Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I was welcoming the Bill on electronic voting and saying how it is a great step forward that, in the 21st century, Ireland is a nation admired for its advancement in technology and a shining example of what EU membership can do. It has achieved much over the past 15 years. I also welcomed the fact that, until recently, such voting was in operation in the Meath constituency, that next to my own. We listen to senior citizens in particular, who came back to us and said that it should have been introduced many years ago. Thousands of votes are cast by people who really care, going to the bother of arranging travel and everything else to do with one casting one's vote, only for their wish to be deemed ineligible for counting because of various little difficulties, perhaps to do with eyesight or breaching the line of the box in which they want to indicate their preference for a candidate.

If one considers the number of votes cast in the last general election and the small number of votes that caused Fianna Fáil narrowly to miss out on an overall majority, one sees that there were six or seven times more not included. I am convinced that we could have had an overall majority. However, be that as it may, and now that the opportunity is before us here today——

The Deputy should dream on.

It is nice to see Deputies McGrath and Penrose coming into the House as they are constituency colleagues. Having said that, the people of Westmeath have spoken.

It is nice to be here after 20 years standing for election before the people of County Westmeath and to be given an opportunity to address the House on this extremely important issue. As someone defeated in a recount, I would not wish it on my worst enemy. Deputy Gormley spoke earlier, and we can all recall the difficult count that he had to go through with the present Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell. Doing things electronically is certainly a much more efficient and effective way of tabulating votes. I recall going home on a Friday evening in 1979 and being defeated by 12 or 14 votes, then coming back for a recount on the Saturday. When one comes back for a recount, naturally enough, the great excitement and large attendance of the previous day are no longer there. Most important of all, one raises the hopes of so many of one's supporters and those who cast their first-preference votes for one, the local parish, one's family and neighbouring parishes. Then the inevitable happens. Ninety per cent of the time the result announced on the day of the count stands. The electronic voting system will eliminate all those difficulties.

It will also be far more accurate. As I said, imagine the people of Ferbane who went out and cast their votes — all 300 of them. Not one of them was included at the last local elections. I know that was human error, but with the new electronic system before us for consideration, that will not be the case in future. As I said, 40 councillors in the last local elections were elected by a majority of fewer than 50 votes over their nearest rival. In Borris-in-Ossory two colleagues whom I knew fairly well from having been in the Seanad for so long finished on an equal number of votes. One can imagine the understandable trauma which candidates can suffer. That can all be eliminated if we complete our business this evening.

I do not wish to be long-winded, since I know that very many colleagues wish to make a contribution. I spoke before Private Members' business. However, I fully support the proposal before the House. As I said, it is a great step forward and something that the Minister should advertise heavily on television, which has 70% penetration, to show the people of Ireland the new system and how it operates. Those who have the pleasure and opportunity of exercising their democratic right will be very gratified when they realise how the new system works. Those in the Meath constituency were really pleased and delighted. As I said, as senior citizens, they could not understand why it had not been brought in many years ago.

Confidentiality of the vote is essential, and it is only right that it be the order of the day. However, I know an individual not too far from me in my own county who used to have a quiet word with some people so he would know who voted for him. This new formula will allay that fear on the part of the voter. No one will ever have any chance of knowing who cast their preferences or in what order under the new system.

A very important part of the whole democratic system is the build-up to the election day and the vote count. The whole theatre of the count should be retained and I congratulate the Minister for adding this provision, since it was not the case during the 2002 three-constituency general election trial. The theatre of the count must be retained, since that is where all our organisations can look back and play a part. It is also very important, regarding the counting of votes cast, that we will be able to check the result through our own tally systems ten or 14 days after it has been declared. We go out and work as hard as we can for the people of all parishes. It is nice and comforting to note that one got support in the areas for which one worked hardest.

I happen to be a good friend of a member of the Opposition on the Independent benches who worked extremely hard. I know, because my office was next door to his for quite a number of years. In one area not even 20% of the turnout had cast their votes for him. He got about 57% of the vote, but someone who works so hard for his constituents deserves better. Everyone comes in here with his or her credibility and integrity and has one thing in mind. He or she wants to be able to do something for the constituency.

Party politics are played across the House for one reason or another. That is understandable and is the order of the day. However, the bottom line is that the 166 Members in the House are elected to Dáil Éireann by the people to help make the areas they represent into better places and provide a better future for their constituents. I wish the Bill a happy passage through the House and have great pleasure in supporting it.

The Electoral Amendment (No. 2) Bill 2004 has caused much controversy and is of great importance. Much has been said already in the many hours of debate and questions on electronic voting in the Seanad and the Dáil. The Government will hear many of the same concerns raised again until the debate finishes. It is important for democracy that the debate continues and that the Government listens to our concerns. Up to now it has not been listening. On Leaders' Questions, my party leader, Deputy Kenny, Deputy Rabbitte and Deputy Sargent have raised the issue on many occasions and have succeeded somewhat in getting the Government to move. If we have to debate this matter for weeks to get the Government to listen, we will do so. The issue of electronic voting strikes at the heart of our democratic system. That said, I reiterate a comment made some time ago by my party's spokesman on the environment, Deputy Allen, when he said the Bill flew in the face of democracy.

Our democracy is based on the ability of voters to choose whom they want to represent them, with the confidence their votes will be counted in the way they want. Polling day belongs to the people. It is their day out. It is a day when every citizen over the age of 18 has his or her say. It is important that we listen to what they are saying. After all, they elect us and give us the privilege of sitting in Dáil or Seanad Éireann. The new system does not have the backing of a majority of the people. That is evident from a recent opinion poll carried out by a Sunday newspaper which showed that 58% of the people want to see the system scrapped and 41% are concerned their votes will be tampered with. The latter is close to half, a large percentage, showing that the people do not trust what is being proposed by the Government. The current Bill does not include the required assurances. Fine Gael and other parties and individuals in the House, along with the public, have asked for openness and transparency over and over again and are fed up with the Government's arrogance and stubbornness in forging ahead with this venture without adequately addressing the concerns raised.

