machine's electronic memory. If any doubt exists over the result of an election, there will be no votes to examine only electrons inside a computer's server. A recount on the machine would always produce the same result and there would be no way to prove or disprove allegations of fraud.
The provision of a voter verifiable audit trail would be one of the most essential requirements for any new electronic voting system. If any doubt existed about the results from the electronic votes, the securely stored paper votes would be checked but should match the electronic votes. As a deterrent, the paper trail should be checked in random constituencies or wards even if the results are not in any doubt. This could take place perhaps one, two or three months after the election in order that the public can rest assured that the system is working adequately.
Advocates of electronic voting often say that paperless ballots may save money and eliminate the problems common to old systems. However, the technology gives rise to a new breed of security concerns such as software errors and malicious manipulation of election results. Everyone wants a system of electronic voting which is at least as open as the current paper system. Such a system must be capable of being audited. There is no point in having a recount, particularly if one presses a button and the same numbers appear. It must also protect the privacy of individuals and the counting process. These would appear to be simple requests and one cannot help but question someone who says otherwise. People who vote electronically should be able to view a paper record of their preferences. This would boost their confidence in the system.
Ensuring the accuracy of the ballot is a paramount function of returning officers and it makes perfect sense that the highest standards should obtain. Following a close election in Australia in 1998, the authorities decided to investigate electronic voting because they were already concerned about the reliability, security and openness of the system. The recounts in the 2000 US presidential election made them doubly cautious. They settled on a particular system for which the design and implementation were carried out by a private company. However, documents and codes were made available for public debate and scrutiny as well as for formal analysis. Trials showed that the system performed as specified and complaints about error or fraud are non-existent. The system runs on Linux and the emphasis from the start has been on total and utter transparency. This transparency has the effect of enhancing the voting process and the country's democracy. Conversely, any information withheld from the public would have the effect of undermining democracy.
Election counts should also have the provision for election tally persons to maintain final tallies from each ballot box. Software is highly complex. Large software packages are so complex that there is virtually no way to successfully examine a programme for malicious behaviour. Fair elections are the lifeblood of democracy. The consequences for democracy would be dire if machines were to have potential security flaws. Democracy has always been something of a messy process but so far it is the best option we have.
In previous election counts, often due to sheer fatigue on the part of count officials, ballot papers have been misread and bundles of voting papers misplaced or credited to the wrong candidates. On polling day, some disabled people have been unable to vote privately and some illiterate people have been unable to vote for the desired candidate. We have come a long way from having a show of hands or shouts of "Tá" and "Níl". Electronic voting is the latest in a long line of imperfect solutions.
During the 2000 US presidential election, a town in Indiana with a population of 17,000 recorded more than 130,000 votes on its electronic machines. There was no way to check the authenticity of those votes which were subsequently credited to none other than George W. Bush. As everyone knows, similar abuses occurred in Florida and the rest is history.
Problems in electronic voting may be nothing more than engineering incompetence allied to political expediency. However, it could be more sinister. People have complained that there is no provision to spoil one's vote. I do not believe it would take a great deal of time to type in "I support none of the above". We were asked to comment on electronic voting but I have not yet seen one of the machines that will be used. It would have been reasonable to provide the House with such a machine in order that Members could examine it and know what they are talking about.
Independent candidates will be misplaced on the electronic voting system. Members of parties will have the logo of said parties either before or after their names. However, nothing appears before or after the name of an Independent. Perhaps the word "Independent" or that republican slogan which was given away recently could be inserted in front of our names. As Josef Stalin said, "Those who cast their votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything."
The Green Party is in favour of electronic voting, with the caveat that we wish to see a voter verifiable audit trail. We are also concerned about the costs involved. From the evidence to date, it seems the costs will be a quantum leap higher than the traditional costs relating to an election. I appreciate that there will be one-off, start-up costs but there are some storm clouds gathering in respect of the issue of costs. The storage costs for these machines will be significantly higher than would be the case for traditional ballot boxes. We are concerned that the overall costs, even measured over a 20-year cycle, could be significantly higher than those relating to our more traditional methods of voting.
