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

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

As I said last night, I am opposed to this Bill, particularly because of the amount of public money, some €40 million, which is being spent on this project. I also have major professional concerns, because the dangers posed by electronic voting constitute a serious threat to democracy. Let us suppose that at election time the Government was to employ a private company to bundle up all our paper votes, haul them off to an unknown location for counting in secret and emerge with nothing more than a final unverifiable result. Would the Tánaiste be happy, and trust the result? People should consider that scenario.

Computers obey coded instructions, yet the source codes of the computer programmes to be used will not be open to independent special scrutiny because of commercial copyright.

They have been.

The count results produced by them will not be open to independent verification.

They have been. They will be.

Astonishingly, in the new legislation there is no serious means of this being built into the system. If one does something as mundane as booking an airline ticket or carrying out a bank transaction and one makes a mistake, there will always be a paper trail to lead to the source. If one presses a button to vote, there will be nothing anywhere to prove that one voted, or to prove that the vote did not go to the chosen candidate.

With regard to independent experts, one can consider Ms Margaret McGaley, a scholar working on a PhD on electronic voting.

She is a student.

She is a student with no international accreditation.

Last night, the Minister's colleague was claiming that those opposed to electronic voting were all members of one political party. Now Ms McGaley is described as "only a student".

The facts will never get in the way of a good story.

The Minister should be told to take his tablet.

Deputy McGrath without interruption, please.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I will continue to make my valid points. When students of electronic voting appear before a Dáil committee and say that the system as planned poses a genuine threat to democracy, I listen to their views. I have an open mind.

I thought the Deputy had not.

I listen to their views. I do not dismiss them or heckle the speakers. Ms Rebecca Mercouri is an American professor, a world expert in electronic voting and security. She says that any first year computer science student can write a code which displays one message on screen for the voter but records something else and transmits that as a vote.

She was referring to the American PC-based system. She has confirmed that she was not talking about the Powervote-Nedap system.

Does the Minister agree with her findings?

Yes. Regarding PC systems, I fully agree with her because they are open to being hacked.

The Minister accepts that Ms Mercouri is a serious, credible person. That is fair enough.

Can I give my opinion?

Deputy Allen should allow Deputy McGrath to continue without interruption.

That applies also to the Minister, the greatest heckler in the Dáil. Could the Ceann Comhairle deal with him also? He needs to be reined in quickly. The Minister referred to the United States. Political momentum is gathering there for a Bill to support a paper trail. Experts say than no one can vouch for full 100% security and independence of any computer system. How then can the Minister do so on our behalf? The Minister should consider these concerns. I disagree with those who argue that we have now moved into the IT age and should get on with it.

Part of democracy is an interest in politics. Part of an interest in politics is studying and observing counts, watching tallymen and tallywomen being involved in the democratic process. I think of the people who died for the right to vote, and the right to see an open, transparent vote. When the ANC was elected to government in South Africa, I recall television pictures of queues of people going to vote.

I was there for six weeks at the time.

The right to an open, transparent vote is important. In my constituency, 33% of people do not vote at all. I am concerned about the lack of involvement. If an IT voting system is introduced, people may be driven further away. We all complain about each other in political life, but to be fair to the vast majority in Irish society, some 72% have been shown to have a strong interest in current affairs. That interest is reflected on election days in the counts, the drama, the cut and thrust of elections. At 3.30 p.m. on the day of the previous general election, I thought I had failed but, by 9 o'clock, I was elected to Dáil Éireann. If one goes into public life, one must take the heat. It is part of the package, and I accept that. Quite often I attended counts in the RDS and, when I failed to be elected, I accepted the democratic decision of the people

People feel genuinely that electronic voting is a step backwards. As I said before, it has the potential to damage our interest in politics and current affairs. Certain things in life are worth preserving, and our current voting system is one of them. Irish men and women have always considered the vote and the right to vote very important. They also want transparent democracy. Electronic voting moves away from these core principles of democracy, and that is why I oppose the Bill. I urge the Government to think again, and let people see and use their votes in an open and transparent manner.

