I wish to be associated with the Ceann Comhairle's welcome. It may be a coincidence that yesterday we were speaking on a motion of no confidence in the Minister, while today he is under pressure regarding the introduction of electronic voting.
Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).
I am not under any pressure.
The Minster looks like a man under pressure.
I am wrong. I apologise. I am under ferocious pressure because of the smoking ban. That is where the pressure is.
My eyes are deceiving me. I regret that the Minister is under such pressure two days in succession. He might not have needed to be under any pressure regarding electronic voting if he had made a genuine effort to bring the Opposition parties with him. All of us in this Chamber would have liked to support electronic voting. The previous speaker said there is no difficulty in voting for it. No one has any problem with the machines. Everyone has a difficulty with trust in the machines and in the people introducing them. That is where the public's difficulty lies, not with the voting. The arrogance of the Minister has led us to the situation we are in today. It would have been much better if he had tried to bring everyone with him rather than bulldozing the legislation through.
We are discussing the Bill which will make this legal. A year ago, however, the Minister was pursuing the issue and, six months ago, he was buying the machines. They were then introduced with the contract signed on 19 December. Clearly, all this was done without Dáil approval, which was a serious mistake. It is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse.
I remind the Minister of the meeting of 18 December. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government. Early in December we were discussing this matter at the committee, and had decided to bring in experts from both sides of the debate — information technology experts, experts from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and representatives of the foreign manufacturers of the machines. We had a fruitful discussion in the morning, with 41 questions posed by the experts. After lunch we intended to continue the exchanges. The Minister was not at the meeting but must have been watching proceedings on his monitor. I do not know what happened during lunch time but there was a complete reversal of events afterwards. The Fianna Fáil members of the committee immediately put the matter to a vote to allow the Minister to proceed with the introduction of electronic voting. The meeting then concluded, some five or ten minutes after it had resumed after lunch. The contract was signed the following day, 19 December.
That was the major factor.
One would think I signed the contract myself.
The contract was signed with nothing decided.
The contract was signed and, four and a half months later, we are only now bringing the legislation before the Dáil. That is not the way to do business.
Sign the contract first and look for the money afterwards.
It has since been discovered through a freedom of information request that 4,500 voting machines costing €20 million had been imported before the contract was signed and that 1,100 of them were imported before the design was certified on 19 December. Somebody was in a great rush to facilitate the manufacturers of this machine and bring in electronic voting.
Men of action.
The Minister said that the purpose of the Bill is to provide primary legislation for the conduct of European, local and presidential elections and referendums using electronic voting. It also provides for the establishment of an independent electoral commission. Accordingly, the Bill will give the authority to the Minister to proceed with electronic voting whereas, before that, he had no authority to buy machines on behalf of the Government or anyone else.
I had the authority of the Oireachtas.
I did not interrupt the Minister and I wish he would have some manners and not interrupt me.
I would hate the Deputy to be incorrect.
According to the Minister, everything is incorrect except his own opinion.
This Bill will be passed by the Government majority when it goes to a vote either tomorrow or next week. The Progressive Democrats Party members, who have expressed serious reservations about this matter, have once more decided to roll over and protect their own positions.
They are falling on their swords.
What promise have they received on this occasion? Where are the self-proclaimed watchdogs of the Government? In particular, where is the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform whose general election posters urged people not to trust Fianna Fáil or single party government and to help elect Progressive Democrats candidates to keep an eye on them? That is what the Minister said, and what the people did. They elected Progressive Democrats candidates to ensure Fianna Fáil would not have an overall majority.
Tarzan did not deliver.
The Progressive Democrats members have now become more like Fianna Fáil than Fianna Fáil members.
They are worse.
They made some noises when the Minister, Deputy Cullen, was abroad, but they quickly quietened down when he returned. Clearly, the Minister knows a little of the mindset of the Progressive Democrats, having been a member himself. The public, however, cannot understand why the Progressive Democrats would cave in on this matter. That party's attitude seems to be one of not rocking the boat and continuing with its cosy arrangement.
This Bill will be passed by a majority, but there is more than that to governing, especially when it involves a precious democratic process. Governments were twice before in power for long periods. Such Governments, like the current one, become arrogant. Twice in the past a Government tried to change the voting system by abolishing proportional representation. Although the Government had a majority at the time, that attempted abolition was twice rejected by the people. The Minister says everyone is in favour of electronic voting, but I challenge him to put the matter to a referendum. Our Constitution states that all power comes from the people. This debate will not change the Government's mad desire to rush into electronic voting because we expect that the Progressive Democrats and some of the Independent Deputies strenuously opposed to electronic voting will support the Government.
Public opinion at the June elections will eventually change the Government. Given the arrogance with which the Government has pushed this matter through, I call on the people at the June elections to show their distaste by not supporting the Government parties. Where were the Progressive Democrats members when all this took place? They woke up for only a short period. The public will want more. It is not good enough for the Government to say that the machines are okay. The public wants more information. I will not go into the technicalities. They have been dealt with by other speakers, including Deputy Cuffe, who noted how dangerous and unreliable electronic voting could be under the proportional representation system. I will leave that to the experts.
Given what has been exposed regarding the working of politics in Ireland and involving people at the highest levels in Fianna Fáil over a number of years, and given all that has happened, people have lost confidence in politicians doing anything right. They are always looking for an excuse. The public agrees with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that Fianna Fáil is not to be trusted.
In his speech earlier the Minister claimed that the people now attacking him for going too far were the ones four years ago who wanted his predecessor to do more on the issue. He is also claiming that in those first four years, no one had anything concrete to say about electronic voting. However, it was not a public debate at the time. Those were the days when people had more trust in politics and politicians than they have now. It is all right for the Minister to say——
They trusted Fianna Fáil more than Fine Gael in 2002. Those are the facts.
I will ignore the Minister when he is in that mood. The Minister claimed that 87% of the people had no problem with electronic voting in the three pilot areas in the last election. I agree that 87% would have no problem with electronic voting, but the same number do not trust politicians or the possibility that there will be errors in the vote. They want a verifiable print-out audit. It is simply that and I cannot understand why the Minister is not giving it.
What would that mean?
Allow Deputy McCormack to continue without interruption.
The Minister had his opportunity to——
The machine will only print the result. What does the Deputy want the machine to print?
Allow Deputy McCormack to continue without interruption.
It is easy to see why people are suspicious of this move to e-voting. Whether the Minister likes this, the perception is that some politicians might be tempted to interfere with the electronic voting system.
Then remove it.
Allow Deputy McCormack to continue. The Minister will have an opportunity to respond at the end of the debate.
That perception is there because of the exposure of some politicians' past activities, many at the highest level of Fianna Fáil. Compared to that, fiddling with the electronic voting system would be nothing.
Fine Gael would be better off out canvassing to win a few seats in the local elections. Things must not look good for its candidates.
I know what the people on the ground are thinking on this issue.
In his Second Stage speech the Minister made arrogant remarks which I consider a personal insult. He stated:
I have no doubt that at certain times in recent debates, Fine Gael spokespeople [that includes me] genuinely have not known what they were talking about. . . . This will not have been the first time Fine Gael have looked through the wrong end of the telescope ...
I resent those remarks because all Members are elected by the people. Irrespective of his perceived intelligence compared to my intelligence——
I never mentioned the Deputy. I was not even thinking of him when I said that.
Of course those are not the Minister's words. Those are the words of an official or a programme manager.
Unlike the Minister, I have been elected while representing the one party. The people have confidence in me. I might not be as much an intellectual as the Minister.
I was not even thinking of the Deputy.
I am elected to represent the viewpoints of the ordinary people on the ground. They do not trust Fianna Fáil or this Minister in introducing electronic voting because of the strong possibility of interference. The sooner the Minister realises that——
Why is Fine Gael down to 20 odd seats in the Dáil?
The sooner you realise that and try to bring all the parties into——
If Deputy McCormack will address his remarks through the Chair, he might not provoke the Minister.
A Cheann Comhairle, come back on the other side of the House. The Minister has spent the whole day mouthing off. He should go out and smoke a cigarette to relax.
That is a good idea.
The Minister will not insult me as a public representative. I am elected by the same vote as the Minister. I will represent——
That is what the people are saying. They are afraid of the mechanics——
Fine Gael is out of touch.
The people are afraid that the system will be fiddled. One cannot programme a ballot paper in advance but a machine can be programmed against voters' intentions. I will not take that rubbish about the Fine Gael representatives from the Minister.
The Minister for Finance——
Minister, you will have an opportunity to reply at the end of debate.
If the Minister listened more to the people on the ground as I do and brought the Opposition parties with him, this debate would not be taking place.
The Minister for Finance——
The Minister can interrupt all he likes. It is obvious that he does not like what he hears. A Cheann Comhairle, can he just close up?
Deputy McCormack, without interruption.
The Minister should have the manners to close up.
Deputy McCormack, now that we have the Minister silent, perhaps you will address your remarks through the Chair.
It is not easy.
He is not silent at all, he is making faces and grinning.
Can the Deputy stop? I will not say anymore.
I appeal to the Minister, if he has any intelligence left, which I believe he does, to re-examine this legislation. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Tutu, said recently how wonderful it would be if politicians could bring themselves to admit they are only fallible and not God. By this definition they can make mistakes. If the Minister took Archbishop Tutu's advice, he would be a far better man.
I am already that.
The Minister will not be diminished by admitting to a mistake on this legislation and acknowledging that the public has no confidence in the electronic voting machines. Our Constitution states that all power comes from the people. The Minister should realise this and I appeal to him to stall this legislation and respect what is laid down in the Constitution. By doing so, he will restore the people's confidence in the democratic process and the institutions of the State.