I reiterate and re-emphasise some of the points in the Green Party's submission to the Commission on Electronic Voting. In Ireland we use the proportional representation, single transferable vote electoral system. Traditionally, members of the electorate have marked their preferences on a ballot paper using a pencil. The ballot paper would have been validated by the presiding officer by means of a stamp prior to marking of said preferences. Once completed, the voter placed the marked ballot in a sealed ballot box. At the end of the poll, the aperture of the ballot box was sealed, in open view, with a wax seal in order to prevent deposition of additional ballot papers. The box was then transported to the count centre by authorised personnel where it was guarded until the commencement of the count. At the commencement of the count, the ballot box was opened by the returning officer under observation by the candidates and candidates' agents. This whole process was completed in the open, using well understood procedures. It was completely transparent and every step in the process could be audited for accuracy, while still maintaining the secrecy of the vote.
That was the case until October 2002, when the Government decided to roll-out electronic voting nationwide for this year's elections. The e-voting system being proposed comprises two elements: computerised voting machine running bespoke software on a Motorola chip; and a vote counting system based on the Microsoft Jet (Access) database engine, running on a standard WinTel PC with a Microsoft Windows operating system running on an Intel or compatible processor. Using the e-voting system, the voter indicates preferences by touching a button or switch adjacent to the details of each of the candidates, in the sequence of his or her choice. Pressing the button causes information about the candidate to be displayed on an LCD display at the top of the machine. The sequence of the choice is displayed on an LED display adjacent to each button or switch. Once the voter has completed his or her choice, he or she presses the Cast Vote button to record his or her choice.
From this point the voter's choices are recorded electronically, transported to the count centre electronically and are counted electronically. Handling of the electronic vote is by the software and hardware of the voting machine and the count PC. As such, it is incapable of being scrutinised, verified or audited by interested parties for the duration of the process or afterwards. This is a significant departure from the open and transparent system currently employed, as it removes the voter's ability to observe the process from beginning to end. Instead, it requires the voter to blindly trust the claims of the manufacturer and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about the capabilities of the system.
It is significant that a number of information technology professionals, including the Irish Computer Society, have identified potential problems with the system. We note that the Minister has refused to meet the IT professionals to discuss the issues of concern and that the Secretary General of the Department has not yet made good on his promise to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government on 18 December 2003 to engage constructively with the IT community on the issue and to obtain answers to questions raised at that meeting which the Department and its suppliers were unable to answer at that time.
Three discrete issues come under the heading of secrecy: many details of the Nedap-Powervote system are held to be commercial secrets and are, therefore, not open to independent study, test or verification by interested citizens; the system does not provide for the maintenance of the secrecy of the vote for certain categories of voter; and the system does not facilitate voters with impaired vision who could have voted in secret had the e-voting system been planned in a different way.
The Nedap-Powervote system has been developed using an outdated proprietary development model which holds key parts of the system to be trade secrets and therefore not available for scrutiny. The nature of this approach means that, in practice, the returning officer no longer has effective control of the process but must instead trust that the vendors and their staff have not made a mistake somewhere along the line. It is wholly inappropriate that a private company, based outside this jurisdiction, should have this level of control over the nation's voting system.
We draw the Minister's attention, as have other speakers, to the development model used by the Australian Capital Territory electoral commission in Canberra. Its system, developed from scratch in six months at a cost of 125,000 Australian dollars, used an open source development model to ensure appropriate transparency.
By way of contrast, the Irish system is based on a modification of an existing system but has cost more than €475,000 and remains incomplete following nearly four years of development. The primary benefit of the open source approach is that the software developed remains the property of the electoral commission in Australia, or Ireland as would be the case here, and there are no limitations on the ability of the public to review the code to see how the system works.
I will now touch briefly on the issue of secrecy for voters wishing to abstain. The Minister said that a voter need not press the cast vote button and that would, in effect, ensure an absent vote was recorded. I am concerned this might fail to operate correctly in practice. What is the abstainer to do on leaving the polling booth — cough loudly? There is a real danger that the next voter would take upon himself or herself to cast that vote. Will the returning officer examine the machine to ensure it is clear for the next voter? I am not convinced the abstainer's needs will be taken on board by the current system.