It is essential people accept that reservations about electronic voting and IT do not, as Deputy Fleming implied, mean backward thinking. I accept there has to be some tightening up of the old system with regard to spoiled votes, etc. As one who believes strongly in the democratic process and who came up the hard way through the system — as an Independent it is not easy to get elected——

How many spoiled votes were in the Deputy's count?

I ended up with 7,000 votes. I do not have the exact figure for spoiled votes in my constituency.

I ask the Minister to allow the Deputy to continue without interruption.

I accept that there have been corrections to the proposed system. However well-meaning the Electoral (Amendment Bill) 2004 is, I still have genuine concerns about it. I will be voting against the legislation.

My attitude towards changing the way we vote is that if something is not broken, why fix it. The existing system is certainly complicated and long drawn out but transparent. Everyone involved in the process, including the electorate who wish to follow the count through the media, know what is taking place. Some may object that it only touches on the entertainment value of the process and removing the count will have no material effect on either the outcome of elections or confidence in the process. I do not accept that argument.

The more people can see what is taking place, the greater the confidence in it. They also see their involvement in the electoral process and that the outcome is fair. With the new system, people's only involvement is when they punch their choice into the computer and the results are announced several hours later. Members will be aware of how this transpired in the 2002 elections. Apart from the public personal trauma suffered by Ms Nora Owen in Dublin North and the sympathy we all felt for her, I recall most a sense of an anti-climax surrounding the electronic voting. Gone was the entertainment of the tally and the importance of seeing transferred preferences and changes in local voting patterns.

That has been corrected.

There are other serious issues regarding electronic voting. Question arose over the last presidential election in the United States. A substantial number of level-headed and moderate voters in that country are convinced that the result was not obtained fairly. Whether or not they are correct, it would not have arisen had the system been similar to ours, where the count takes place in front of candidates and the tally persons, and by which each vote can be scrutinised if there is the slightest doubt.

Security of the system is also an issue. Other Members have spoken about the possibility of the system being hacked. Experts in this field are by no means agreed on whether this may be possible. If there is the slightest doubt — which is possible with the proposed new system — then we should not proceed. Concerns about interference from outside the system is another issue. We all know, from regularly receiving computer viruses via e-mail, that there are far too many lunatics who make their life's vocation interfering with important computer systems. Electronic voting is no safer from these people than any other system.

I am concerned that the elderly may not exercise their franchise as a result of the changeover to the electronic system. There is also the possibility that those within the State may interfere with the process. I am not suggesting that this is what motivates the Government. However, the possibility is there on several levels. Why exchange a system of complete transparency with no doubts as to the inviolability of the franchise, to one that lacks confidence and regarding which there are many doubts?

I will miss the older voting system and the chance it provides to bring people together in our democracy. When leaning up against the barriers at the tally, one had the Progressive Democrats, in their pearls and fur coats, standing alongside the Socialist Workers, in their combats, both sharing the democratic process. I will miss the human element and the drama that was involved in those days. I am sure Fianna Fáil will miss it too because it was the only chance for the party's two sides in a constituency to come together after months of fighting each other.

It was illegal.

There will be a reduced interest in politics as a result of the changeover. Giving the result in such a brief manner will be like the anti-climax after examinations in college to those who spent the election canvassing. The great advantage of the existing voting system is that it gives us a day of drama. As a tally person, one feels that one is pushing one's candidate towards getting elected, even though one does not have a real influence on the vote. It makes people feel they are involved and part of the process. This will be a terrible loss to politics.

Whatever system the Minister will eventually introduce, I ask him to retain some of that excitement. The results should not be released in one swift process. We need the drama and stories to be told of elections. Though June is only three months away, there is no plan as to how this would happen.

It has been done.

How will the broadcasters tell their story on the local and European elections?

We have met them.

We have no idea how the results will trickle through to the broadcasters and ensure a day of drama on television. People like watching election results coverage and it gets them genuinely interested in politics. From speaking to broadcasters in RTE and elsewhere, they have no idea how coverage will work as well as it has under the previous system.