Will he rise to the occasion? I do not believe he will by the attitude he is displaying in the Chamber. However, it will be the people who will decide on this matter. There will be a sham Dáil vote on this Bill, with the Progressive Democrats and Independent Members who are against the Bill voting for it to ensure the Government survives. However, on 11 June it will be up to me and others, such as Deputy Ring, to ask the people to give their verdict on the Government's arrogance and the Minister's enforcement of electronic voting without the simple safeguards we are seeking. I would be delighted to welcome electronic voting but only if the safeguards sought by the people are included. There is no reason that a print-out paper trail cannot be provided.
It is not available in other states.
The problem does not lie in how people would be able to vote but in the trust they have in our democratic electoral system, which is the most important issue to them. Why is the Minister resisting this so fiercely? In his speech he stated:
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.
Why would it not improve it? It is the Minister's duty to give the people what they want. He questioned the receipting process and claimed it creates many difficult problems. He stated: "A dual system would also enable every voter to put in question the accuracy and validity of his or her electronically cast vote."
If Fine Gael had its way, we would still be working in candlelight.
If that puts a doubt in the electronic vote cast, that is the first acknowledgement by the Minister of a doubt in the system.
What is the rush in respect of this provision? Why is this legislation being introduced?
The Deputy has one minute remaining.
I thought I had more time remaining than that. I lost a great deal of time because the Minister ignorantly interrupted me.
Why is the Minister rushing the introduction of electronic voting? When I am in my office every Monday dealing with constituents, nobody comes to ask me about electronic voting. They ask how they can get an appointment in a hospital after it has been cancelled four times, how they can get their children on an orthodontic waiting list so that their treatment can be carried out, or how they can get a bed for their mother who has spent 18 hours on a hospital trolley. People in west Galway are asking about such things; nobody is asking me about electronic voting.
They are not asking the Deputy about it because they are happy with it.
They are asking me why their operations have been cancelled.
It is only the Deputy's blackguarding in here that is raising the issue.
They do not want electronic voting.
The public are very happy.
It is a hobby horse. The Minister wants to have something after his name after his four years in Government. The Taoiseach wanted the Bertie bowl, the Minister for Health and Children wants to be remembered for prohibiting smoking and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government wants to be remembered for electronic voting. The electorate might hang it around his neck in June, when the people will give their verdict on electronic voting.
He will be electrocuted.
We would welcome electronic voting in certain circumstances. The Minister is laughing.
I am amused by the Deputy's colleague.
The Minister has been interrupting my contribution and skitting——
I would not skit.
——but the people will give him his answer on 11 June. I will make this issue part of my election campaign.
That is a wise decision.
I will make it part of my platform.
That is wise.
Allow Deputy McCormack to conclude.
I will include electronic voting in my election platform because the Minister has arrogantly introduced it without seeking the assistance of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. He instructed members of the joint committee to bring to an end the work they were doing to try to iron out certain difficulties and to answer certain questions.
Is the Minister leaving?
He will be back.
I wish he had left before I started my contribution, as it would have been easier for me to make it.
The Deputy's time has concluded
The Minister's time is certainly concluded.
I wish to inform the House that I have to leave to meet the director general of UNESCO.
I wish the Minister had left long ago, as we would have had a much more constructive debate. I would have made a less emotional contribution if the Minister had not interrupted me. I apologise for that, a Cheann Comhairle.
As Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government, I wish to clarify a suggestion that was made earlier. I can honestly say that I received no instruction — good, bad or indifferent — from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government about how to deal with electronic voting.
Did he tell the Deputy to say that as well?
I ask the Deputy to listen. Deputies make all sorts of wild allegations, but I am trying to put the truth on the record.
Did the Deputy receive any text today?
An allegation has been made about the role the Minister played in the work of a committee. As the Chairman of the committee in question, I can say that I received no instructions from the Minister or anyone else about how we should deal with the subject. If one is to make a credible contribution, it is important that one can substantiate one's remarks. There is no basis — good, bad or indifferent — for what was said a moment ago. I realise that Deputy McCormack was excited by the way the Minister dealt with him and some of the replies he gave. It is obvious that he is not too happy with the way the Minister has handled the matter.
The programme manager told the Deputy to say that.
We are in a privileged position here, so it is important that people do not abuse that privilege.
It is not as if the Minister did not interrupt.
Deputy Power should not lecture us. Fianna Fáil Members were well able to throw rubbish when they were over here.
Deputy Ring will have an opportunity to make a contribution shortly.
I am looking forward to it.
I hope the Deputy will be accorded the courtesy of making his contribution without interruption.
I will keep quiet.
I ask him to afford that courtesy to Deputy Power now.
Given that Deputy Ring was so reluctant to accept the verdict of the courts, it is understandable that he is reluctant to accept the views of those on this side of the House.
What did the Deputy say? I ask him to repeat his remarks.
It has been a busy week for the Minister, Deputy Cullen. The Green Party decided to table a motion of no confidence in him, on which we will vote later tonight. The Minister commenced the Second Stage debate on the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004 earlier today. The Bill will make provisions in primary legislation for the conduct of future elections and referenda, using voting machines and electronic vote counting. It seeks to establish an independent commission to report on the secrecy and accuracy of the arrangements proposed for electronic voting. The one certainty in respect of elections is that they seem to bring out the worst in politicians. It is certain that politicians seem to lose the run of themselves in the run-up to elections, when common sense goes out the window. I have listened to some of the totally inappropriate contributions that have been made today. I refer in particular to the attacks on the Minister, Deputy Cullen, who has been described as arrogant.
Why did he not keep quiet when I was talking?
For far too long, we have criticised Ministers from all parties for not being decisive and not taking action when it was required. Since the appointment of Deputy Cullen as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, he has been decisive, on top of his brief and busy. I commend him on the policies he has pursued and his work so far in his capacity as Minister. The view that he has been good for the environment is shared throughout the country, generally speaking. I ask those Members who have spoken about arrogance to clarify their view of arrogance. If one is arrogant because one is sure of the policies one wants to implement and one is decisive in their implementation, then the Minister is arrogant. If that is his only sin, I hope he remains that way.
Having listened to some of the previous speakers, one might believe that the Minister is trying to force on the Irish electorate a new system that has not been heard of or used in any other quarter. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Dáil and the Seanad approved the introduction of electronic voting when the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 was passed. Electronic voting was consequently introduced on a trial basis in three constituencies at the last general election. If I recall correctly, the only criticism that was made of the system at the time related to the manner in which the former Deputy, Nora Owen, was told that she had lost her seat. During a Private Members' debate in the House on 18 February last, Deputy Glennon explained to us that the returning officer asked the candidates if they wished to be informed of the result of the election privately or publicly. The candidates agreed that the announcement would be made publicly so that they could all hear the news at the same time. We have learned a great deal from that incident. Regardless of one's political allegiances, one could not fail to feel genuine sympathy for Nora Owen on that occasion.
Following the success of the experiment in the 2002 general election, the electronic voting system was used in seven other constituencies in the second Nice referendum later that year. In the run-up to the 2002 general election, many people expressed concern about how older people would use the electronic voting system. They wondered if it was asking too much of older people to use such a system and speculated that it might cause them to stay away from polling stations. Surveys that were conducted after the election indicated that the new system was the subject of widespread approval following its trial run. The Government decided to proceed with the introduction of electronic voting for future elections and referenda as a consequence of its success at the 2002 polls.
I was surprised when Opposition Members expressed concern about the Government's proposed introduction of electronic voting at the European and local elections. The Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government decided to deal with the matter in some detail. We were fortunate to hear presentations from experts, including people with general expertise in the IT area and people experienced in dealing with elections. This opened our eyes to what we were letting ourselves in for with the new system. However, there is one certainty, regardless of what system we introduce — there is no such thing as a perfect system. Every system requires a certain amount of trust. The Minister explained earlier about the difficulties that previously existed, some of which were quite simple — if a presiding officer failed to stamp a ballot paper, for example, it could not be counted. We have seen this happen on umpteen occasions, resulting in Members on all sides losing out narrowly. If presiding officers did their jobs — if human error had not occurred — the results might have been different.
During our deliberations in committee I listened to all the contributions and I am convinced that some people have genuine concerns about the introduction of electronic voting. I am also convinced that some people will never be satisfied no matter what safeguards are introduced. It is important, however, that when we introduce a new system it is not good enough for Members of this House, even a majority of Members, to have faith in it. It is vital that the electorate has the utmost confidence in the system and that we encourage its members to use it.
A number of presentations to the committee were made by independent people, while others admitted they had political affiliations. I do not see any difficulty with this. If people come in and show their hand, we know where they are coming from. In general, the contributions were very professional and helpful. We probably would have liked a little longer to discuss the matter, but that did not happen.
The role of an Opposition party, particularly from a legislative point of view, is to scrutinise legislation when it is introduced and propose appropriate amendments if it sees fit. However, some of the contributions to this debate have been incredible. If some of the Members were to look back at the contributions they and their colleagues made in 2001, they would be embarrassed.
Deputy McCormack said that people on the ground do not trust Fianna Fáil to run the election or do this, that or the other.
It is a fact.
I am honoured to be a member of Fianna Fáil and it is a great honour and privilege for me to represent Fianna Fáil and the constituency of Kildare in the House. However, it is not Fianna Fáil that runs elections.
It will be now.
As the Minister pointed out this morning, the people who ran the last general election will run the next election.
The former director of elections for Fianna Fáil will be running the election, not the Department.
The Deputy should come off it.
We fight elections and we will be fighting the next election. We can be proud of our record. We must have a very stupid and foolish electorate if they return us as the number one party in the country election after election.
Has the Deputy seen what is going on in the tribunals? The people know what is going on. They know what Fianna Fáil has done. They have no trust in any politician.
I do see what is going on. Like other Members, I have read and listened attentively to the proceedings of the tribunals. It gives me no pleasure, but I will not do penance for the sins of former Members of the House. I am convinced that the vast majority of those who come into the House come with the best intentions.