On the issue of secrecy for visually impaired voters, the Green Party would like the Minister to refine the system, although it may not be possible to do this for the upcoming elections. It is relatively simple to reconfigure the system to provide for visually impaired voters. Perhaps there could be an audio input into the machines, by way of headphones, that would allow a visually impaired voter to cast his or her vote in a secret manner. We would like the Minister to take this issue on board for future elections.
I will now deal briefly with the accuracy of ballots. The Association of Computing Machinery, the primary, global professional body for the information technology profession, stated that computers are inherently subject to programming error, equipment malfunction and malicious tampering. On many occasions, we have asked the Minister to outline the security procedures in place for the vetting of staff of Nedap-Powervote but he has thus far chosen not to respond to that question.
The procedures for storing, transporting, erecting and dismantling the e-voting machines do not appear to have been written or audited at this time. The position is the same in terms of the procedures for upgrading the software, applying patches to it or applying security seals to the hardware. From an operational perspective, the primary reason the Nedap-Powervote system is considered unsafe by the IT profession is that unlike any important — never mind critical — application of IT, the system does not include procedures to provide independent real-time verification that it is operating properly. It also fails to provide the ability to audit the operation of the system following the event. This is a crucial part of our concerns.
The introduction of a paperless e-voting system is a major departure in the conduct of elections in this State. The e-voting system is being introduced despite the fact that major technological and practical issues have not been addressed to the satisfaction of the IT community. The Opposition parties are in agreement that the system is not yet developed to a standard they are happy to support. The fact that the electoral system will be owned by a private Dutch company and the technical details will be held to be trade secrets is unacceptable to the Green Party. We note that Nathean Technologies have advised that the count software should be migrated to a more appropriate platform and that this is planned for by the Department. We request that the commission recommend to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, that an open source solution, similar to the Australian system, be used when performing the migration. This will eliminate the issue of trade secrets and will make the system more transparent.
We request, therefore, that the commission conclude that the Nedap-Powervote e-voting system requires further development in all the areas outlined and that the system should not be used until such time as all the issues have been addressed to the satisfaction of the IT community. The Green Party is in favour of e-voting but it must be verifiable and deliver better value for money than the current system.
The defining feature of the electronic voting debacle has been its contra-democratic nature. The coalition partners are trampling over citizens' democratic rights.
In assaulting the electoral process, the Minister has outdone himself. In one fell swoop he has driven a wrecking ball through the electoral system. Without any justification, he has decided to introduce fundamental changes in how we vote by way of a flawed voting system. The whole farce has distracted from the Minister's abysmal record since taking office. He is guided in the introduction of e-voting by his arrogance and the contempt in which this Government holds democracy and the will of the people. He has only reluctantly introduced this legislation having initially claimed that primary legislation was not required and that the system could be introduced by way of ministerial order. I am sure the Minister would be only too glad to do away with the need for legislation and to implement his ideologically driven desires by way of ministerial orders across the board.
A fundamental conflict of interest arises in the context of the Minister being director of elections for the Fianna Fáil party while being in charge of the organisation of the forthcoming elections. He should decide which position he chooses to hold on to or declare an interest in this issue before the Dáil.
That is rubbish.
I will now address the Minister's failure to take on board the concerns raised by Sinn Féin and other Opposition parties, members of the public and computer science experts. I will then address a number of specific elements in the Bill. Sinn Féin raised its concerns regarding the electronic voting process at an early stage. The issue of a paper trail remains central to our concerns on the proposed introduction of electronic voting and is a critical factor in ensuring public confidence in the system. A recentSunday Business Post Red C poll illustrated that the majority of Irish voters would like the introduction of electronic voting postponed until it has been modified to include a paper trail, yet the Minister refused to meet representatives of the concerned group, Irish Citizens for Trustworthy E-voting and has now refused to address in this legislation those pertinent concerns.
Deputy Cullen is an opportunistic Minister who defected to Fianna Fáil from the Progressive Democrats for his own advancement and to good effect. He is blindly following the American example. The American public learned the perils of electronic voting when it was forced upon it in the form of Diebold election systems. Why is this Minister dragging us down the same misguided path? There are numerous examples of the failure of electronic voting systems in the United States. For example, six electronic voting machines used in the two North Carolina counties lost 436 ballots cast in early voting in the 2002 general election because of a software problem.