Electronic voting was Deputy Noel Dempsey's great courageous step forward when he was Minister for the Environment and Local Government. It has been many years in gestation, yet with a few months to go a commission has been asked to decide whether it is an accurate system. It shows an incredible lack of planning and respect for our democratic process.

The central concern of the system is that secret software is being used. It is akin to putting a curtain around the middle of the counting area with some Dutch people walking in behind the curtain and counting the votes——

No. A Cheann Comhairle, I demand that the Deputy yield.

Will Deputy Eamon Ryan yield to the Minister?

If the Deputy is going to perpetrate the usual bull on this, then we are all in trouble.

There are other options than using secret patented software.

The Deputy is completely and utterly wrong.

Deputy Eamon Ryan, do you wish to yield to the Minister?

I do not because the Minister has used up most of my time.

It is appalling that he comes into this Parliament to perpetrate what are complete and utter untruths. He is speaking complete rubbish.

The Minister will have an opportunity to respond at the end of Second Stage.

He is ridiculous with his statements about Dutch people wandering around the count centres. For Heaven's sake, will the Deputy cop himself on? I have never heard such rubbish in all my life.

A Cheann Comhairle, can the Minister listen and allow me to speak? I have only four minutes and he has taken up half of it.

The Deputy is talking utter nonsense. What does he expect me to do when he refers to Dutch people wandering around the count centre?

I ask the Minister to be silent and allow Deputy Eamon Ryan to continue without interruption.

I ask the Minister to respond to this question. Are we using, as in the Canberra model in Australia, open-source software which we have developed ourselves, or are we using patented software which is not open to public perusal?

The Deputy is out of order. He should make his contribution and not provoke the Minister. The Minister will have an opportunity to reply at the end of Second Stage. The Deputy is not entitled to ask a question and provoke the Minister so as to disrupt the business of the House.

He has referred to Dutch people wandering around during the count.

The Minister needs to answer that question because he is wrong. We should be using open software which is verifiable.

The source code is being tested by an Irish company.

I ask the Minister to remain silent and let the Deputy conclude.

The Minister is disputing this but I am correct on this matter. Will the Minister in his response inform the House directly whether open-source or patented software will be used? I had several other points such as the accuracy of the system and the secrecy for voters who wish to spoil their votes. I am unable to make these due to the Minister's interventions. I look forward to his response as to why it is not open-source software. As uncomfortable as he is about that, that is the truth and a concern of every computer expert.

The anti-brigade are anti-everything.

I am glad to contribute to the debate on this legislation. The existing procedures have been in place since the 19th century. While they have stood the test of time, it is now necessary to take advantage of major advances in technology to make elections more democratic. We need to use some of the advances to ensure that improvements are made for everyone involved, including candidates, administrative staff and voters. The present manual system is labour-intensive and, by its nature, cannot be as accurate as a machine-based system.

The imperfections of the existing system were shown up at the last general election, when a large number of votes were deemed to have been spoiled because of the way in which ballot papers had been marked. There were variations in certain results after recounts took place. At that election, seats in 17 constituencies were decided by a number of votes that was less than the number of spoiled votes. The votes of 24,000 people were disallowed at the last local elections, overwhelmingly because of inadvertent errors such as indistinct numerals or a failure to stamp the ballot paper properly. Forty councillors were returned by less than 50 votes. On the same day, over 46,500 votes were ruled out in the European elections, mainly because voters had mistakenly continued numbering between the different ballot papers. Anyone who has been at a close recount, as we all have been from time to time, has seen ballots being held up to the light to check if the perforation has gone through. In the 21st century, there must be a better way of doing things.