While sections 8 to 11 outline some of the security measures that will be included to protect the integrity of the votes, the Bill still ignores the central concerns, namely the need for a paper trail and the availability of the source code for independent scrutiny. I know the source code will be held in Holland, but if there is some problem in the courts, it may not be capable of proper assessment for this reason.

With the number of reports produced over the past year that have raised concerns over the security of an electronic voting system, it is baffling why the Government will not address these issues. To date it has brushed aside reports filed during the trial use of electronic voting in the 2002 general election. A report by two leading computer scientists based at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, suggested that electronic voting is potentially open to abuse and could threaten the integrity of democracy. A report inThe Economist on the problems with electronic voting in the United States concluded that even sophisticated systems would not improve the reliability of the American elections if the other problems were not fixed as well. On 10 December last the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government heard a number of experts raise serious concerns about the Nedap-Powervote system. I have to commend the work done by the committee. It has highlighted the problems with electronic voting. I am not a member of the committee, but I was disappointed that the external group of witnesses was not able to raise its concerns because the Government parties cut short the debate at the committee and forced a vote which prevented the issues from being dealt with adequately. Cross party agreement on the issue of electronic voting was spurned. It is important that there should be cross party agreement, particularly if there is to be trust.

The appointment of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, as Fianna Fáil's director of elections, again fuels suspicion on this issue. That a PR company with a close political adviser on the panel was hired for the campaign as it was being launched in the Mansion House, at a cost of €4.5 million, did not help matters either. That the Government refused to answer some 41 questions on the electronic voting systems shows there are problems. The same individuals tell us the system is safe and that a paper trail is not needed; neither is there a need for a source code to be made available for independent scrutiny. How can the public trust a system whose promoters cannot sufficiently answer the questions raised by this independent group.

Deputies Allen and McCormack have done much work on the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government and continue to highlight the concerns the public and the Opposition parties have as regards the proposed system. Trust is at stake including that of the voting public. Without public confidence in the election system, democracy will fail. That is worrying. In addition, €45 million is a great deal of money for an unreliable system that will replace something that generations of voters have come to know and trust. The Minister refers to this as an investment that will save money over the next 20 years. However, with the rapid rate at which computer software becomes outdated, I do not understand how the Minister can be sure the system will not prove expensive for democracy and for the taxpayer. Systems change quickly and computers are out of date virtually within a year of being sold. All IT and computer products quickly become outdated. In five years and at the next general election, that system may not be suitable and will probably need to be upgraded.

Why do we go down this road so hastily on the assumption that the system will be safer, cheaper and more efficient, when we find that this is not always the case? The old style of counting worked well in the past and is trusted by most people. Deputy Cassidy referred to an incident in 1979 when there were seven votes in the difference, and he was recalled, after which 22 postal paper votes which had not been counted were found. Those paper votes were at least there and were found. In the electronic system, 22 such votes could be lost. Paper provides accountability.

Many people enjoyed the suspense of the tallies. In my own area in County Clare, tallies were always an exciting element of general and local elections. This was a time when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael united, providing joint teams to give accurate tallies of the election. This went on for days, with great excitement. Tallies were an indicator for future elections of how people voted. I am not sure how far down the electronic voting road the Minister proposes to go. Will the system be used in small polling stations where there might be only 100 people voting?

Fewer Irish people vote in elections in recent times. In the 1987 general election there was a 73.33% turnout. In the 1997 general election the turnout was 65.92%, and in the 2002 general election it was 62.57%. Young people are distrustful of Government, politicians and the electoral processes. Not addressing the electronic voting concerns will merely alienate those people currently most engaged by the electoral process, and will further diminish the numbers voting because of those concerns. A Sunday newspaper poll showed that 41% of people are concerned with the issue and fewer people will vote if the system is not seen as trustworthy.

Like so many of the Government's proposals this year, the proposal on electronic voting is an attempt to re-invent the wheel and show that Ireland is a modern nation on the cutting edge of legislation and technology. Why did the Government feel the need to demonstrate this by means of electronic voting? There is a laundry list of other more important issues which the Government could address to show that Ireland is among the top nations of the world. There is a shortage of hospital beds. In County Clare, one of the Hanly report proposals is to close the 24-hour accident and emergency service. Money could be spent on upgrading our health services rather than on electronic voting.

Last week the Dáil debated the cutbacks in social welfare entitlements for widows which were introduced to gain a mere €5 million. We are spending €40 million on electronic voting machines and €5 million on publicity promoting electronic voting. Many elderly people who come under the housing aid for the elderly scheme are awaiting house improvements. We also need to upgrade our roads and transportation systems. In my own area, the west rail link needs to be built up. There is also the technological and individual divide between Dublin and the west, whereby the east coast is developing much quicker than the west. While there is an urgent need to improve health services, decentralisation is also important, as is the nation's infrastructure.

There is no need to steamroll this legislation through without properly responding to the Opposition's concerns. If Ireland wants to be seen as forward-thinking, electronic voting can wait until we have sorted out the problems raised. We all know the ongoing problems in the US with electronic voting and what happened in the last presidential election. The Americans are supposed to be the IT experts. We look at Bill Gates, Microsoft and Silicon Valley. Many of our young people go to America to be trained by American companies, particularly those working in the electronic systems. Nevertheless, the Americans have many problems in the IT area. CNN Television continually highlights the electronic voting problems in most American states. We should keep these in mind. The United Kingdom conducted a pilot trial in 2002 for the local elections, after which the relevant commission concluded that further pilot trials were necessary to tease out a number of issues and better establish the security measures necessary to protect the systems from attack, and ensure confidence.

Public voting is all about public confidence. The commission also wanted to ensure there would be a proper audit trail to verify that elections were conducted in a secure and robust fashion. If our neighbours in the UK are going down that road and looking at the system in this way, we should wait a little longer to see if can have proper paper trails and accountability.