It is a different system. The Deputy might as well be speaking about growing carrots.
Where e-voting has been used, there has been an array of other problems, including machines that sometimes fail to boot up or to record votes, or that even record them for the wrong candidates. The Minister might as well be discussing growing vegetables the way he is performing — he is certainly not paying much heed to what we are advocating here.
I listen to every sensible argument.
He has not done so to date and there are very real concerns, not just in this House but well beyond, to which he has given no consideration whatsoever. My party supports the idea of electronic voting with the Mercuri method applied——
The likes of the Deputy have fanned the flames.
——whereby a paper copy of the vote could be verified by the voter.
The Deputy, without interruption, please.
A Cheann Comhairle, the Minister does not really want to hear me so please allow him to interrupt if he wishes. He has shown no serious concern or interest in this to date.
Now that the Minister has ceased to interrupt, I suggest that the Deputy not provoke him.
A Cheann Comhairle, even to address the Minister on any issue in his portfolio is regarded by him as provocation. He should give me a break. Without a paper trail, voters cannot be assured that the choice they entered on the machine is the same as that recorded by it. That is the fundamental problem which the legislation does nothing to address. The reality is that computers fail and break down. Only last week, an entire internal network in the Dáil collapsed. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and his experts would have told us that it could not happen, yet it did. Many Members lost files that they held on their computer systems. I know, since I lost several myself, as I am sure others did too.
Sinn Féin lost much more than their files over the years.
One thing that we have kept is our credibility. We maintain our integrity. We will stick with the Bill. I do not want to get into abusing the Minister. That would not be fair.
Do not go there.
Unfortunately, computers are unreliable and can be interfered with. The Minister is essentially asking voters to put their ballot paper into a black hole and trust an e-voting system whose source code is not even available to the Government, let alone the public. There is not even a provision for the Commission on Electronic Voting to examine the source code. Can we really trust an e-voting system whose source code is not publicly available? How can the commission fulfil its obligations fully in such a situation?
I would like to ask the Minister specifically about section 9(2), which states: "An election or referendum shall not be questioned on the grounds that the requirement insubsection (1) with respect to the production by a voting machine of the printed statement referred to in that subsection has not been complied with.” The purpose of that certificate, required under section 9(1) is to prove that no votes were fraudulently entered into the machine before the commencement of voting. Neither is the failure to comply with the requirement for the machine to produce a statement at the close of voting cause to bring an election into question. Essentially, therefore, we are being told that it does not matter if the minor safeguards contained in this Bill are ignored. I would appreciate a response on that from the Minister. Surely it is obvious that, if a presiding officer wished to interfere with a voting machine, he or she would deliberately not print out such a statement.
Section 29, a provision to make statistical information available, is rather dubious and seems merely a capitulation to pressure from the endangered species known as "Fianna Fáil tallymen". I ask the Minister to make it absolutely clear that the Government will act on the recommendations of the Commission on Electronic Voting and that, if the commission recommends the non-application of e-voting, the Government will accept that and abandon the use of electronic voting until such time as a proper, verifiable system has been identified. I appreciate that the Minister has acknowledged that positively. Does the Government have contingency plans in place to deal with that eventuality?
The commission's terms of reference must contain a provision for it to carry out background checks on the company providing the voting system proposed for use in this State. In other states, voting company employees have been implicated in bribery or kickback schemes involving election officials. What precautions are being taken against such an eventuality in this case? Sinn Féin will introduce amendments to this Bill to ensure that a paper copy of the vote verified by the voter will be held for the purposes of independent recount and calling for the complete source code to be publicly available for inspection by citizens and specifically by computer science experts.
In the same section of his address, the Minister said that ballot papers were held up to check whether the perforation had gone through in cases of close counts. He concluded his comments by saying that in the 21st century, there must be a better way of doing things. That quote from the Minister represents the only agreement that he and I are likely to have on this Bill. There must be a better way.