There is nothing more important than making sure that our voting system allows the voice of the people to be heard. If one sets aside time to go to the polling station, one has the right to know that one's vote will be counted accurately. The system being introduced accurately records and counts each vote. The existing manual system results in thousands of votes being declared invalid and not being counted, as a result of an inadvertent action by the voter or the polling station staff. At the last general election, seats in 18 constituencies were decided by less than the number of spoiled votes. The introduction of the new system should help to ensure that such scenarios do not arise in the future. The proposed system is not only easier to use, but it also guarantees that every vote will be counted accurately.

We are introducing the new system because it has been shown and proven, through testing and in actual use, that it works. It has been used by more than 400,000 voters at two polls in this country and by millions of voters at elections in other countries. It is the best system available, it has been proven to work and it will deliver a more accurate and timely result. Given that the existing electoral procedures have been in use since the 19th century, it cannot be said that we are rushing anything. Now is the time for change.

The issue of spoiled votes is a big one. The people who are elected should be those candidates who have the most votes at the end of the count. Under the Irish electoral system, seats can be decided by the smallest of differences. When the Minister, Deputy Cullen, attended a joint committee meeting on the issue last December, my constituency colleague, Senator Finucane, recalled how votes being ruled invalid directly resulted in him losing his Dáil seat by a single vote. I am sure there have been many similar instances in other constituencies. Similarly, councillors were elected by less than 50 votes in 40 local electoral areas. I saw many unstamped ballot papers at the Limerick West count at the last general election. It does not matter if the failure to stamp the papers was inadvertent, because it happened. A seat was decided by a single vote. Senator Finucane was correct to ask the joint committee to press ahead with the introduction of electronic voting because it is better for everybody.

None of the votes in a ballot box in Ferbane was stamped.

That cannot happen under the system that is being introduced.

It should not happen anyway.

Opposition Members have claimed that we will have a mess similar to that in Florida in 2000, but that is not true. Such arguments confuse the public and create doubt at a time when we should be reassuring voters. The system being introduced is nothing like the system used in Florida. The voting machines are different and there are no chads, hanging or otherwise. It is wrong, therefore, to compare our system with that used at the last US presidential election. It is not fair to base one's criticism of our electronic voting system on the shortcomings of a few other systems.

We should examine the record of our new system here and on the Continent. The system that is being introduced here has been extensively and independently tested. It has been successfully used by more than 400,000 voters here, as well as in Holland over 15 years. France is pursuing the Nedap system — it was used at a regional election in Brest in March and it will be used in a number of other cities at the European elections in June.

India, which is the world's largest democracy with a population of 1 billion people, has chosen to forge ahead with electronic voting. Some 668 million registered voters will use over 1 million electronic voting machines when they go to the polls in April, making India the first country in the world to adopt 100% electronic voting. Just as we did here, the Indian authorities tested the new voting system as part of a pilot project in five states in November 2003. There is a big difference in the numbers involved, however. In India, 94 million people voted for more than 5,000 candidates in 600 constituencies. While the Indian voting machines do not use the Nedap-Powervote system that we are adopting, it has many of the same features, including a ballot unit, which displays the candidate's name and photograph, and a control unit that is operated by polling staff.

The Indian system, like that to be used in this country, does not have a voter verifiable audit trail or a paper trail. Opposition spokespersons have made many calls for a voter verifiable audit trail to be put in place. The system we are adopting is fundamentally different from systems used in the US. Unlike the US system, our system has been proven to be safe and trustworthy, in our pilot elections in 2002 and in elections on the Continent over the past 15 years. There is no need for an audit trail. The argument in favour of giving voters a paper receipt or storing a printed ballot paper in the machine has been made on the basis that people need to have confidence that the vote that has been cast has been recorded properly.

The system we are using shows the vote preference beside the ballot paper and the candidate's photograph. Details are also shown on the machine display. This enables voters to check their votes, or to amend them, before they press the "Cast Vote" button. It should be noted that this aspect of the software was tested and confirmed by an internationally accredited test institute. The introduction of a paper receipt would be the same as the introduction of a dual system. We have never before provided for such a receipt so why should we have it now? I would be seriously worried about the use of a paper receipt because I firmly believe that it would lead to corruption in our voting system and spoil the secrecy of the ballot.