Fine Gael does not oppose electronic voting. We all feel it will arrive at some stage. However, there is a need for openness, accountability and consultation. The latter is very important. Only then will people trust the system. In my own constituency in County Clare, the position of county registrar has been vacant for nearly two years. The Government has still not made an appointment. One begins to wonder why it is so slow to appoint a county registrar yet in a rush to introduce an electronic voting system. The acting county registrar has stated that Clare will be ready for electronic voting, but we will have to wait and see.

In my constituency, as in others, there will be town council, county council and European elections all on one day. Deputy Cassidy said that television has 70% penetration, but no matter how much instruction is given to people by means of television, people will be confused with the three electronic screens on polling day.

They are all in the one. There is only one screen.

That may be so. However, elderly people come to my office regularly who have forgotten to renew their driving licences. They are scared of the driving test theory and the van that travels about with the test screen. People have had to accompany elderly people to the test centre to show them how the screen works, and they were still scared by the idea of pressing buttons. No doubt they will succeed with one ballot paper, but where there are three ballot papers there is a danger that people may vote in only one election.

What did they do up to now? They voted one, two, three.

Yes, but with three papers in their hands, they were able to put down one and fill in another. Elderly people are scared of the new system. It could happen that people will not vote in more than one election. The Opposition is not scaremongering or creating trouble to gain political opportunity on this issue, as Deputy Kelleher claimed. The Opposition is fighting for the security of an essential part of our democratic system. The Government cannot brush it aside as if it was an insolent child. In every step of the process, the Government has ignored the Opposition.

On 17 February, Fine Gael issued a joint statement with the Green and Labour parties. The Government then assured us that our concerns would be addressed, despite a contract for €20 million with a private company having already being signed. That was done before the whole system was addressed.

There were no objections in the last election.

When the Government finally appointed the independent panel on 3 March to look into the concerns raised, the Opposition, again, was not consulted as to who should be on it. I agree the commission contains a High Court judge, the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad and two IT experts. However, the Ombudsman is not on it, despite the fact that she sits on the Standards in Public Office Commission, the Referendum Commission and the Constituency Commission.

I cannot accept the Government's efforts in addressing the Opposition's concerns about electronic voting in good faith. The Bill is frustrating. The Opposition has not asked much of the Government but a paper trail and the availability of the source codes for independent scrutiny. Granting these will restore people's confidence in the system and the democratic process. This is a confidence that will be sorely undermined if the Government does not listen before the June local and European elections.

I will conclude with a quote from Thomas Paine that will restate the importance of what we are fighting for today: "The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected." It is for this reason that the Government will continue to hear the same concerns until it is willing to ensure the safety of that most basic right to vote.

During Private Members' business, I listened carefully to the Opposition's comments on the issue of electronic voting. Now, having listened to the debate inside and outside the House, I cannot see a credible argument being put forward by any of the Opposition parties. I have respected their viewpoints but I have reached the conclusion that there is no credibility in any of their arguments. Some of the points made are ridiculous in the context of what is happening in the real world. The arguments are not accepted just by the Government but by the public too. Reference was made to a recent survey poll, yet with the amount of misinformation peddled by the Opposition against e-voting, it is no wonder there is confusion among the public. The Opposition has become disconnected from the real direction people, regardless of age, are taking in their lives.

I have not received a single query or complaint from a constituent on how a vote might be cast or its security. People are now so used to information and communication technology that they understand the extent of errors that can occur and the integrity of any system they use. Over the past several years, they have built up a confidence in the technology use that is unmatched in the European Union or beyond. Comparisons have been made to e-voting systems in other countries but the Opposition is not comparing like with like. Has it ever stopped to listen to itself? These are different systems as there is different hardware, software and methodology involved. No one on the Opposition benches has bothered to analyse what is being said against the facts of the systems in those other countries. If they were examined, it would become clear that this system is different, well tried and trusted by other EU democracies.

To measure this against the backdrop of what is happening in information technology, when Deputy Martin, as Minister for Education and Science, rolled out PC use in schools, the delivery of education was attached to the use of technology. The demand for improved software and technology at every educational level was staggering to watch. How people embraced the technology was incredible. In the Oireachtas, we cast our votes by simply pressing a button. I am glad that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government won the last division, taken on the screen, on the motion of confidence in his record. However, I am baffled by the Labour Party's attitude to e-voting in the Chamber. No sooner than a vote is taken electronically, it will ask for a traditional division through the lobbies. I accept it is a prerogative but how does the public view that? The public is confident in the technology used in this House. Members should not cod themselves because we have confidence in it too.

Recent Siemen's presentations on newly available information technology were well attended by Members. Every secretary and Member uses this technology. The question now is how it can be used more in the House. How can laptops be brought into the Chamber to assist us in various debates? How can wireless connections be brought in? That demand for new technology is being undertaken by ourselves. I do not understand the Opposition's introduction of the issue of the lack of confidence into debate. IT is well established and there is confidence in it right across the public and all ages.

The country's profile in terms of its connection to information technology was created not by Members but by public demand. The public demanded the technology, bought into it and we are now world leaders in delivering new software to the world market and the construction and export of computer hardware. We are showing the way in how society can embrace information technology.

In the past, numerous women stayed at home and were not engaged in the economy. They are now doing ECDL courses in preparation for going back into the workforce on a full-time or part-time basis. Marginalised communities decided to undertake the same courses in family resource centres. They are moving from ECDL to advanced ECDL and back into the workforce again. The significant movement that is taking place is based on information technology and the desire of informed members of society to embrace technology and to move back into the workforce.

If we acknowledge the technological changes that are taking place, surely we have to move forward by getting involved with technology, as we are doing with our work in this House. We have an obligation to examine the systems that are in place. We are not re-inventing the wheel; we are simply improving the model. I am confident that by the time the system we have proposed is rolled out on 11 June, the general public will show great confidence in it. I do not doubt that will happen. The demand that exists for broadband technology in homes and schools and at work underlines the fact that this system will be embraced like many new systems and technologies that have been put before the general public.