I wish to share time with Deputy Dan Wallace.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am delighted at this opportunity to speak on this important legislation, the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004. It is important because it concerns something at the very heart of our democratic system, namely, the electoral process. There has been considerable public interest in the proposed change from manual or paper ballot to electronic voting. That interest is very welcome since it reflects great awareness on the part of the public in the democratic process. Unfortunately, it has been obvious for some time that the number of people who vote in elections has been falling, and it is in the interests of democracy in general that any fall in voter participation be arrested. The right to cast one's vote in a fair and transparent way is the basis of our democracy. It took a long time for the people of this country to acquire that right, and it is something that we as legislators must defend. Voter apathy is very dangerous, and anything that can reverse that trend of falling numbers of voters is welcome.
For that reason, the controversy over the change from traditional voting methods to electronic ones is welcome, and one hopes that it will result in increased numbers of people voting in future elections. The first question we must ask ourselves is why the system should be changed since it has served this country well for many years. The answer lies in the advantages that electronic voting will bring to the electoral process. I believe that it is safer than the old system, but the establishment by the Minister of the Commission on Electronic Voting will confirm or refute that belief.
The commission is composed of eminent people. Its chairman, a judge of the High Court, the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad and two other persons with knowledge or experience of information technology will have the job of reporting by 1 May 2004 on the secrecy and accuracy of the system chosen for use at the forthcoming elections in June. Their report must be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas and they will advise regarding the application of the chosen system in the forthcoming elections. It will put to bed once and for all the debate that has raged regarding the advantages or disadvantages of electronic voting, especially regarding secrecy and accuracy. It will reassure the public.
Another advantage of electronic voting is that it is a much quicker method of calculating the result of an election. Since electronic voting is simply the calculation by a counting machine of votes cast, the process of counting votes is completed within a very short period, thereby allowing the result of the first count to be announced very shortly after the process has started. I welcome the fact that the public and the candidates will be informed of the first-round result so that they have a chance to assess how they are polling. The whole country remembers the situation at the last general election when only the final result was announced and the disappointment of an unexpected result was apparent on some candidates' faces. By allowing each count to be made public, candidates, their families and supporters, and members of the public, will all be better prepared for the eventual result. Owing to this much faster method of calculating the result, it is expected that the final result will be known a few hours after the polling booths have closed.
Much has been made by some members of the Opposition of the fact that the long, drawn-out process of manual counting with its tallymen and so on will be lost. However, in reality the day or, in some cases, days of counting votes manually consisted of long periods of inactivity with short bursts of hyperactivity. It was a slow cumbersome process and as in all walks of life progress in this field is welcome. It is true the media will now have to find other ways of filling their time schedules in the day after the election. However, knowing how resourceful and inventive members of the media are, especially television and radio, I have no doubt they will have no difficulty in finding other newsworthy items.
Another great advantage of electronic voting is that it is much more user friendly. At the moment many of these voting machines are on display throughout the country. Last Monday night I attended a meeting in west Sligo. Everyone there who had attended a demonstration on how to use the voting machines that day concurred that it was simplicity in the extreme. The electronic voting system allows the voter to simply press a button to select his or her candidate or candidates. It provides clear voting instructions so that human error is much less likely. Most spoiled votes occur in error. People go the polling booth to cast their votes. We live in a democracy. If someone does not want to vote, he or she may stay away from the polling booth. Unlike some states, we do not force people to vote. Anything that can be done to eliminate accidentally spoiled votes is to be welcomed. Electronic voting will do this and so it is a progressive step. We live in the 21st century, not in the 19th century. As a progressive country we should embrace modern technology. The reactionary and outdated views of some members of the Opposition in this regard is amazing. Coming as they do from some Deputies who profess to be radical thinkers, it is even more amazing. Is it not true that their love of the media limelight has driven some of them to espouse an antiquated position on this, while deep down they must be embarrassed because of their so-called radical stance on other issues? Their thinking and standing on electronic voting has exposed the paucity of their thoughts and left them, to use a paraphrase, like the emperor without clothes.
When this Bill is passed Ireland will have a safer, much more efficient, faster and more user-friendly voting system than in the past. It is worth remembering that this system of electronic voting is not new here. In Ireland it has already been used by more than 400,000 members of the electorate at the last general election. It is also worth remembering that many members of the Opposition were loud in their praise of electronic voting at that time. Some members of Opposition parties went so far as to introduce election leaflets in support of electronic voting. This is a modern country and we live in the 21st century. Let us embrace modern technology to improve our democracy. I commend the Bill to the House.