It is not unknown in this country for people to be instructed to vote for particular candidates. I can imagine that if people were given a paper receipt, they would be asked to bring it back as proof of who they had voted for. I would have worries if such a system were in place so I welcome the fact that no such receipt will issue from any machine.

I do not think the secrecy of the ballot could be compromised if a person chooses to spoil his or her vote. I do not think there is an entitlement to spoil one's vote. We fought hard enough for the right to vote. The vast majority of Irish people are happy to cast their votes. We should not make an arrangement, facility or accommodation for anybody who wishes to spoil his or her vote.

Section 41(4) of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 states that if "an elector fails to cast his or her vote by pressing the vote button on the machine, the presiding officer shall de-activate the voting machine without approaching the voting machine". The issue has been fully considered by legislators. The 2001 Act takes particular care to protect the privacy of those who do not press the "Cast Vote" button by prohibiting the presiding officer, or his or her staff, from approaching the voter at the voting machine. I understand that more detailed practical guidelines in respect of these legislative provisions will be provided by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government before the elections in June.

Polling staff are legally prohibited from disclosing information obtained in the polling station. They are guilty of an offence if they do so and should be prosecuted as such. It has never been a purpose of electoral law or administrative arrangements to provide a facility for people to spoil their votes and I hope it never will be.

It has been suggested that Nathian Technologies spent just eight days reviewing the source codes, but that is not true — the organisation spent 176 days reviewing the codes. Many rumours and smears are coming from all sides of the House, but they are without foundation and are not substantiated by any shred of evidence. It is time for such innuendo to stop. When this issue was first introduced in the House, everybody was in favour of it. All sides of the House agreed that it was the best way to proceed. We were urged to press ahead and we did that. We pressed ahead with three pilot constituencies at the last general election and seven at the second Nice referendum. The system worked quite successfully. Not one commentator, either in the media or from the Opposition, questioned the result, the security or any other aspect.

The only difficulty that arose was the presentation of the results. That difficulty was recognised by the Minister and his Department and action has been taken. I am glad of this. It was a very cruel way to present results but the problem has now been rectified. This was the only complaint I heard about the electronic voting system at the last two elections. We have tested the system and it has been proven to work successfully. I compliment the Minister for pressing ahead with the issue despite the rumours that had been thrown around.

At present the returning officers, as they have done for decades, arrange the storage of more than 6,000 ballot boxes, more than 10,000 polling booths and other election materials. Storage takes place in an official premises and there is also some private storage. The voting machines and ancillary equipment should not require additional storage space but where existing storage is in poor condition — for example, in courthouse basements or local authority sheds — improved accommodation is required. This would be necessary even if voting machines were not introduced. I understand the Department does not have full details in this respect and is seeking further information from returning officers on the storage arrangements for the voting machines. The only requirement for the storage of these machines is that the accommodation has dry air. It is expected that a mix of public and private accommodation will be used by returning officers and the cost will not be as high as some have recently speculated.

While cost is an important consideration, it is not the sole determining factor in the Government's approval of the new system. The accuracy, reliability and security of the electoral process has been of paramount importance in selecting and developing an appropriate electoral system. The system chosen incorporates security and audit features, both internal and external, at all stages of the electoral process from the initial set-up of a poll to the production of the count result. The vast bulk of the expenditure on this project is a once-off capital expenditure on the purchase of voting machines, which have a lifespan of some 20 years. It is expected that substantial savings will be made in electoral administration, particularly in the area of count procedures. The extent of the saving is dependent on the number of national polls held and the hours and days appointed for such polls during the 20-year period. In some years two or three polls may be held, as happened in 2002, while in other years, such as 2003, there may be none. Therefore, it is not possible to calculate the precise savings that will be made over the lives of the machines.