The change we are seeing is inevitable. We have reached the point at which demand means that change is inevitable. Members will recall similar debates in the 1990s, not in this House, but among the general public when people compared our systems with the advances that had been made elsewhere in the world. At the time, people asked why we were not making similar progress. Public representatives did not ask such questions — it was the general public. People acknowledged that there was a need for change. Young voters who are slowly starting to participate in the democratic system by casting votes are also asking for such technological developments. People from all age groups, including elderly people, are asking for change and are willing to embrace it. I think we should do likewise.

When one considers the old system, it is clear that it was not perfect. I do not believe that any system will be 100% perfect, without a glitch. The old manual electoral system, which we are used to operating, had its glitches. It is a matter of history that a ballot box once went missing in Carlow-Kilkenny, only to turn up at the last minute, thereby changing the whole result. My father was one of many outgoing candidates to be beaten by a single vote. He did not ask for any further counts, but instead accepted the verdict of the electorate.

Some 20,000 votes were spoiled at the 2002 general election, 24,000 votes were spoiled at the 1999 local elections and 46,500 votes were spoiled at the 1999 European elections. Surely such figures place an obligation on us, as elected Members of Parliament, to examine the system. We are not re-inventing the wheel, but we are doing something to modernise the system and to make sure that such figures can be taken out of it, if possible. When one reaches that stage and decides to examine the technology and software that are available, one should ask a basic question of whether a change would interfere with the integrity of the system or of democracy. It is certain that the proposed change will not interfere in such a way.

The Opposition has asked whether Fianna Fáil gremlins will be installed in the hardware and software to manipulate the vote in our favour. Such a suggestion is a load of nonsense. I hope the Opposition does not think that anyone outside the House with a connection with technology will believe what it is telling them. Such people may be put astray for a while as they make up their minds, but they do not share the Opposition's notions and do not believe what the Opposition is telling them. They understand the integrity of any piece of software or hardware and are aware that certain things can go wrong. However, they are aware that the proposed new system is an attempt to move forwards, rather than backwards. That is generally accepted and will be embraced on 11 June.

A question was asked as to whether someone will take the electoral process out of the hands of the officials who normally deal with it. There is no support for such a suggestion, as it is not the case. The same staff are being trained, so that the same faces will be seen at polling stations. It is likely that the same people will probably be supervising the new system, so they will understand it and be able to engage with it, or with voters, if something goes wrong. Standby computer arrangements have been made in case something goes wrong. Provision has been made for a back-up supply in the event of a power cut. The public's confidence in the new system will be reinforced by the fact that the same skilled people will be present to deal with issues that might arise.

I have asked myself if the new system is secure. Contrary to the line being spun by the Opposition, the system is secure. When one walks into the polling station, one will be faced with two or three on-screen ballot papers, depending on where one is located. People in Kilkenny city will be asked to vote in three elections — to the borough council, the county council and the European Parliament. One will see the ballot papers on screen as if one were holding them in one's hand, one will press buttons to state one's preference in the context of casting one's vote and one's name will be marked off the register as it always was. It is a secure and fair system. People of all ages understand that one will cast a vote by pressing a button. Regardless of the walk of life in which they are involved, they are used to doing business in that way. They understand technology because they are engaged with it. I believe that they will feel secure when they cast their votes.

Electronic voting has been used in the Netherlands for the last ten years. It has been used in certain parts of Germany. It is being examined in the United Kingdom and France. I do not think one could ask for much more in terms of security. The Minister said this morning that the German institute for science and technology has tested and approved the system. The Opposition has claimed that there will not be an audit trail — as if one's vote goes into limbo or floats in cyberspace — but there will be an audit trail. The record of one's vote will be contained within the system — in the voting machine — ready to be examined and counted. I understand that the audit system will be available for examination if there is a query in the courts and I feel confident in that regard. The opposite was the case in respect of the manual system — one cast one's vote, one walked away and that was the end of it. While the former system included a paper trail, those who advocated the electronic voting system did not say that one needs a paper trail as well. One can only have one system and one should express confidence in its integrity and security when one presents it to the public.

I would like to speak about the secrecy of the ballot. The ballot box, hardware and simplified software will be there to be used. It is a secret ballot, to which random numbers apply. It cannot be traced back to the name that is ticked off the register. That has always been the case. The secrecy of the ballot is maintained, therefore.

I am interested in the new count and tally systems. The provisions that can be made to retain the existing system are limited, as one must consider issues of secrecy and the question of whether one is damaging the integrity of that aspect of the vote. Everyone who is involved in politics loves the buzz of the count and enjoys discussing whether the tallymen will be right or wrong. The Minister has promised that a certain amount of that excitement will be retained in the context of the movement to this system. A certain amount of information will be made available without damaging the secrecy of the casting of the vote. That will be sufficient for me — I will be quite happy about that. When the electorate, the tallymen and the parties begin to get used to the new system, they will find that it is enough for them.

I served with the former Deputy Nora Owen on the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business. What happened to her was a shocking experience for anybody and I would not like such a system to remain in place. The count should be streamlined so there is a build-up to the announcement of the final count and candidates are told in a fair way whether they have been elected.

We would all wish to see at least that much. The Minister promised us in the course of his speech to the House that this would be dealt with.

We must show leadership. The Opposition has an obligation to examine its position and begin to show leadership and responsibility in this area. The idea of coming to the House and throwing one's hands up to heaven and shouting and breaking a sweat over the issue of e-voting is nonsense. We must reflect on what we are saying and be responsible about it. We must look beyond this House and into the real world, understand what is happening and begin to show leadership. The Minister has responded to the Opposition's points and has accepted some of its Members' suggestions. We should move along quickly in this fashion and then use the time of the House to better advantage than we are at the moment.

Two issues were referred to concerning the election itself. One was the checking of the register. I thought this would form a much greater part of the debate than some of the nonsense that we have heard up to now. The checking of the register is highly important. In the past this was normally carried out by political parties and county and borough council officials who were familiar with the changes in the area. However, with the recent increases in population, there is an even greater onus on political parties and on the officials in county councils who do this work to ensure there are the fewest possible mistakes in the register. After every election there is nearly always an outcry about the numbers who were left off the register of electors or were not able to cast their votes for various reasons. We must find some way to ensure throughout the country that people are included on the register.