I agree with the Deputy, but that is not what the people think. I know what they are telling me.
The Deputy seems to know what they are thinking all the time. Unfortunately, I do not have that gift, but we will wait till the next election. It serves us to do our best while we are here and refrain from pointing the finger at certain former Members.
Like the Minister, who was pointing the finger at us.
We will leave that to the tribunals and let them get on with their work.
It has been mentioned that Fianna Fáil cannot be trusted to count the votes. We will not be counting the votes — we will win the votes. That is our job, to fight elections.
It will be setting the machines. Is that not enough?
It is a pity that people cannot be more constructive. We could accept Deputies' contributions in a more meaningful way if they would stick to saying things with some basis in truth and not engage in this rubbish. It is hard to listen to people when they cannot speak sense and cannot resist the opportunity to have a political dig.
The cost of the introduction of electronic voting has been mentioned a number of times. It is important to look back at previous elections in this regard. I tabled some questions to the Minister for Finance recently about the cost of holding general elections. The reply stated:
While the definitive cost of the last general election, held in May 2002, has not yet been finalised, the provisional estimate of cost is €20 million approximately. Of this, postal expenses cost almost €8 million, purchase of electronic voting machines for the three constituencies where they were used cost €3.3 million, while the balance was for other returning officers' expenses, for example, fees for staff.
I asked a similar question about referenda and the reply stated:
It has not been possible in the time available to provide the information sought by the Deputy in respect of the last five referenda. As soon as my officials have collated the data, I will supply the Deputy with the information sought. In the meantime, for the Deputy's information, the provisional estimate of costs of the last two referenda is: Treaty of Nice referendum in October 2002 — €10.9 million and referendum on the protection of human life in pregnancy in March 2002 — €7.2 million.
This shows that regardless of the system in place, elections are not cheap. They are a necessary part of any democracy. Most people are keen for us to introduce a more modern type of voting system. However, it is important that they have faith in whatever system we decide to introduce.
The Minister established an independent commission some weeks ago to examine the issue of electronic voting. He has indicated that should the commission raise serious concerns or even suggest that electronic voting should not be used in the forthcoming election, it will not be used. It does not serve any great purpose for people to cast aspersions on the members of that commission or question their independence. We are fortunate to have people who were prepared at very short notice to serve on the commission. They will do the country a great service. We could all rattle off the names of people we would like to see on the commission — people of great integrity — but it does not serve any purpose. We should be helpful to members of the commission rather than wondering why other people are not on it.
I congratulate the Minister for introducing this legislation, as he promised when discussing this matter during Private Members' business some weeks ago. The Minister and the Government have no intention of bringing in a system that would give an unfair advantage to any party, and I do not think people believe in their hearts that this is the case. The system has been used and tested. There is no such thing as a perfect system, but there will not be many discrepancies because the machines are so difficult to interfere with.
Over the years we have seen a significant increase in the number of spoiled votes. The Minister and his officials have examined this matter in some detail and they are convinced that many votes are spoiled unintentionally. I indicated during the Private Members' discussion that I had purposely spoiled my vote in a previous referendum. I would like to think that we would still have that facility for people. There are occasions, particularly in referenda, where people who have not made up their minds may not wish to vote either "Yes" or "No", although they may wish to fulfil their duty to vote. If the opportunity is not there for them to spoil their vote, it could lead to a smaller voter turnover, and will reduce the choice that people currently have. Every effort should be made to encourage people to take part in the democratic system. Unfortunately, we have seen dwindling numbers participating in elections and referenda, so that matter should be rectified because we would all benefit. Regardless of how people vote, we want to see people voting in greater numbers.
I commend the Bill to the House and thank the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for his decisive role. If we had more people like him, the country would be in a better position.
Deputy Seán Power is Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment and Local Government so I want to remind him of the day on which the committee debated this Bill. On that occasion, a famous Independent Member, Deputy Jackie Healy-Rae, spoke for about three hours in opposition to the Bill and said how he would stop the legislation. When the vote was called in the afternoon, however, the Deputy was missing but he sent his good friend, Deputy Fox, in to vote for the Government.
When Fine Gael tabled a motion on the smoking ban to allow people to vote on it as they wished, Deputy Healy-Rae voted with the Government not to allow such a debate.
As regards this Bill, I am totally opposed to electronic voting. The people do not want it and did not ask for it. This is another attack on rural Ireland because of the costs involved. I want the Minister of State to deal with this point in his reply. The Mayo County Registrar has said that if we have electronic voting in June, half the county's polling booths will be closed down, particularly in rural parts of the county. That is a disgrace and it is anti-democratic. It is wrong to close down rural polling booths simply because of the cost factor and the fact that insufficient numbers of people have been trained to staff them.
As a councillor, did the Deputy agree to a revision of the polling scheme?
No, I did not. It has not yet come before the council but when it does I will reject it.
I wonder. I bet the two things are not connected at all.
I suppose the Fianna Fáil hypocrites will vote it through but I will oppose it in the council and here. The people have no confidence in electronic voting. I remind the Minister of State and his Department about what happened in America which, we are told, is the greatest country in the world. A presidential election was held there in November 2000 and another one will be held this November. The current US President was not properly elected, however, because in Florida the polling machines collapsed and the votes were falsified. There was uproar as a result because the Democratic candidate, Mr. Al Gore, was deprived of the presidency. That is what happened when Gore's supporters wanted to cast their votes for him.
It is more like a lotto machine in America — it is an entirely different system.
Will the Minister of State be quiet?
The Deputy should know his facts.
Will the Minister of State be quiet and listen to me for a few minutes?
It is an entirely different system.
We are sick and tired of listening to the anti-democrats on the Government benches. I have the floor and all I have is a few minutes in which to contribute to the debate.
The Deputy should talk sense.
The Americans put people on the moon and they are now talking about going to Mars. They claimed to be able to bomb buildings without killing people. It is a great country but they could not run their presidential election in 2000. They made a mess of it with electronic voting. People here do not want electronic voting for a number of reasons. People tell me they will not vote in the local elections because they do not trust electronic voting.
At the moment, we cannot deal with the Internet due to the rubbish and filth that features on various websites. When Deputies go through their e-mails every morning, we have to make judgments as to which ones we will open because if we open the wrong one a virus may destroy the system.
The system is not connected to the Internet.
The Deputy should shut up because he will get his opportunity to speak in a few minutes. The mouthpiece for Fianna Fáil should be quiet.
I just want to educate the Deputy.
People cannot do their business on the Internet.
You should protect Deputy Ring, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
I thank Deputy Howlin very much. The Chair is quick enough to write to me but it never protects me. I do not want protection, however, I want to be able to fight my corner.
Deputy Ring is talking about systems that are different from ours. Our system is not on line, that is nonsense.
The Minister of State should sit down.
The Deputy should talk about the real issue.
Does the Minister of State smoke?
No, I do not.
The Government Members are suffering from the effects of the smoking ban this week. They should sit down and be quiet. If they want to go out for a fag, I will wait a few minutes until they come back. I do not mind if the Deputy smokes up in the gallery. I do not have a problem if he wants to have a fag but he should be quiet. They are all getting impatient this week, whatever is wrong with them.
We cannot control e-mails. Last week, I read a newspaper report that banks are losing €30,000 a month from fraudulent use of cash machines, so how can we trust electronic voting? How can we trust that voting system when it will not be controlled by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? An outside agency is dealing with this and the Minister of State might as well accept that a former Fianna Fáil secretary is in that company. I do not wish to be disrespectful to anybody, and I will not name anyone, but I do not think that is right. As bad as the electronic system is, I would not have a problem if the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Electoral Commission were dealing with it. However, it is not right for an outside agency to have control and to set up the programmes.
That is only a PR company, it is not the bloody system.
That is what will happen — we will have a situation where somebody will determine who is in this House. It is all right for the Minister of State to shout at me because he is in Fianna Fáil and since Fianna Fáil is in this company, he will be safe. It is we in opposition who have to worry, but the Government Members do not have to worry because they will have as many seats as possible.
I do not support electronic voting because I do not think it is right. The public does not want it either. Some €40 million has been spent on the introduction of electronic voting. Big money has been paid out to companies, yet we will have no control, no say and do not even hold the key to the system — the company holds the key.
A foreign company.
It is not right, and it is a foreign company at that. Eamon de Valera would turn in his grave if he knew Fianna Fáil was allowing a foreign company to run our elections. Michael Collins and others who died for the State fought to get rid of them, yet the Government is bringing them back to control who will be in this House. What has gone wrong with Fianna Fáil, for God's sake? It is no wonder it is dropping the term "republican party" from its logo. I do not know what it will call itself now.
The e-voting party.
That is right. Nobody wants electronic voting. The Government has made a mistake. It is time we realised that people are happy with the way elections have been run. I am disappointed the media are not taking a more active role in this debate, although much of the media did not agree with my campaign in favour of retaining the dual mandate. A few years ago, when the Government was talking about banning opinion polls a week before an election, there was a big outcry from the media and their representatives in this House and the Upper House. The media fought against that idea because they felt it was interfering with their right to decide what they wanted to say, and they have a lot to say at election time. I have no problem with what they have to say, but I have a problem with the fact that they did not do more to take up the issue of electronic voting. The people like elections and the day of the count. The Minister of State, his Department and all political parties have been encouraging people to vote and to get involved in the political process no matter which party they support. Prior to the last election, posters were banned outside polling stations and party activists were not allowed to stand outside. What is wrong with us? Are we gone mad? At least on election day there used to be a little excitement outside the polling stations and the public and the media waited in anticipation on the day of the count while the tallymen had their day. Why take that out of politics? It is part of Irish life. Why do we want to take it away? We want to show that Ireland is a wonderful, sophisticated country and that we can use e-mail and electronic voting. However, we are taking from the people's interest in voting and getting involved in the political process.