The equipment, including the supporting software, has been tested by the German institute PTB, TNO, the Dutch electronics products and services company, and Kema Quality BV. The count software has been further functionally tested by the Electoral Reform Society in the UK against its database of some 400 single transferable vote elections. No problem has ever been found. We can trust the system. It was mentioned that computers can crash, tell lies and break down. I spent many days in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government listening to various experts and the Minister and his officials and I am satisfied that we can trust the system. A range of safeguards have been built into it and have been tested extensively from manufacturing through to polling day.

If there is a power failure, the machines break down or any other problem arises, procedures are in place to remedy the problem. The most important thing to remember is that the votes stored within the ballot modules in the machine will not be lost. According to our colleagues who have run elections on this system in the Netherlands and Belgium, no votes have ever been lost. That is a track record second to none. Neither the voting machines nor the PCs will be connected to a network or the Internet. Many commentators refer to the system as e-voting but, although I am not an IT expert, I must point out that it is not e-voting——

That is correct.

——because voting takes place within one system, not on the Internet. This has been put out there to confuse the public.

The only people with access to the machines, apart from voters on polling day, are the returning officers and their staff, the same people that have always been trusted to run our elections since the establishment of the State. Returning officers will have strict access controls such as smart cards and security keys to ensure that only authorised persons access the equipment. This is contrary to what has been said across the floor by my colleague from the Green Party about people going behind curtains. That is not the case and it is wrong to put those thoughts in the minds of the public. However, people are not stupid and they understand that what is being said in this regard is not true. The Fianna Fáil leprechauns will not be in the machines either.

We have taken the little men out of the machines, as the Minister for Finance said.

That is reassuring for the Opposition.

I mentioned that I sat on the joint committee for many days listening to opinions being bandied about. We have always listened to constructive criticism. We have not dismissed anybody's concerns without due consideration. The parties have stated that they were in favour of electronic voting and counting from the outset. Many concerns were discussed and resolved at the committee before Christmas and it is now time to move on. Unfortunately, we now seem to be in an era of opposition, in which everything the Government proposed is automatically opposed. This is a safe, accurate and efficient system and this has been comprehensively shown.

There can be no higher priority than investing in our democracy. This is the first major investment to improve our voting system since the State was founded. I explained earlier that the system would result in savings over the lives of the machines. It is paramount to consider the positives. The system available to us has been proven to work and we can make sure that every vote is counted accurately. This is very important.

The Minister has been accused of compromising his position by being the Fianna Fáil director of elections. This is more rubbish. It is one of the great strengths of our system that no politician has any influence on what happens in the voting process. The elections will be administered by the same people that have always administered them and who are statutorily independent in the conduct of elections. The Minister's position within the party is irrelevant as he is not involved in running the elections. Nothing has changed since other parties were in Government and there is no need for concern.

It is not the fault of the Department that there have been public fears about the source code. It is the fault of the Opposition. No change introduced by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has ever gone through more independent scrutiny. Independent agencies have reviewed all parts of the machinery and the software and the Department is making publicly available all the test reports on the various elements of the system. It is important to note that most countries do not make the source codes publicly available on security grounds.

The source code contains profiles for all the different types of elections and referendums held in the country. To date, different profiles have been used for the general election and the Nice referendum and two more profiles will be run at the European and local elections. When the complete software package is finished, containing profiles for all the different elections and combinations, a decision will be taken on whether to release the source code, taking into account security concerns and intellectual property rights of software designers.

It has been said that every request to introduce extra safeguards for the system has been rejected. This is not true. There are safeguards built into every part of the process and every reasonable concern has been addressed. Following a report on the security aspect of the system and feedback from voters in the pilot areas, the Department made further improvements to the system in the areas of security and usability. However, we must make a choice between listening to every conspiracy theorist, some of whom have no experience of elections, and moving ahead with a proven system which has been independently evaluated and endorsed. We are moving ahead and I welcome that.