This is a critical issue. It is particularly important that young people turning 18 are able to vote. We should consider implementing a greater examination of the register. Perhaps this could be done in collaboration with transition year students. It is important that we engage with students at school and college to ensure that the register becomes an important part of elections. I encourage the Minister to incorporate this in the roll-out of the e-voting arrangements so that we can begin to inform local communities of how the register is formed leading up to the introduction of electronic voting. We can show people how to get their names on the register and explain the changes that have taken place in recent years. I ask him to consider this in the context of the educational part of the process.

Non-nationals who are trying to put their names on the register are having difficulties because they cannot produce passports for one reason or another — when they are held by the State, for example. They have a right to be on the register. The cards issued by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs or the Garda national immigration bureau could be accepted as proof of identity when people present their application forms to Garda stations. I urge the Minister to deal with this problem now because time is of the essence. These people have a right to vote and they should be allowed to do so. I commend the Bill to the House.

I have no doubt that Deputy McGuinness is an excellent Deputy and representative for his constituency, but his speech exemplified the extent of the complacency of those on the Government side. I ask him to consider the reality of electronic voting. It is not the case that wherever electronic voting has been introduced, everybody is happy with it. The opposite, if anything, is true. In the United States, growing concern is being expressed about electronic voting, not by politicians — we have all suddenly become experts in information technology — but by computer experts. People need to start paying attention to this.

The Labour Party commissioned a report on electronic voting which was published last November. This alerted people for the first time to the serious technical issues that need to be addressed. The concerns being expressed in other countries were underlined by a number of incidents that are worth mentioning. The report states:

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel (Nebraska) was discovered to have failed to declare his part-ownership in ES& S, the company which manufactured the voting machines which counted 85% of the votes in his 1996 & 2002 senate elections.

In Louisiana in 1999, an $8m bribery scheme involving the purchase of Sequoia voting machines was uncovered and netted convictions against state elections commissioner Jerry Fowler and Sequoia's exclusive agent David Philpot.

In Sheffield UK in May 2003, many polling stations were without an Internet connection on polling day. As a result voters could get a vote at a polling station while still being able to vote again online from home.

These are examples in which the experiment of electronic voting has been attempted in different forms. It shows one thing: that human nature does not change when new technology is introduced. We may become blinded by the great light of technology. This is not the first time this has happened. Many of the great dangers in today's world have arisen because of a blind faith in science and technology.

I support electronic voting, as do my Labour Party colleagues, but we must be realistic. I am extremely dismayed by the arrogance and ignorance of Government speakers in this debate. I can live with the arrogance but I find the ignorance deeply disturbing. There is a blithe dismissal of serious and objective criticisms of the system. These are criticisms that have been voiced by a wide range of experts in the field of information technology. The argument I have heard from Deputies such as Deputy Kelleher is one we hear quite often from those in Fianna Fáil: if something works in the USA or in the Netherlands we do not need to concern ourselves about it but just take it on.

Deputy McGuinness chided the Labour Party for periodically calling manual votes in the Chamber to make a point. This electronic system, which must be the simplest system imaginable and is visible to everybody, was struck by a virus within its first year. If this can happen to such a simple system operated among a small, concentrated group of people where everything is out in the open, should it not tell us something? Do we simply presume that it only happens in this Chamber? That is irresponsible. It was an irresponsible argument to make and I would expect better in this debate.

Let us imagine that voting is done in the following way. A person steps into a polling booth and is faced with a red curtain. Behind the curtain is a man who fills out one's ballot paper. The person tells him whom he wants to vote for and in which order. If the man follows the instructions correctly there is no problem, even though he cannot be seen. However, what happens if he writes the information down wrongly or switches the person's vote to another candidate or puts the votes in a different order? What if his pen breaks or he loses the ballot? The voter would never know because he does not see his ballot and there is no proof of the original vote. That is precisely what happens in electronic voting, where there is no verifiable trail. No paper record of the vote is kept. In a sense it is worse because at least there is someone behind the curtain and one can find out who it is. Here, however, we are being asked to trust a machine.

To give another example, who would use the services of a bank that did not keep a record of transactions but just told customers how much they had in their accounts? It would be unheard of. Every computer system has an in-built recording apparatus. ATM machines have such systems to ensure that a record of transactions is kept. We are being asked, however, to entrust our democracy to a system that has been criticised repeatedly by experts in electronic voting who know more than we do about it. Both the examples I have cited come from the United States. If we are going to adopt something from that country, perhaps we should adopt their intelligence in assessing the result when electronic voting is introduced without proper preparation and safeguards. It seems the Government is intent on hurtling willy-nilly into this experiment without due consideration for what has occurred elsewhere.

Almost 30% of the population of the USA is now using electronic voting but it is the subject of considerable controversy. Bills have been published both in Congress and in state legislatures dealing with the concerns about and the flaws in verifiable information. In California the issue is about ensuring that a voting record is kept.

Just because electronic voting has been introduced somewhere else, it is not an argument for introducing it here. It is an argument for learning from what has happened elsewhere so that when we come to make the change, we can ensure there are in-built safeguards that will mean the system is a good one with which we can be satisfied. I have no doubt the Opposition would support such a measure.

Let us look at what one expert has had to say. Earlier today, I spoke to Professor David Dill of Stanford University to ensure that I would quote his remarks accurately in this debate. As Professor of Computer Science at Stanford, he is an acknowledged expert in this area. He has stated that "if the machine silently loses or changes the vote, the voter has no clue that that has happened". Voters in Meath or Dublin West may have thought electronic voting was a great experience but if they were asked whether they could be sure their votes were counted correctly, could they answer the question? Of course, they could not show the proof because there is no evidence.

Professor Dill argues that electronic voting machines should print a paper copy of each ballot, which the voter can inspect and which could be used in a recount. It is very simple. He also says that the person behind the curtain should show the voter the ballot he or she has cast. He uses this metaphor to illustrate his grievance with completely paperless electronic voting machines, such as the touch-screen machines. Professor Dill made the case for what he calls a "voter-verifiable paper audit trail" to a symposium on voting technology, held on 15 February, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This is weighty stuff to which we should be listening.