Reference was made to what happened to former Deputy, Nora Owen. I am surprised that the people who lost their seats in the constituencies where the electronic voting trial was conducted did not take a case to the courts. If the Government is serious about electronic voting, I challenge it and the Department to use both systems on 11 June. Let us use the old system and the new system to see how both work out. What is wrong with that? Let us have a trial of ordinary voting and electronic voting on the one day, particularly where there are close counts to compare the results from the machines and the ordinary count. If the Government and the Minister of State are prepared to do that, they will go a long way to reassuring people they are serious about electronic voting and taking their concerns on board.
However, they are not prepared to do that. They are prepared to bully this legislation through the Oireachtas and put it before the people who do not want it. They will not provide the paper trail whereby people will know for certain their vote will be for the person they want and will not be programmed into a machine by a person in Holland, Germany or a political office in Ireland. That doubt should not be there.
That is a fair challenge. It is a compromise if the Government is serious. It will give people an opportunity to at least compare electronic voting and ordinary voting. If the Government does this and deals with the paper trail, it will go a long way to satisfying people. There should be a check. Under the old system, the officials at the polling booth noted the number of votes cast and, when the ballot box was emptied on the day of the count, the presiding officer could check the number to see if they matched. There will be no matching under the electronic voting system because there is no paper trail and that is a major concern. The Government was asked to address this previously and did not do so. It should be dealt with now.
Why is the Government taking away the enjoyment of elections for people, particularly on the day of the count? The Government is pushing the legislation through with haste. Why is there such a hurry? There is a presidential election this year. Could the Government not have used that election to run a trial since there will only be three or four candidates? The Government has taken a big decision because there will be local authority, town council and European Parliament elections on the same day. If the Government's programme managers are to be believed given what they have been spelling out to the media, there could even be a referendum on the same day.
There is nothing wrong with the old system and I ask the Minister of State to give my proposal a trial because it is a reasonable request. I am worried about this issue. I attended three AGMs the other night.
I was relieved roads, health and agriculture issues were not debated but electronic voting was the issue people asked me about and debated all night. The Minister of State should not cod himself and think the people are not concerned or clued in. They know what is going on and——
The other problems must have been solved.
Deputy Dennehy will follow me and he will be his usual self. He always waits for me to go first and then he follows me but I am waiting for him and I will get him the next time.
I said nothing.
Fine Gael, the other Opposition parties and the people do not like this legislation. This is a serious situation. We have heard about corruption in politics for 20 years. I am only a Member for a short time but we were abused on this side of the House for running a decent man out of politics. There was a great deal of concern in the past about what was happening in politics and the tribunals are bearing that out. There is concern about electronic voting. I do not want to wait five or ten years to find there was a fault in the system and find myself on the streets even though the people voted for me to be here but some guy with a machine decided otherwise. That should not be allowed.
We fought hard for our independence, our Parliament and to make sure the country was run by Irish people. I oppose electronic voting. The Minister of State and the Government should pull back. If they want, they can have a go with both systems on the same day. What they are doing is wrong. In all my time in politics, I never met a more arrogant Minister than Deputy Cullen. He might be arrogant in the House but, when the people get the opportunity, they will be arrogant with the Government. They will be waiting for the Government on 11 June. The Government parties should not spoil their opportunity to deal with them. The people should be given the opportunity to vote the ordinary way because we will never believe the result if they go through with electronic voting. The people will not accept whatever decision is made.
I ask the Minister of State to pull back on the issue of electronic voting. The Progressive Democrats are concerned but we are sick and tired of their concern. If they are concerned, they will vote with us against the legislation. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was aggressive towards Fine Gael in his contribution. How dare he? We are Members, democratically elected by the people, and we have a right to say, as a party, what we want in the House. We will take no guff from him and his programme managers who write his contributions. I will deal with him on another day. I would like to say a great deal more but my throat is gone so I will leave it at that.
I promise I will make only three references to Deputy Ring. First, I compliment the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Local Government on making the Deputy speechless for the first time ever. Second, having solved all the other problems at the meetings the Deputy attended, there is serious trouble in the Fine Gael camp. Deputy Ring is saying he will not support electronic voting under any circumstances, yet earlier his party spokesman stated electronic voting is good. There is a split in the camp.
There is a split in the Fianna Fáil camp. Its backbenchers do not want electronic voting.
Deputy Ring referred to the replication of voting systems. We could use pigeons and mail coaches because An Post is on strike. However, we must move on and make a little progress.
I too welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate as I have an interest in voting and everything relating to it. The first of the four primary objectives in the Bill is to enable electronic voting in non-Dáil elections. It is difficult for some Members to understand why we need this Bill when one considers that Dáil Éireann had already agreed to carry out pilot projects at general elections in which one votes to elect the Government of the day. I understand the Minister's concern at the Mulcreevy judgment. It is of concern that we must copperfasten legislation when the clearly stated intentions of the Oireachtas have been enunciated and laid out in legislation. I appreciate that the Minister recognised the critical importance of the voting process and wants to ensure there is no legal impediment to that process. This issue will have to be revisited to allow a discussion on the enactment of legislation and its potential interpretation outside the Oireachtas. The Minister is ensuring that the legal avenues are well covered.
The second priority is to establish an independent electoral commission that will report on the secrecy and accuracy of the arrangements for electronic voting. The members of this commission comprise ex officio and appointed members who are willing to serve in the public interest. This is the most cost-effective method available to the State. Members will have served on a boundary commission and, until now, I have never heard a member who was willing to serve on such a commission being publicly vilified. It is regrettable that members of this commission, especially non-party political members with a particular expertise who serve in the public interest, were insulted and humiliated.
Deputy Allen described them as "highly esteemed members of the commission" but that smacks of Fine Gael playing "bad cop, good cop" when one considers what happened a month ago. It is important to point out that, because of the office they hold, these same officials would be appointed regardless of who formed the Government. The ex officio members are willing to serve and they should not be lambasted or humiliated. It does no credit to those who descend to that level of political negativity and, more importantly, we could lose the benefit of having such expertise available to the State which inevitably will lead to the State having to use highly paid experts. From my experience on the Committee of Public Accounts I am aware of how much it could cost to do this type of work. I am sure that those indulging in such behaviour now will raise their heads over the parapet to complain about the use of consultants.
Deputy Allen stated that it was becoming a controversial issue. I agree that it has become controversial but that did not happen by accident. What were the motives of those who made this issue such? The public may not be aware that the Dáil had agreed to conduct trials in three constituencies and had discussed the question of having electronic voting for local and European elections as far back as 1999. One must question why it has suddenly become a controversial issue now and who has worked to make it controversial. We can follow that paper trail relatively easily.
That is because there is a paper trail.
The answer to both those questions is fairly obvious. It is controversial because Members who did not offer very much on the issue when it was discussed now see an opportunity to add to the confusion that comes with change. It is always highlighted in training that change can lead to insecurity and people need to be reassured. Deputy Sean Power stated that, when one compares what was said some years ago with what Members are saying now, it is hard to credit that Members are making the comment. Everybody is entitled to change his or her view on an issue if more information becomes available, but this is a case of the direct opposite. As more changes are made to facilitate and improve the Bill, complaints are added and create confusion. The Opposition have so few policy proposals to offer it is willing to make this a controversial issue. None could have put it better than Deputy Ring who stated that, at the three important party meetings he attended in the past day or so, only electronic voting was raised and issues such as health, employment, farming and so on were not mentioned.
That is because the Government has made a mess of it.
That is probably the best compliment that could be paid to the Government that at three Opposition party meetings, the members did not have a single complaint.
It shows the level of distrust.
That is a great achievement. We should reflect in the glory of it. I am happy that they feel that way in the west. I hope those in the rest of the country have as few problems.
The Deputy should wait until 11 June and he will know all about it.
I believe electronic voting will be a long-term improvement. The process should have the support of all democratic parties involved in politics.
Does the Deputy remember what happened the last time?
Deputy Allen pointed out that electronic voting is a good idea, but Deputy Ring would not have it under any circumstances.
The Deputy should know.
It is legitimate to ask why I consider electronic voting to be good. We could analyse it on two fronts. First, what effect will this Bill have on the forthcoming local and European elections? How can electronic voting be modified once it is accepted into use? One must walk before one can run. I will comment on potential improvements.
The first and most important issue is to avoid spoilt votes as such votes may have an important bearing on the result of any election. Few Deputies will have more experience than I of tied votes at general elections. As well as facing a recount in the 2002 general election, I was closely involved in the 1982 general election when two of my colleagues, Deputy Dan Wallace and the then Deputy Sean French were separated by five or six votes. It was in that context that 1.1% of all the votes cast were spoilt. While I do not know how the figure was arrived at, it seems that 95% of those votes were inadvertently spoiled. There were 46,000 votes spoiled at the previous European election. At the 1982 recount for my seat, less than ten votes were involved, as was the case for former Deputies Ben Briscoe and Eric Byrne. More than 20,000 votes were spoiled. I would have expected Members to say that electronic voting was great and would at least help to reduce that problem. I do not suggest we can eliminate the problem by 100% but, if we can remove 95% of spoiled votes, we will do a great deal of good for all candidates. There are many examples, especially in local elections. Members from other constituencies could quote instances of tight counts.
The fun and excitement of the count, which can last for a week as it has in my case, is great for the hangers on, but no matter how much Deputy Ring enjoys it, it is not good for the candidate.
It is good for politics.
It is great to go to a pub and have a few drinks if one is a tallyman or a hanger on who is up in the middle of the night. However, it is not good for people who have to stand for election to add a week of counting and recounting to the process. That is not part of Irish life. People should not have to wait around.