I wish the independent commission well in its endeavours. I was disappointed to hear its members' independence being questioned by Opposition spokespersons at a joint committee meeting. They are eminent, decent, independent people. We should allow them to get on with their job. I am confident, without pre-empting their deliberations or their conclusions, they will find that the system will stand the test of time and will serve Irish democracy well by way of an accurate, secure and efficient method of casting and counting our votes.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the provisions of the Bill. Democracies work on the basis that voters, and citizens generally, accept the democratic process which includes polling. Even though a voter's chosen candidate may not be successful, the strength of a democracy is that everyone accepts the outcome of an election, even though they may not agree with it. The Government is elected to govern and, to that end, the voting system must have the confidence of everyone. If the public does not have such confidence, if there is any doubt about it and if they do not agree with the system or have even the slightest suspicion that it can be abused, it will cast a shadow across our democracy. The Minister must ensure, therefore, that any change in the way we vote will attract the confidence of all, not just a majority. Polls have shown that many citizens are unsure about the electronic voting system being proposed by the Government.

The Minister had made much play about spoiled votes. In his speech to the House he said: "It is estimated that at least 95% of those invalid papers were inadvertently spoiled." How does the Minister know that and how did he estimate it? On what is he basing the statement that 95% of those invalid ballot papers in the 2002 general election and the 1999 local and European elections, were inadvertently spoiled? What evidence does the Minister have to show that?

I want to present him with some other evidence which may make him sit up and take notice. In the first Nice treaty referendum of 2001, there were approximately 14,000 spoiled votes. The turnout was relatively small at about 76,000 and people were disappointed about it, but 14,000 people spoiled their votes. In the second Nice treaty referendum in 2002 the number of spoiled votes was considerably less at approximately 5,000. Irish people are not stupid and voting is not rocket science. I put it to the Minister that the vast majority of those who spoiled their votes chose to do so. None of us can prove otherwise because it is a secret ballot, but if one examines both referenda results, one will find that considerably fewer votes were spoiled in the second referendum. That is because more people went into the polling booths and decided not to spoil their votes.

There is a difference between a spoiled vote and a protest vote.

I know that.

The figures came from the returning officers, by the way.

Yes, but the Minister said the votes were "inadvertently spoiled". If it is a protest vote that means the voter has made that choice. If a considerable number of those 24,000 people decided to spoil their votes we must take notice of it.

I disagree.

The Minister may wish to explain why there was a considerable difference in the number of spoiled votes between both referenda on the Nice treaty. The only explanation I can come up with is that people decided to spoil their votes. This calls into question whether we, as legislators, have the right to say to people, "You can't spoil your vote any more". If they want to spoil their votes, they should be allowed to do so.

No. It is a fair point but I would disagree.

The Minister made the point that these votes were inadvertently spoiled. My contention is that they were spoiled deliberately, so the Minister is wrong on that.

Will the Minister address another issue that has arisen? I am sorry that he is leaving the Chamber now because I have put a great deal of work into this, but perhaps the Minister of State can take it up. Deputies Fleming and Cregan said that people were being forced to bring back proof of voting. They referred to the idea of having a receipt which would be brought out of the polling station. In yesterday's debate, Deputy Fleming spoke about someone bringing out a blank ballot paper, getting someone outside to mark it, and then bringing it back in. This was happening on a rota system. If that was happening, the Minister should investigate it because it constitutes a serious abuse of the electoral system. If both Deputies have proof that that was occurring, they should make it known to the authorities because it is a serious allegation. They should come forward with the information they have.

On a related point, if someone goes to a polling station and does not wish to cast a vote, will polling station staff be aware that such a person has not voted? If so, would that in itself not break the secrecy of the ballot? In other words, if someone registers that they have attended the polling station but decides not to vote, will the polling station staff know that? If so, the secrecy of that person's choice will have been made known to the polling staff. Will the Minister of State tell us how that situation will be rectified, so that the secrecy of the electoral process can be maintained? If people decide not to cast a vote, they deserve confidentiality, given the fact that the choice of spoiling one's vote has gone and the option of choosing "none of the above" has not been given. The only other choice a person has is to attend the polling station and not vote as a protest. People should have the right to protest in that way if they so wish but that is being denied under the proposed procedures.