I have great admiration for officials in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government but no one expects them to be computer experts or to have professional qualifications in that regard. Professor Dill says that the old system of what he calls "optical scanning papers" is still the cheapest and most reliable method. He is very concerned about the fact that in the US, people are being encouraged to change the voting system. He also talks about the machine making mistakes. Because they are machines we do not expect them to make mistakes, but clearly that is not Professor Dill's experience. He says that "the technology is too immature for us to have trust in it". He is not talking about the specific technology of our proposed system, but about the technologyper se, which, he says, is too immature not to have flaws in it. Professor Dill is an expert in dealing with computer bugs or what we call viruses. He cannot claim to develop a system that would be virus free because he knows it cannot be done. Even allowing for viruses, I hope that if we had a system with a verifiable record or paper trail, it would be possible for us to introduce electronic voting at some point in the future.

The point has been made that even a paper trail is not good enough. There has been a suggestion from another source that a recording should be made of the voter stating whom he or she is voting for, and that this voice record would be kept confidentially. It would be available in the event of a recount request or a legal challenge in court.

Professor Dill says that the software code should be openly available to anyone. Our party leader, Deputy Rabbitte, asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if the electoral commission, that was established under pressure from the Opposition, could access the source code. Between the Tánaiste and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, we received a fuzzy answer that was not reassuring. At a time when clarity would be enormously convincing, we got a lot of fudge which tells its own story.

I am not a computer expert but it would be remiss of me to ignore the advice of such experts. That is why I am dismayed by the approach that is being adopted by the Government, which is hard to understand. There could be consensus on the issue but the Government is pursuing the matter in a bull-headed manner, regardless of any opposition or criticism. Irish experts in information technology have made strong arguments against the Government's proposed system for electronic voting.

I welcome the fact that an electoral commission has been established but its remit is extremely limited. It is worrying that the Ombudsman felt insulted by being excluded from it. I would have thought that the Ombudsman should be included automatically in the membership of the commission. That would have been entirely appropriate but she made the mistake of voicing her concerns about the electronic voting system. The Government does not brook criticism, it decides what is good for the rest of us, which, in all cases, also happens to be good for the Government. That seems to be the ultimate justification for many of the Government's proposals. I have the highest regard for Danny O'Hare, who is a member of the commission, but he is not an expert in information technology. He has a great record in third level education but I wonder about the limitations on the commission both in terms of its terms of reference and its membership.

Electronic voting has great potential and I hope it can be introduced. I was disappointed when I realised what the Government meant by electronic voting because I had a different picture. I thought there would be much greater flexibility in that people would be able to vote at ATM machines or in supermarkets, if not immediately, at some point in the future. That is the argument in favour of electronic voting.

People would no longer have to attend draughty school halls that are awkwardly located, difficult to access and not necessarily comforting or welcoming. Such halls put elderly people and people with disabilities at a disadvantage, as many do not have proper car parking facilities. All these problems militate against people enjoying the act of voting, which should be made easier rather than more difficult. However, even with the introduction of electronic voting, we will still have to attend draughty school halls that are awkwardly located and difficult to access. The only difference is a machine will be put in front of us instead of a ballot paper. That is not progress.

One system will replace another and the operation of the machine will not be fundamentally different to what is done currently. The count will be quicker. The last general election count in my constituency went on for a week and the result was decided following many lengthy recounts. Elections are not held for our benefit. The people decide who will enter this House to represent them. No matter how long the count takes, the end result should be the same because it is a true reflection of the people's decision. However, we do not have that confidence in the proposed electronic system and it does not offer the flexibility that it should, if we are to reap the benefits of the system.

I do not know how the system will make it more attractive for people to come out and vote. However, a number of practical changes could be made to electoral procedures. The electoral register should be properly maintained and accurately reflect the electorate. That would be a first. I was elected to my local authority 25 years ago and I have never seen a comprehensive electoral register. Chunks of the population were always missing from the register for one reason or another and it caused a great deal of annoyance and grief. It became easier over the years to go on the supplementary register but it has become more difficult in recent years as one must appear at a Garda station and so on to get on the register. It should be made easier to get on the register and the register itself should be more accurate.

I received a complaint from a non-national, EU citizen, who was told she would have to appear in front of a notary public to make a declaration that she was entitled to vote before she could register. I was not aware that was the case but that is an extraordinarily difficult procedure for those who want to register to vote.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I would like to put the legislation in context and then refer to its detail. I supported electronic voting before it became a major issue.

Surprise, surprise. The Deputy is a nerd.

Laois County Council hired a person to make a video of the last general election count in the Laoighis-Offaly constituency because it was understood to be the last manual count of votes there. It was recorded for posterity so that the next generation could see the archaic procedures used to conduct elections. People went out to vote in my constituency on election day and the counting of votes began at 9 a.m. the following day but by 7 p.m. the result of the first count still had not been announced.

An abacus should have been provided. There must have been a serious problem.

We got the right result. Four Government Deputies were returned, even though it took a great deal of time to count the votes. The result was satisfactory from our point of view. However, when I reflected on the count, I recognised the mistakes that had been made. Many votes were discarded because the correct perforation was not applied in the polling station. That was an outrage. A total of 45,000 votes were cast aside at the last European Parliament election while 20,000 votes were discarded at the last general election because they were spoiled. That was enough votes to elected three Members. Many were spoiled because of mistakes made by the voter or by the staff in the polling station. A number of people deliberately spoil their votes but the old system was full of flaws and an overhaul was long overdue.

I have often turned on the 10 p.m. news programme on Sky News or another channel in recent months to find that one of the accession states has held a referendum on whether to join the EU. They think they are joining the EU because it comprises a good, vibrant economic community. However, when I turned on the 11 p.m. news bulletin, the result of the referendum had been announced. It took one hour following the close of the polls to produce a result. We think we are progressive but many of the accession states could teach us a great deal about running elections.

What about the tallymen and women? Those states miss the action and the drama.