Deputy Dennehy does not believe that.
Elections are not for candidates.
Fianna Fáil has plenty of hangers on.
We have usually won elections at the end of the day, but we will take our beating if we must. Some of us have managed to return to the House having taken a beating, which says a great deal about our ability to continue and win back the public.
Given the facts I have quoted, we must look for a more efficient counting method. If this Bill were not before us, we should nonetheless be calling for a method. In referring to the electronic system's potential, I have in mind the blind and poorly sighted who could use voice and other technology. The issue of a full count was raised, although the system to be introduced will take only a random sampling. I would like to see a full, clear count to the last vote with 100% of transfers integrated. That can be achieved, although it will not happen in the forthcoming elections as the legislation is in place to limit it. We should consider full counting immediately after the local elections to ensure a proper count of the public's votes rather than depend on a random sample.
There are several other areas in which improvements could be made. In that context, it is the basic agreement to use modern technology which is needed now. If we agree to that, we can move past the Luddite approach — a phrase I hate to use — referred to by others. We must move on with the rest of the world.
Some concerns about the system have been raised. People have referred to the wish to spoil one's vote. I am not terribly concerned about that issue in the case of people who can walk to or from the polling station. I am more concerned about those who do not get to exercise their franchise. A total of 46,000 people were disenfranchised in the European elections I referred to earlier, as were a further 20,000 in the general election due to bureaucracy or poor methods. There are many others who are disenfranchised including maternity and urgent medical cases. They could be facilitated by technology. There should be a method for enfranchising them and we will have to move forward to ensure they are facilitated. A great deal of rubbish is spoken about fining people who do not vote and lowering the age requirement when we should be facilitating 100% of those who are trying to vote.
I received a postal voting form during the week from the British union, Amicus. It is very simple in Britain where anyone can apply for a postal vote without having to give a reason. If one cannot get to a polling station for any reason or simply does not wish to go there, one applies for and receives a ballot paper. That is an example of the facilitation of the public. If I were to suggest the same system here, I would hear warnings that the system would be abused.
It was tried.
Postal voting was tried but it had to be abandoned because of abuse by Fianna Fáil in hospitals etc.
It shows the difference in thinking when it comes to facilitating people. In our case, we refuse to use a new machine in case all the votes are properly counted. Let us move forward. We should not be afraid of technology.
Replication was raised. It is like saying everybody who sends out an e-mail must also send a hard copy. The reason the electronic method is used is cost. We know what the costs involved are as Deputy Seán Power recorded them in the House. I love to see people doing well and to see a man earning double and treble time. I have been a trade unionist since I was 16. However, if we can use technology, we should modernise things. Modern technology is capable of facilitating people through postal votes and other means. There are people who find themselves, through work or 101 other circumstances, far from their constituencies on polling day. For example, their car might break down. They should be facilitated and they can be with modern technology. They cannot be facilitated through the old-fashioned system of using a paper ballot and a metal box.
I saw a garda closing the door of a polling station in Glasheen national school in the face of a man who had driven from north Galway. The garda closed the door on the stroke of 9 p.m. not knowing the man or for whom he intended to vote. He was a committed democrat to have driven all that way.
Would electronic voting have helped him if his car had broken down?
That sort of thing should not happen. If the man was elsewhere, he should have been able to vote. I received the majority of the votes from that polling station and odds were he would have been voting Dennehy.
We love to speak about how sacred the vote is and how long we fought for the right, but that is old cant. We should take action and move forward in a meaningful manner. Let us use modern technology to ensure that, when a vote is cast, it counts. We must use it to facilitate as many people as possible to vote in privacy.
Deputy Morgan had concerns about the role of the Minister, Deputy Cullen, as Fianna Fáil director of elections and Minister with responsibility for electronic voting. There is an old saying which covers Deputy Morgan's attitude very well. If one had said that to old people 50 or 60 years ago, they would have said that evil haunts the guilty mind. I will say no more on that. Deputy McCormack said the Minister appeared to be under pressure, which demonstrates how deceiving appearances can be. The Deputy made the important point that there was nothing wrong with the machines. It is an important point for people like Deputy Ring to note. They have a fear of technology.
My fear is of Fianna Fáil and I will have it until the day I die. I trust machines.
The Deputy should be given private instruction. I am sure we could convert him. As we know, he is a committed democrat and, given the right circumstances and opportunity, he could be brought around.
There was a time in Mayo when the ballots were found in toilets.
For public consumption and newer Members, electronic voting has been referred to in two Acts already. The electronic system was demonstrated to all political parties prior to 2002, yet they are suddenly saying they cannot find the right button to press.
The Deputy should conclude.
Yes, he should.
He has to cast his vote.
Under the new system, a person can spoil his or her vote. That is catered for under objective three. Electronic voting is being introduced to get rid of the waste of 1.1% of the public's votes. A published audit trail will be available to those who, like some of us in the past, must have resort to the courts. It will be possible to print the full poll, the results of which will not simply disappear into cyberspace. I welcome the Bill and discussion on it which I hope will serve to enlighten Members and enable us to encourage the 20% to 30% who have not been able to vote to come to polling stations or vote from home by mechanical means.
In introducing this Bill, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government said that the Opposition might well take a constructive approach that would be reasoned and temperate. I will try to take this approach as I believe the issue demands it.
Given that he invited me not to interrupt him as he intended paying attention to what I have to say, I am sorry that Deputy Dennehy is not remaining in the Chamber to hear my contribution. No doubt he will have a chance to study my contribution in due course. I was astounded by Deputy Dennehy's characterisation of Opposition contributions as "old cant". Opposition Deputies spoke about democracy as a cornerstone of our nation and on the right to vote. That Deputy Dennehy characterised this as old cant tells us an awful lot.
Democracy is a fragile enough flower. It has not been in existence for a long time and many people say it is a continuing experiment. Throughout all the ages of man, universal suffrage has been in place for less than 100 years and huge swathes of the globe have yet to experience democracy. It is only a matter of decades since women were given the right to vote and the right to vote was given without property qualification. While we constantly try to improve the system and put checks and balances into it, our system of government, prosperity, well-being and liberty hinge on the knowledge and confidence that the citizenry of this State determine their own rulers. In his famous Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of government of the people, by the people, for the people. This is not old cant and, if we consider this to be so, we miss the fundamental point of a Bill like this.
Anything that addresses the issue of voting and approaches the fundamental element of our democracy must be handled with care, caution and sensitivity. I draw on personal experience when I say this. I had the privilege of introducing the Electoral Act 1997 to this House. That Act is much greater in scope than the Bill now before us. It dealt with electoral spending limits, donation declarations and prohibition on the receipt of donations above fixed thresholds. It also dealt with ancillary matters that reformed the electoral process. I believe that I handled that Act with the required degree of care, caution and sensitivity. The proof of this is it took almost a year to pass through these Houses. There was open-ended debate, especially on Committee Stage. As we were dealing with the electoral process, the views of all Members were critical.
The Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley was not a Member at that time. The attitude of the Progressive Democrats to the Act was interesting. The current Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform held his party's environment portfolio at that time. He described the Bill as being so bad that it could not be reformed. He was implacably opposed to electoral spending limits and fought tooth and nail against every line of the Bill. He said it was an outrageous assault on liberty to prevent parties collecting any amount of money from any business to run its political machine. He also felt it was an outrageous assault on democracy that a party could not spend whatever amount of money it wanted on an electoral campaign. While he put forward a coherent argument along these lines for nearly a year, I was not convinced by it. The democratic process in this House allowed him the time and space to do this.
Why are we in such a rush with this Bill? With a few exceptions the history of electoral law has sought to broaden and deepen participation in the electoral process and make the process fairer. That was the intention of the Electoral Act I introduced. I did not want wealth to become a corrupting influence in fighting an electoral campaign. I wanted parties and candidates to fight on a level playing pitch where one could not buy votes, as can be done in other jurisdictions, by flooding an area with advertising.
I can recall two exceptions. Fianna Fáil made two attempts at changing our electoral system from one based on the single transferable vote to one based on a straight vote. Remarkably, the people rejected this twice in referenda. On one occasion the referendum was held on the same day that a most popular Fianna Fáil President was elected. The electorate was discerning enough to vote for Fianna Fáil's presidential candidate and reject the Fianna Fáil proposal to abandon the single transferable vote system. People are attracted to our system of voting and regard it as precious.
Given the choice, the people have rejected tinkering with this without good reason. An American adage says, "if it ain't broke don't fix it". What is broken in our electoral system that requires such a radical change? Many speakers have referred to modernism and said that opposition to electronic voting is Luddite in nature. Similar arguments were propounded about architecture in the 1960s. The bulldozing of Georgian Dublin was facilitated by modernism. Modern, bold, brash and confident Ireland felt the need to gut Georgian Dublin and erect concrete buildings in its stead. I do not think we would now regard that level of modernism as something of which to be proud.
The argument that ICT-focused Ireland demands electronic voting and that to question it is to be a Luddite, as Deputy Dennehy suggested, smacks of an extraordinary inferiority complex. We must have such if we feel that we must be at the cutting edge of this to show that Ireland is as progressive as it likes to see itself. I do not believe this for one second. Some things are better done in the old ways.
There is nothing wrong with the current system.
Not everything that is done speedily is the best. I wonder if the Minister of State prefers a home-cooked, carefully prepared meal or a ready to microwave meal from his freezer. I do not think there is any choice in these matters. Let us not swap insults across the floor of the House. This matter is one of how the people's decisions are recorded and how we facilitate people's participation in the democratic process. It is as fundamental as that. To ensure we understand the public's view we must travel very carefully.