I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen. His is a large Department with great responsibility. Since he became Minister his performance has been excellent. He has been decisive, with a no-nonsense approach, which is widely recognised outside this House. This may not be the view of all sections within the House, but I assure the Minister that the public recognise the difficult job he has and the role he is playing. He should keep up the good work.
Who is the Deputy talking about?
Deputy Morgan did not make much of a contribution when he had his time. There are few issues on which everyone in this House agrees. Different parties have disparate policies and individuals have alternative perspectives on varied issues. Everyone has the same mindset, however, when it is a question of democracy. The view is that nothing should be done that erodes the democratic process. Against that background, therefore, any change in the manner in which elections are run deserves the most careful scrutiny to ensure the proposed changes will not impact adversely on the electoral process.
The introduction of electronic voting will strengthen and enhance the democratic process and the operation of elections, for a variety of reasons. The reasons include, among others, the fact that modern technology is used to ensure a more accurate result. It will result in the exact preferences of the voter being recognised as opposed to the opinion of the returning officer in cases of partially legible ballot papers. It will allow for faster counting of votes and the elimination of recounts.
Some of the concerns expressed do no not stand up to scrutiny, particularly over the use of technology to allow people to vote. We should have no apprehensions about the capacity of the voting public to understand and avail of the opportunity to vote electronically. Anyone who has seen the machines at the various information sessions held around the country must acknowledge that the system is easy to use and simple to follow. There is a responsibility on all Members of this House, irrespective of political opinion, not to try to confuse the people. People use technology-based systems every day in a variety of different settings, whether turning on the microwave or withdrawing money from the bank. We should not underestimate the ability of the public to adapt to the new voting system.
The most frequently articulated view from those who oppose this measure is, "If it is not broken, why fix it?" If we can improve the system and make it fairer we have a responsibility to consider this. Anyone who has ever been at a tight count, as I certainly have — having been beaten by five votes at a recount — will know that the present manual system results in thousands of ballot papers being declared invalid and very often votes not being counted because of some inadvertent action by either the voter or the polling station staff. Issues such as bad writing and incorrectly stamped ballot papers lead to many votes being spoilt. At the last general election seats were decided in 18 constituencies by less than the number of spoilt votes. If a person takes the trouble to go to a polling station to cast his or her vote, there should at least be an assurance that the vote will be counted. Unfortunately, under the current system, too many people are denied this right.
One of the defining features of any society is how democracy operates. It stands to reason that every available technology should be used to ensure the chance of achieving the fairest outcomes in elections is maximised. Removal of the element of the inadvertent spoilt vote will go a long way towards achieving this objective. A person's right to deliberately spoil his or her vote was mentioned. I do not share the view that we should facilitate people who wish to follow this course of action. People have the right to go to a polling station and have their names marked off the register and not vote. That is sufficient as regards protest and it is open to all voters who wish to exercise their franchise in this way. From a technological viewpoint, the most important aspect of the introduction of electronic voting is that it has already been tested in two previous ballots, in a referendum and a general election, and 400,000 voters have used the system without any problems or any challenges to the results. Feedback from voters who have used the system has been overwhelmingly positive. That includes politicians who are Members of this House. They have acknowledged it is a good system and were quite happy with it. There might be a different view in the House today, during this debate, but that is the position on the record.
Obviously, in the run-up to the election it will be important to step up the public information campaign. A key factor critical to the successful introduction of electronic voting will be to ensure that the public is fully informed and that people are totally comfortable about using the new system. The television and radio campaigns, allied to the road shows and billboard posters will ensure that voters are fully informed in advance of the elections. Change is never easy. People often fear the unknown. However, we should have no fears about this new system.
We have a proud position of independently run elections, providing results for which the people voted. This system will not change that, but will further enhance the quality of service to the voting public at elections. It will ensure a more accurate result in a much speedier fashion. We have a responsibility to embrace the change and to make reasoned and valued contributions so that the public can also recognise the merits of these proposals. I commend the Bill to the House.