When the polls close, the count should be conducted and the results made known quickly. That is the way we should proceed. The unnecessary labour of love, which involves poring over ballot papers, has long passed its sell by date. People will miss the fun, action and craic of the count but that is not what elections are about. That is similar to somebody not watching the All-Ireland final when their team is playing because he or she is only interested in the celebrations afterwards.

If the score was counted electronically and one only got the result, it would not be interesting.

It is like an All-Ireland final without the match.

The Deputy should start again.

I would prefer if the numerous tally men and party activists canvassed during the election campaign rather than appearing on the day of the count. I would be happier to meet them on my travels knocking on doors to convince the public to vote for candidates of their choice. Too many of them are seen only when the election is over. They are too late to do anything for any candidate. They show up for the craic and the count.

I am confused.

The old system is overdue an overhaul.

They had a paper vote, but the Deputy's lads are not counting them quickly enough.

Given that it takes so long to get an election result under the old system, reform is long overdue. During the recent Spanish election, the new Government was announced early the following morning. We should be aspiring to that mechanism here.

Was that electronic?

During the last local elections in Laois, we had a dead heat on the final count which resulted in a petition in the court.

What will happen now?

I will deal with that and one can still have a petition.

The tragedy of that count was that several ballot papers were not properly stamped and those votes were ruled ineligible. That was an outrage to the candidates who were due those votes. I am not commenting on the outcome as there were loses on both sides. However, it was an outrage that votes were mish-mashed when people had gone to the trouble to vote. I have seen counts going on for days and recounts taking a week. On every television news bulletin, announcements were made of new votes being found. That is a farce which undermines the political system. The electorate expects the votes to be counted in an efficient manner and the idea of it taking a week makes some people give up, as party colleagues do not wish to prolong the agony, regardless of the outcome.

There was no prolonged vacancy.

That happened in the last general election also.

When one plays quick pick lotto numbers at 7.30 p.m. on a Saturday evening, one has the results at 7.55 p.m.

What we are discussing is more serious than quick pick lotto numbers.

One has a paper trail.

One has instant access from an ATM machine in any part of the world to one's bank account.

We should have an electronic voting mechanism. There are probably people who still think that officials at the count centre should not use adding machines. A computer only adds up figures more quickly and in a clearer manner than a person with an adding machine. If I was being political, I would not make these points but I cannot help being honest. I am looking forward to the debate in the next two months when the Government Deputies will be talking up electronic voting and convincing our voters that it is a good idea and the Opposition parties are busily talking down the system and their supporters will end up believing them and stay at home.

Will the Fianna Fáil Deputies go to the plinth where they normally would go?

I hope the Opposition keeps up this debate and continues to tell its supporters that this is a flawed system. I hope the Opposition can convince members and supporters of that nonsense and if they believe it, their supporters will stay at home, as directed. I hope that Government supporters will listen to us and realise it is the way to go. We should keep it up and not let up on telling the Opposition supporters to have nothing to do with electronic voting. However, we will tell our lads to get out and vote.

How about a visit to the plinth for the Deputy?

Deputy Fleming, without interruption.

Deputy McManus referred to them as IT specialists, but Labour Party activists wrote this report. I have spoken to her colleagues who said that five party members got together and two of the five came up with a clever idea. They are Labour Party members who were identified as such by members of the Labour Party. They are not international, independent experts.

Deputy Fleming should not worry. I will give him an independent view in a short while.

People believe there is a trail from when one casts one's vote to the count under the present system. There is no verifiable proof of how one votes.

That is wrong. One can identify the votes that came out of every box.

If a person can identify his or her vote at a count, it is an invalid vote because it is clear there should be nothing on a ballot paper to identify it. If somebody is able to identify a particular vote, it is an invalid vote.

That is not true.

The Opposition is spinning a yarn that one can see where one's vote goes during the count. That does not happen. It would be a breach of confidentiality.

This legislation is good. It was piloted in four constituencies during the last general election and in seven constituencies for the referendum and it gave the results very quickly. Several Deputies were elected to this House by margins greater than the number of spoiled votes in their constituency. Many constituencies had from 400 to 600 spoiled votes in the last general election and there are several Deputies who are here by margins less than the number of spoiled votes in their constituency. That is an absurdity. We should not tolerate a system that had hundreds of spoiled votes in every constituency.

That is democracy. The Deputy should ask Dustin.

That is not democracy. Administrative mistakes or mistakes by the elector casting his or her vote can be prevented by the electronic machine. I am very disappointed at the allegations against Members on this side of the House. We do not run the election, The returning officer in every constituency office together with staff from the council and health boards are engaged in the counts. It is a disgraceful slur to cast on people's work when one says that they will not continue to do their work in a proper manner because they will be working with an electronic system.

The computer will do the work.

It is nonsense to cast one's vote electronically and be able to walk out with what has been called a lotto-type receipt. There would be no secrecy in the ballot paper. There is one party which would like that system. It could have its supporters bring out ballot papers to show how they voted, together with a blank ballot paper which will be filled in and given to a supporter who will put it in the box and bring out the next blank paper and keep recycling it. That is what happens when paper is taken out of the polling station. It is subject to abuse. I would never tolerate a system where a person can walk from a polling station with such a record because he or she could be intimidated to show people how he or she voted and it would be the most serious abuse. I am stunned but I am genuinely not surprised that people suggest that should happen. I am aware that some know how to abuse the system. If Members ponder on this they will know what I am talking about. Let us hope that never happens.

The Deputy seems to know a great deal about it.

Section 16 of the Bill provides a verifiable paper trail on all the votes cast in an election in an electoral area or using particular voting machines. In the event of a petition to the courts, the presiding judge can insist that the software shall include the capability of providing a table of the preferences recorded for each vote cast at the poll in the election. That can be done under section 16 for all the votes cast at an election in a local electoral area or in respect of particular voting machines. If there is a query involving one, two or three polling stations, the judge can order a print-out of each individual vote and the preferences. It will not be possible to identify the voter from the print-out, but it will be proved to a judge that a ballot box has a verifiable paper trail. If 636 votes are cast, a judge can establish from a print-out the preference of each voter. It would be a nonsense to have a printer in every polling station. Inevitably, it would run out of ink or paper and bring a useful electronic system into disrepute. A verifiable paper trail will be available to a judge if a petition is ever made. That is as it should be. Presumably, Opposition Deputies will say we will rig that too.