The Bill makes a proposal that is clearly divisive as it has divided the House and it is contemptuous of the House. To my knowledge no electoral Act was ever guillotined during its passage through this House. We always had open-ended debates on these matters in the past and failure to do so now shows contempt. The rush itself adds to people's concerns. The Minister has pre-empted the legislative process, buying the machines and starting the information campaign before the House's will has been determined. I know the Executive often regards this place as a rubber stamp. One day the Assembly of the people, Dáil Éireann, will reject the view of the Executive and will require it to regard this Legislature as a force to be respected and heard, not simply as a cipher that rubber-stamps decisions taken elsewhere. However, that is not the attitude of the Executive, which has already pre-empted the decisions of this House. The machines are bought and paid for, the information campaign is under way and we have been told electronic voting will be introduced. Making a decision and enacting legislation after the event diminishes the democratic standing of this House.
My colleague, the Labour Party spokesperson on the environment, Deputy Gilmore, gave an extraordinarily effective critique of this measure. We asked some of our experts, Mr. Shane Hogan and Mr. Robert Cochran, to carry out an independent evaluation, which we published some time ago. Their analysis gave rise to our initial concerns about this matter because of the absence of something that can be put right: the voter verifiable audit trail. The Government has asked the people to have blind trust that the button they pressed will accurately record and produce a result without a mechanism for anybody to ever know whether that is correct.
The beauty of the existing system is that the recorded decision of the people exists in black and white for everybody to see. Individual ballot papers, each handled by a voter, exist and can be seen. Had the last general election been entirely electronic, significant queries would have been raised over the accuracy of the result. People would not have believed that so many Fine Gael frontbenchers would have lost their seats. That query would have cast doubt over the legitimacy of the Dáil. However, there was no argument about the result, as the black and white votes existed for the people to see. However, they will not exist in the future.
We should always have belt and braces when dealing with matters such as this. From international experience we know how voting systems have been interfered with. The absence of formal control processes give rise to genuine questions that need to be addressed and not dismissed by a Government regardless of how the Minister might assert that he is right, that this will happen and so be it. This cannot be. We do not have clear assurance that interference with machines in the voting and count centres is beyond possibility.
The Bill gives remarkable powers to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government including: critical powers to decide how the election is to be conducted; the power to determine by regulation whether e-voting is to be used and to what extent; the power to amend the form of the ballot by regulation; and the most overarching of all, the power to make regulations amending electoral law. When I was Minister for the Environment, officials advised why an emergency power to address an emergency situation was necessary. If a polling station was destroyed by a fire, if a riot took place or if somebody clearly obstructed the ballot, the Minister needed to have powers to take action to ensure the ballot took place and the people's will was fully determined.
However many enactments in the past decade have given a blanket open-ended power to Ministers. Civil servants now appear to insert a catch-all phrase to the effect that the Minister should have the power to do anything else he likes and which they have not yet thought of. The long title should be: "We will not bother coming back to the House to get the power to do these things — we will just give a catch-all power to the Minister." After the decision in the Carrickmines case, it is clear that that sort of overarching power is constitutionally infirm. It is not good enough to give such blanket powers without reference back to the Oireachtas. Under the Constitution, the power to make laws resides with the Oireachtas.
These are just some of the infirmities we have identified with the Bill. The net issue is why the Bill is being rushed now. Although the money has been spent, there has been pre-emption and we have embarked on the information campaign, it would be a great service to democracy if the Minister were to confirm that he heard all our concerns and was willing to address them and tease them out. He could say that while the machines might need to be amended it would not be done for this election, but would be done in time for the following election so that it will be possible to bring everybody with us. What would be so terribly wrong in giving the space to allay people's fears and ensure they have confidence in the voting system?
Those on the Government side have said lovely things about how opinion polls and exit polls after the previous trials show confidence. I agree with Deputy Ring in this regard. While I have not yet started campaigning in the local elections, I have been on the hustings with our candidate, Peter Cassells in what used to be called the Leinster constituency and is now Ireland East. It is remarkable that the issue of electronic voting continually recurs. People say they do not trust the Government in this regard. Unfortunately individuals are also claiming they will not vote as a result.
That is right.
This is not in our interests. I agree with the Minister in saying this issue should not be divisive and should not divide this House as I believe we all have the same objective, which is to determine the will of the people as accurately, fairly and comprehensively as we can. However, if that is the Minister's wish, he should not have used the intemperate language he used in his introduction speech today. I started by saying my comments would be balanced and reasonable so I will not rise to his intemperate comments during which he referred to "another outbreak of Rabbitte disease". This is no way to build consensus or deal with an issue of importance that goes to the core of our well-being as a democracy. The Minister should act on his own advice and deal with this matter in a balanced way. Notwithstanding the arrogance shown to date by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, I hope he will step back from this and show himself to be respectful of the House. He should give us space and the time to deal with this measure in order that we might build the confidence required by the public in our electoral systems.
I have listened to the contributions of spokespersons on all sides of the House on the Bill. I had initial concerns and expressed some reservations about aspects of the counting systems employed, but I welcome the advent of electronic voting. My concerns came about on foot of an election in Dublin North where the final count came about too suddenly and was badly handled. However, that teething problem has since been addressed by the Minister by means of counts being produced on a count by count basis. It will no longer be the case that final results will be announced without any warning or without acknowledgement of the type of votes cast and the way they have been transferred. That is a positive step and I will refer to it later.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government, I sat through many debates on this issue and I suggest that we should not use intemperate or emotive language. Deputy Howlin accused the Minister of using such language. However, I was present in the House when aspersions were cast on the character and credibility of the people who run elections in this country. Let us be under no illusions; it is not Fianna Fáil which runs elections in this country. It is the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which is charged with the responsibility of running elections and it is city and county council officials who handle such elections. I accept that the impartiality, honesty and integrity of these people was not brought directly into question, but there was an insinuation that the Government was going to run the forthcoming election. Everyone in the House accepts that, even at difficult and turbulent times in our history, elections in this country have been run in a fair and honest manner.
Let us keep it that way. Why change it?
It is being kept that way. Regardless of the system we introduce, the elections will be dealt with by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and officials from local authorities throughout the State.
An open tendering process was put in place in respect of the electronic voting system. The Government invited tenders from different companies that have been involved in developing different types of electronic voting systems and it decided to take on board the Powervote-Nedap system. The reason it decided to do so is because it is the most effective and accurate system and has a good track record in the countries in which it has been tested and used. I refer, in particular, to the Netherlands, where it has been in use for many years, and Germany, where it was recently used in municipal elections. The system has also been tested in France and elsewhere. It will continue to be used in the future and the countries to which I refer have not encountered difficulties with it. Unfortunately, however, there is a great deal of confusion among Members about this system.
I am not saying that people are being mischievous in their objections. People were concerned about electronic voting because they believed that the system would be connected to the Internet, e-mail and outside systems and, as a result, could be tampered with. Experts came before the committee and stated that it could be tampered with or hacked into from outside. This is a stand-alone system. Every ballot module is of the stand-alone variety. All we are doing, therefore, is replacing ballot boxes with electronic modules which are not connected to any outside systems. That is an important fact. Following months of discussion at committee level and the system going on display throughout the country, Members still stated today that it could be tampered with via the Internet or e-mail. Such comments are grossly irresponsible.
If we are genuinely serious about encouraging people to partake in the democratic system by casting their votes at polling systems, we should at least acknowledge what is or is not fact. Comments to the effect that the system can be hacked into by outside sources are not factual and are highly irresponsible. Regardless of whether Deputies agree with the system of electronic voting, they should at least state the facts as they exist. Perhaps those making the comments to which I refer should carry out further research into the system or visit one of the display centres at which electronic voting is explained to members of the public and they are shown what the display looks like, how one casts one's vote and how that vote is counted. If Deputies investigated the system, they would be informed enough to realise that it cannot be tampered with by outside sources. The Opposition should inform people that, regardless whatever other difficulties they have with electronic voting, the system cannot be tampered with from outside.
Electronic voting is not just about our modern society embracing technology. There are good reasons for bringing forward electronic voting. The first of these is that most votes that are spoiled are not spoiled intentionally. Anyone who has experience of a recount — I was involved in one in 1992 — will be aware that most spoiled votes are accidental. Either they are not stamped or the person's preference is not marked clearly enough. When the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government studied and analysed spoiled votes, it discovered that 98% of the votes that were spoiled were unintentionally spoiled. When people attend their polling station, we must have in place a system which makes it as easy as possible for them to cast their vote in the way they intend. When cast, their votes will be stored and counted in an efficient manner at a count centre. That is all we seek.
I stated earlier that I did not believe that Opposition Members were being mischievous. However, I am inclined to believe that because there were so few issues on which the Opposition could challenge the Government in recent times. Some of the spokespersons on the other side of the House became edgy and thought this would be a good matter to pursue.
There are many such matters; for example, hospitals, education, etc.
Our strategy has worked out quite well so far.
They have done a great disservice to our electoral system. If we look back at how people initially received electronic voting, there was no discussion about it after the general election of 2002 or the Nice treaty referendum. People embraced the system and stated that it was successful. Recently, however, allegations have been made and aspersions have been cast to the effect that Fianna Fáil is interfering in the electoral system, that said system has been undermined and that my party is to blame. Such allegations are highly irresponsible.
Let us return to the 1992 general election. At that time, existing legislation allowed us to take ballot papers to use for test purposes. It has, therefore, been signalled for many years that the Government was intent on trying to proceed with electronic voting. It is not as if a Minister just came up with the idea one day; electronic voting has been planned for some time. Legislation was put in place to ensure that we would have the opportunity to take counted ballot papers from previous elections and feed them into whatever type of electronic voting machine we chose to see if the results would be accurate and fair. It is not as if we only decided recently that electronic voting would be introduced because the Minister thought it would be a good idea.
