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.