That is like the Florida system.

Allow Deputy Fleming to continue.

If Deputies opposite had taken the trouble to read the Bill, they would know that on the opening of a poll a candidate's agent can verify that no votes have been cast. Obviously, they have not or they would not be making the outlandish statements they are. A person can press a button and see that the ballot paper on screen corresponds with a print-out from the machine before the vote starts.

That provision is made in section 9 for those who wish to read it. At the close of polling, the number of votes printed out will correspond to the number of people whose names have been crossed off the voter register. The numbers can be verified as happens under the existing system. According to section 13, after votes have been counted an accurate tally can be produced without compromising the secrecy of the ballot. The votes will be randomised to establish surpluses in the event that there is a surplus at a particular count.

There will be fun when the machine is set to randomise votes.

The machine can print the numbers on the ballot papers to allow a judge, if necessary, to order a reprint of the randomised numbers in the sequence in which they were printed in the first place. A judge can have a print-out in front of him which shows the details of every preference in respect of every vote cast.

It might be a shock and a disappointment to some that it will be possible to have no spoiled votes in a constituency in which up to 50,000 people have voted. I look forward to the day on which spoiled votes are eliminated from our system. They are a blight and it is amazing we have tolerated them for so long. I hope we learn sound lessons from a number of the countries joining the EU on 1 May which are able to count their votes in a smart, efficient manner. I hope we do the same.

They did it in Russia.

I can understand the Opposition throwing in a red herring. The last speaker complained that we were moving too far only to complain subsequently that we were not moving far enough. She said we should be voting from automated teller machines and the Internet. We have not gone that far as we are moving one step at a time. That is how it should be.

We should be able to invent democracy, but we have not.

I look forward to a demonstration by the people that they are happy with the electronic voting system after they have left the Opposition parties behind them. In due course, we will move on to greater advances in the voting system at locations which are much easier for voters to access. Once proper controls are in place, voters may be able to vote at shopping centres. That is not before us today and that is something about which we have been criticised. We have been criticised by people who say we have introduced a form of calculator when we should be using paper and quills and spending week after week carrying out a count. The Irish people have moved on.

Deputy Cullen has indoctrinated the Deputy well. Indoctrinating young lads should not be allowed.

There has been no indoctrination. I have had no discussion with the Minister on this issue. I am reading the Bill for myself. At the count in Laoighis-Offaly during the last election, I recorded publicly the hope that I would never see another manual count. It took a day and a half to count votes for five seats.

That is sad.

The Deputy should not admit that outside the House.

Allow Deputy Fleming to speak without interruption.

If Deputies opposite wish to live in the 19th century, they are welcome to do so. The people have moved on and they have much more faith in their future.

Will the Deputy give way?

Deputy Durkan will have 20 minutes to expound on his theory.

I would like to see the effort which goes into the count used to ensure that there is an accurate voter register in place in each constituency. That is where the mistakes are made and it is where we should aim our next phase of activity to improve the electoral system. I look forward in future legislation to new arrangements which allow us to put in place an accurate voter register.

I thank Deputies opposite for contributing to the debate. We will convince our people that electronic voting is a good idea while they keep telling theirs that it is not. I hope the Opposition is believed and that they and their supporters stay at home.

The counters in Laoighis-Offaly are not that bad. I apologise to them on Deputy Fleming's behalf.

I wish to share time with Deputies Ó Snodaigh and Boyle.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

While I enjoyed Deputy Fleming's contribution, I wish to present an opposing view from this side of the House. I welcome the opportunity to record my views on voting machines and electronic counting. I have major concerns about the Bill before us. I reject the waste of taxpayers money it implies, which is an issue about which I feel very strongly. It is not good enough, particularly when there are priorities to address in health, education, disabilities and the 70,000 families living in severe poverty. These are the issues on which we should be concentrating public funds.

It will be a sad day for this country when we do away with tallymen. A manual count is healthy for democracy and positive for the political process. It energises the political system and wakes the people, particularly that 35% which is not directly involved in the electoral process. Sadly, that percentage seems to increase every day. It is a major problem in this State that a section of our society does not actively participate in the democratic process. The introduction of the electronic voting system will take away the drama, the life and the energy which is produced at traditional election counts. This is a valid argument. Have people considered the South African elections which brought Nelson Mandela and the ANC to government? People queued in the heat for seven or eight hours to take advantage of the right to vote, as they have in other parts of Africa. Many western societies have become very smug and electronic voting is a symptom of that.

We should examine the facts when considering the dangers of electronic voting. Many people have concerns that the system might represent a threat to democracy. This is a serious issue. Members opposite should suppose the Government were to employ a private company to bundle up our paper ballots, haul them to an unknown location for counting in secret before emerging with just the final, unverifiable result. Would Deputy Fleming be happy with or trust that result? He should consider that scenario. Computers obey coded instructions yet the source code of the machines in question will not be open to independent, specialist scrutiny due to commercial copyright. The count result produced by the machines will not be open to independent verification because, astonishingly, no means to make such verification is built into the system.

If one does something as mundane as book an airline ticket or make a banking transaction, a paper trail will be available in the event that someone mucks up. When one presses a button to vote, there will be nothing anywhere to prove one's vote did not go to one's candidate of choice. These are serious democratic issues. Deputy Fleming spoke about a paper trail, but we should consider the facts and the evidence. People should listen to Ms Margaret McGaley, a scholar working on a PhD on electronic voting. She has told a committee of the Houses that the system as planned poses a genuine threat to democracy. She is not a member of the Technical Group or the Labour Party but an independent person with expertise on electronic voting. We should also consider the evidence of Rebecca Mercuri, an American professor and world expert.

Debate adjourned.