A substantial number of Deputies have already been elected by means of electronic voting. In my opinion, every Member would state that he or she has confidence in the system. Former Deputies who are now serving in the Upper House came before the committee and pleaded with us to introduce electronic voting. They did so because they had lost their Dáil seats following extremely tight counts. Some of them lost out by fewer votes than the number of spoiled votes in their counts. We owe it to members of the electorate that, when casting their votes, they will be able to see that their intention is expressed before they press the "cast vote" button. They will then be confident that their vote will be recorded in the ballot module and will be transferred to a counting machine at a count centre.
It has been suggested that the modules can be tampered with in transit. Every system involves an element of trust. Somebody must transfer the ballot boxes to the count centres. We trust that person and do not check to see if the ballots were tampered with. There is a seal on the box and we assume, when it arrives at the count centre, that it has not been tampered with. Likewise with a ballot module. Insinuations are continually made that somehow somebody could undermine the system by tampering with it.
Witnesses before the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government suggested that while it may not be possible to tamper with the system by way of Internet, e-mail or through an outside system and if we trust the individuals handling the modules, it might be possible to tamper with the module at production level. They suggested an individual could have the foresight to obtain employment in the company involved in the production of the module and could insert a virus in the ballot modules to undermine the system. Conspiracy theories can only go so far. I suggest people would want to be a little more responsible.
Some people are implacably opposed toe-voting for whatever reason. However, those expounding the view that the system can be tampered with are undermining public confidence and are doing a great disservice to those involved in trying to encourage more people to cast their votes in a democratic manner.
America is often mentioned when discussing this issue. I find that despicable because this is an emotive issue. Allegations have been made that the current President of the United States is not a bona fide president because of chads in Florida. Even if there were difficulties with the manner in which the presidential election in America was conducted, that is not even close to the system being proposed by Government for use in the upcoming elections. They use mechanical voting machines which knock chads out of pieces of paper. We must be conscious of what we say. If people wish to put forward a constructive argument against the introduction of the system, they should do so based on solid foundations as opposed to scaremongering and undermining what is an important issue, the confidence that one can cast one's vote knowing it will be recorded as one wished.
In the Nice referendum there was electronic voting in seven constituencies. People ask why we are moving ahead so rapidly. How much more time will it take for people to gain confidence in the system? Many people are opposing this system for the sake of it. I accept the Opposition has a fundamental duty to highlight flaws and to put forward policies and constructive views. It is scurrilous to come in here to oppose what Deputies genuinely believe cannot be tampered with by using scaremongering tactics and insinuations that Fianna Fáil is introducing this system because it will benefit from it. Deputies making that allegation would not do so out on the plinth. To say that Fianna Fáil is running the elections is a fundamental slander and libel. Those suggesting Fianna Fáil is running the election are questioning the integrity of the officials in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and other officials involved. The Opposition parties should be conscious of that when making such outlandish statements.
When I referred to the count system in an article many people said I was opposed to electronic voting. I highlighted issues with regard to the count and believe that people are entitled to know not only the result but the transfer patterns. The transfer patterns in our system of single transferable voting is an important factor because it allows one to analyse not only the final result but the trend of how the public think when casting their votes. If we had a system similar to the one used in 1992 which published only results of the election, we would not know how people transferred votes between parties and candidates. That is important in terms of trying to form a Government and in trying to understand how the public were thinking in casting their votes.
I welcome the proposed count by count system with the first count being published followed by an intermission and a second count published and so on. That will be done every ten or 15 minutes. That is a positive step which will allow people to analyse the transfer of surpluses and so on and to absorb how the public thought when casting their votes. There is also a human aspect to this. Many people spend weeks canvassing for their preferred candidate or party. Many family members are emotionally involved in this process. Operating a hard guillotine whereby the final result only is announced is unfair to defeated candidates. In a count by count system, they become aware of their fate as the count goes on. That allows people to prepare themselves or their families for bad news or for jubilation. It also allows a successful candidate to gather his or her supporters and celebrate an electoral victory. From those points of view I welcome the changes in that area.
We can have confidence in the proposed Nedap-Powervote system. It has been tried and trusted in countries such as Holland and Germany. If we take the Opposition's argument on board, we are saying we have to question the integrity the government elected in the Netherlands. If we are saying this system could be flawed or could be tampered with then we are saying elections in Holland are not bona fide and could have been undermined by outside influences. I do not accept that and I am quite sure the people of Holland would not accept it. They would not have anything to do with a system that could be undermined in such a way.
I welcome this legislation introduced on the backdrop of an amended motion before this House. Following High Court challenges with regard to Carrickmines and elsewhere, it has been necessary to introduce primary legislation. I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue — how we elect government, local authority members, the president and how we amend our Constitution. It also provides those who have so far undermined the system with outlandish allegations of interference by hackers anywhere in the Universe, an opportunity to reflect on such smears. It provides them with an opportunity to reflect on allegations that officials and members of local authorities responsible for the running of elections in a fair and free manner are under the thumb of a particular party. It was irresponsible of Deputies and party Leaders to make such remarks.
Let us be under no illusion, the only fear people have is that they might not like the result of the election. Deputy Howlin made the valid point that there is no doubt but that many people would have questioned the accuracy of the electronic system had it been used in the last general election given the loss of votes to Fine Gael. The percentage loss of first preference votes and the volume of seats lost was not on a pro rata basis because of the quirks of the transfer system. The percentage drop in Fine Gael first preference votes and the number of seats lost would have raised queries in the eyes of the public, discerning politicians, tally men and pundits. I have no doubt in that regard and those votes were counted manually. I am confident, in the event of a similar quirk in the next election, that there will be no challenges.
This facility also allows for a print-out on foot of a challenge in the High Court to a general election result or in the Circuit Court to a local election result. If there is a problem in an area with concerns on some issue and the High Court deems it necessary to have a manual count, that can be done with this system. However, we do not need anything like a verifiable paper audit trail to instil confidence in the system. Instead we need a responsible Opposition to stand up and state quite clearly why it is opposing the issue on basic facts rather than innuendo, scaremongering and undermining a very fine system that has been tried, tested and used by tens of millions of people throughout Holland, Germany and now France. It has also been tested in the United Kingdom. Let us embrace this and not be afraid of change or technology. If there is a confidence issue, it will fall on the Opposition's heads when the public go to the polls.
I wish to share time with Deputy Gormley and Deputy Ó Caoláin.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am opposed to the introduction of electronic voting on the basis that there is no need for it. Our current system is good. It is completely open and transparent, trusted by the public and politicians, understood and cost-effective. There is no doubt that people are comfortable with the existing system. Ultimately we are talking about the democratic system and the manner in which people are elected to this House and various local authorities throughout the country. The public must have confidence that their votes are being counted properly and their wishes properly taken into account in the election of candidates for whatever area or body. On that basis, the system is not broken, so why fix it?
The significant moneys being spent — we have heard the figure of €45 million or €50 million — represent a waste of public money. The costs of this system are being significantly under-estimated. In particular, we have not examined the cost of storing such machines at all, which will be significant. I cannot understand why we must have this system when there are other situations on which this money could be much better spent. In the past two days, I raised two issues in this House. One was the question of a primary school at Newtown Upper in Carrick-on-Suir which has outdoor toilets. Pupils and teachers must cross the yard in all sorts of weather to toilets that have been condemned by the Health and Safety Authority. We want to spend our money on introducing an electronic voting system; yet the situation in Newtown Upper is more like in the dark ages than in the third millennium. Last night I raised the fact that a superb modern health facility in Clonmel has stood vacant for the past 12 months while we waited for the Government to fund the equipping and opening of something that would provide modern health care, general surgical day care and accident and emergency facilities for the people of South Tipperary. In such circumstances, it is outrageous to talk about spending such sums on an electronic voting system with which no one except the Government is happy and which we do not need.
If an electronic voting system were introduced, certain parameters would have to be respected. As I said, this is all about democracy, confidence and trust in the system. Surely it would have to be introduced by an independent commission in which the public had trust and confidence and which could assure them that their fundamental right to vote would be protected. In that circumstance, we should have full cross-party and independent support in the House for any change in the system. The unseemly rush to introduce electronic voting certainly undermines confidence among the public and inside this House.
I echo the calls made here today and among the general public for postponement of the introduction of electronic voting to provide an opportunity to ensure confidence in and agreement with the system to be introduced and that it does not undermine our democratic system and process. It is most unfair to the panel set up that it must report by 1 May on the basis of terms of reference which are completely restrictive. It was set up excluding who should be a natural member, namely, the Ombudsman. That is wrong, and it should, even at this late stage, be changed.
I support the introduction of electronic voting, but I am opposed to this legislation. I was one of the first people in this House to call for the introduction of electronic voting. I did so in the aftermath of my famous count in 1997 when I defeated the present Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, by 27 votes. When we recounted, we found that the margin was actually 35 votes, but we will leave that for the moment. That votes can fluctuate to such an extent when we deal with paper ballots emphasises the need for electronic voting.
Some mentioned the famous "sudden death" count in Dublin North, where Nora Owen was seen to suffer as the announcement was made. Sudden death is far preferable to the Chinese torture of endless counts lasting more than a week, going over ballots, using magnifying glasses to examine the perforations over and over again, and getting the lawyers in to examine the spoilt ballots. We should leave that behind us very quickly, because it is simply not humane for those victims who must suffer it. It was one of the few occasions where I sympathised with my constituency colleague. My sympathy is normally limited, particularly regarding his policies. However, on that occasion it was wrong that a person should leave a count believing he had been elected. I went to bed thinking I had lost and got a call half an hour later saying that things had changed. Having to endure the count for a week then was completely wrong.
My point, which is essentially what the Opposition is saying, is that there are many on this side of the House who would welcome electronic voting. However, we want a system in which we can all have confidence. It may not necessarily be a paper audit trail, but it has to be a system that is verifiable. It is possible to reach consensus on this in the same way I believe it is possible to get consensus on the whole issue of citizenship. It is not impossible, yet people are anxious to press ahead. It is wrong that they are now pressing ahead in this instance with the advertising of electronic voting before it has been agreed by this House. Electronic voting offers many opportunities, as regards providing the purest form of proportional representation, for example, something that has always been a problem. We have this anomaly regarding the arbitrary nature of dealing with a surplus which has never been satisfactory. It offers the opportunity to deal satisfactorily with the whole question of spoiled votes. All of these things are to be welcomed. However, when a voter casts his or her vote at a certain time and place, there needs to be a mechanism in place to check it afterwards. Independent checkers may go in at intervals to cast the ballot in a certain way — and this should be part of this legislation — to test the reliability of the system. Computers can do this but they can also make mistakes. We all know of the software problems experienced in this House. We know the system here failed on one occasion. These things happen, so we need a system that we all can have total confidence in. It is possible to do, if the Minister would only listen.
Deputy Kelleher says that people are trying to scaremonger. That is not the case. We have legitimate concerns. We know what we are talking about. We have many people with the technological expertise in our parties who have expressed these legitimate concerns, which have not been dealt with by the Minister. If it does go wrong who is responsible? It can and on occasion it will go wrong. We have seen that things go wrong with paper ballots. In this case, with a virus or any other difficulty with the software, it is clear something could go wrong. I am not trying to cast aspersions on those people who run the elections, as has been suggested by Deputy Kelleher. My experience has been that these people have been scrupulously fair and that they have behaved responsibly.
When we talk about the experience in the United States, what we are saying is that on occasion people can behave in an unscrupulous way. We saw that in Florida. That can be done. We need the independent commission to look at this and to have verifiable checkers so that if people believe something is awry, it can be checked. There is no possibility of a recheck under the legislation as proposed. We have it in terms of examinations and in a whole list of areas where people may seek and obtain a recheck. That does not exist here and that is a problem.
When Deputy Kelleher talks about people having too many suspicions about Fianna Fáil, the reality is that it tried to change the electoral system on two occasions to benefit itself. Suspicions may not be justified in this instance and it may not be the case that Fianna Fáil is switching to electronic voting for its own benefit, but it must be understood that many people may believe this is the position. A system must be fair and must be seen to be fair. There will only be one outcome as regards the panel charged with looking at this. It will find in favour, let us be clear on this. I wish it could be otherwise and that the Government had sought a consensus. The fact it has not is not acceptable.
A fundamental change in the way in which elections are conducted should only be undertaken with consensus support across the political spectrum and from among the general public. Electronic voting, as provided for in this Bill, does not enjoy such support. Therefore, this Bill should be withdrawn and the Government should not proceed with electronic voting in the manner proposed in the European and local elections on 11 June. The bottom line is that a verifiable paper trail is needed. The Government has attempted to portray criticism of the proposed system as Opposition play acting. In his opening speech today the Minister spoke of conspiracy theories. I have not heard any such theories either in the contributions on Second Stage so far or preceding the debate. However, what I have heard are the real concerns of people with technical expertise in this area. They should be listened to.
The Government itself carried out pilot projects of electronic voting in the last general election. The purpose of those projects was to test the system in the field. An intense debate resulted that began on the merits and demerits of the system. Initially this focused, in a rather facile manner, on the ham-fisted way in which the results were announced in the count centres. The last Deputy referred to this. Far more serious and fundamental concerns quickly emerged. These centred chiefly on the design and security of the system itself. Sinn Féin spokespeople were among the first to raise these concerns and to call for transparency in the design of the system and a paper trail to verify the voter's choice. It was the Government itself which decided to test the system in a real election. That was fair enough. However, the Government then has no right to complain if people raise legitimate concerns based on experience of the system as it worked here and more importantly, perhaps, on the wider experience we can call on from other countries.
What heightened concern and justified everything that was said about the system was the manner in which the Government responded. For months it refused to clarify the legal basis on which the system would be introduced. It claimed that legislation such as that now being discussed in this Bill, was not necessary and proposed to introduce electronic voting by ministerial order, leaving the elections open — as we contended — to legal challenge. After repeated questioning and probing inside and outside this House by all of the Opposition voices, including my colleague, Deputy Morgan, the Government finally acknowledged the need for legislation. With less than 12 weeks to go before the elections, we have been presented with this Bill. It is a debacle and all too sadly typical of this Government.
This Bill is designed to give legal cover to the electronic system itself and to give political cover to the Government by the establishment of a commission on electronic voting with extremely narrow terms of reference. I have no difficulty with electronic voting in principle. I have no objection to that at all. However, on this issue practical outworking is everything. There are fundamental problems and this must be acknowledged. It is quite extraordinary that the Government has championed this system with the argument that it will provide greater accuracy. Let us examine that for a moment. The proposed electronic method will not be a counting of all preference votes as it could be — being computerised — but will be programmed to count a random selection, as is done under the manual system. There is no new thinking there, no advantage or greater accuracy. It is a slight on the service and hard, dedicated work of people who have staffed count centres throughout the country for decades to suggest that this system is more accurate than their exercise and our collective scrutiny. There is no change in that. In terms of reflecting the voters' preferences more accurately, this will not be the case.
Another issue is the effect of electronic voting on the political system. As Deputy Cassidy would confirm, the traditional election count provided a sense of occasion, Hundreds of people were involved in each count centre. Each ballot paper was there to be seen and its importance to the overall result was obvious. Media reflection of the excitement of election counts as we have known them must also have encouraged interest in politics in general. This will also be lost. I share the concern of many that the new system will represent perhaps a diminution of politics, and could well increase voter apathy and cynicism. We must all be concerned about that.
Last week I tabled a question to the Minister on the staffing implications of electronic voting for polling stations. Concerns have been raised that not enough staff will be trained and recruited in time for polling stations to operate as normal. This is not a scare story. People directly concerned with the electoral system have raised the issue. They fear that some polling stations may not have adequate trained staff and may have to amalgamate with others, thus causing more confusion. The Minister's reply to my question in the Dáil was inadequate and should be looked at by all Deputies. He referred only to the role of his Department in arranging for the Institute of Public Administration to train staff, and failed to address the adequacy of staffing numbers, passing the buck to the returning officers at local level. That is not good enough.
This is an issue of trust which we all need to have. I appeal to the Government parties to recognise that such trust does not exist. Accordingly, this Bill should not be proceeded with. Much more needs to be done in the preparation of a Bill which we can all support and in which the public can have confidence.
I welcome the Bill and, being on the Government side, I obviously support it. It is a step in the right direction. We are in the 21st century, which is one of efficiency and high technology. Ireland is a country admired for its achievements over the past 15 years in particular and which wants to make the day of the ballot more relevant. As Deputy Gormley said, anyone who has experienced a recount will wholeheartedly welcome the Bill.
The Minister gave us the background to the arrival of the legislation. He noted that the project of electronic voting had been in the public domain since 1999, when it first featured in two pieces of legislation. It also featured in many Adjournment debates. The system has regularly been debated on radio and television in recent years. Its successful use in three constituencies in the previous general election was widely covered. My neighbouring constituents in Meath near where I live in Castlepollard all voted electronically. I had reservations at first that senior citizens, with whom I work so closely, might not vote. I worked hard for many years in the North Westmeath area, and the experience in Meath, reflected in feedback on the night of the general election, was the simplicity of the system. People asked why we did not have it years ago. At that time I had never seen electronic voting in action. After going to the county hall in Mullingar a few weeks ago and seeing clearly the names on the ballot papers, the logos of the political parties and the photographs of the candidates, I could foresee no other method of voting in the future. Television has 70% penetration and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should, following the passage of this legislation through Parliament, immediately initiate a television campaign to show people how to vote electronically. They will be pleased to see how simple it is.
Fianna Fáil came within 5,000 votes of an overall majority in the previous general election. We are told that, for one reason or another, at the last local elections, 24,000 votes were lost. In one area, 40 councillors won their seats by fewer than 50 votes. There was a tied vote in the Borris-in-Ossory area where I knew the two candidates involved. In the Ferbane area, just across the border from Moate, more than 300 votes were disallowed because the presiding officer failed to stamp the ballot papers. I am in Dáil Éireann today because of about 248 votes swinging the right way. If an incident such as that one in Ferbane had affected one of the boxes in my home town of Castlepollard, I would not have had the privilege or the honour of being a Member of Dáil Éireann. That would not be the wish of the people of my parish, but it could easily have happened that the face of the stamp, through no fault of the presiding officer, might not have penetrated the paper.
It is an honour and a privilege to serve in the Dáil. One comes here with one's integrity. My late father told me on my first night home in Castlepollard after being elected that it was a great honour and privilege for the family and that I had done the parish proud. He said that, if I had that honour when I left Parliament, I would have done a good day's work for everyone. To be elected by one's own people is a great vote of confidence and a great motivating factor. One comes to Parliament in an effort to improve the lot of the people, community, parish and the many families relying on all of us, in Opposition and Government. The latter changes from time to time. The wheel always turns.
I have been a Member of either the Dáil or Seanad for seven Parliaments, and I am certain the voting method proposed is a step forward. Who would enjoy the experience undergone by Deputy Gormley and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell? I experienced a recount in a local election in 1979 in which I was being beaten by 12 votes until 22 postal votes were found. I received a telephone call at Crookedwood House, which Deputy Ó Caoláin knows well. I asked the position and was told a recount would take place in the morning. I and the 400 or 500 people who were disappointed that I might not be elected built up our hopes on that Friday night. The next morning, ironically, only four members of my family, along with two other friends and Mr. Paddy Hill, who has replaced me as councillor due to the dual mandate, attended the recount. To attempt to get votes back in a recount is a most difficult exercise.