In other jurisdictions a certain turnout must be reached in order for the election to be valid. I do not know whether that matter has been considered by the Minister. I am concerned about the number of people who turn out to vote. It has been reported that electronic voting will improve the rate of voter turn-out but statistics indicate that has not happened. Where pilot electronic voting took place — for example, in both Nice referenda — the statistics remained the same with no marked difference from constituencies where electronic voting did not occur. In fact, in Meath the percentage difference between both referenda was 14.8%, which was roughly the national average. The figure was 13.78% in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, 15.58% in Dublin West, 14.75% in Dublin South-West and 13.82% in Dublin South. Therefore, electronic voting did not seem to make any major difference and did not improve the turn-out in any way.

The Minister has also been making a big issue of stamped ballot papers which had not been stamped.

That is right.

This is not rocket science. The Minister should order an investigation into why more than 300 ballot papers were not stamped.


It is not rocket science to stamp a ballot paper. That is one of the few functions that a polling station official has to fulfil. The Minister has raised this issue himself. He said that in Ferbane more than 300 votes were ruled out because the presiding officer had failed to stamp the ballots. What the heck was the presiding officer doing? That is one of the presiding officer's most important functions on polling day, but if this is happening wholesale, someone has been negligent. One wonders why this happened.

It is too late to do anything about it when the voting is over.

It is not too late for the next time, though.

Of course it is. What has happened since? Has an investigation been carried out? To what extent did it happen nationwide?

The Minister referred to the voting machines developing faults, stating that the possibility of breakdowns is minimised. The old system cannot break down because it comprises papers and pencils. The experts say no computer is bug free, although I acknowledge the system will not be Internet-based. If a computer breaks down, what will happen?

It was proposed that judges could order recounts on the basis that each vote would be printed and could, therefore, be recounted. However, the computer will print the information it has stored and, if it has stored incorrect information for whatever reason, its print out and the recount will be incorrect. A leap of faith is required to believe the computer software will record what the voter intended and the Minister's assertion has no basis. One can only check what the computer has stored.

The legislation should address problems with the register of electors. I surveyed local authority websites recently to ascertain whether I could access their franchise offices. Some were easy to access while others were impossible to access and a number did not provide a link to the franchise office. I downloaded registration papers easily from a number of websites but it was not possible to do so from others. One can register to vote on line and access the register of electors in a number of countries. It should be obligatory on local authorities to provide access to their franchise offices on line, to make registration papers available for printing and to permit people to register or to check whether they are registered. The Department should consider this, although data protection issues may arise. If the Government goes down the electronic voting route, it should be possible for people to register on line.

The decreasing voter turn-out must be addressed. My greatest worry about the introduction of the electronic voting system is that because people's confidence in it is not has high as it should be, they will not vote. If the system is forced through and voter turn-out decreases again in June, a double whammy will result. Many people will decide not to vote anyway but, if the system is introduced in this manner, others will be discouraged from voting and the Minister will have done us a great disservice. The reason the legislation is opposed is that the introduction of such a system must have the total confidence of the voter and everybody can accept the outcome, allowing the game to proceed. If people do not have confidence in the system, they will not vote and that would be a tragedy.

This system has not been used anywhere else in a national election, although it has been piloted here and there. The electoral commission in Britain recommended the provision of a paper trail. Many Government backbenchers have used smoke and mirrors in talking about the paper trail. They have suggested the use of receipts that can be checked but that is nonsense. When the voter casts his or her vote, a paper ballot should also be created and stored in a sealed ballot box so that, if there is a problem or a question about the reliability of the electronic method, the sealed ballot will be available to provide a double check. The sealed ballot could also be used to verify the electronic method. People would probably then have more confidence in the system.

No experts have suggested the use of receipts. The charge by Deputies Fleming and Cregan that people were pressurised into taking receipts on leaving the polling station should be investigated. That is a serious charge and the Deputies should go to the authorities if they have evidence that happened.

It was suggested that there was a necessity to make it easier for people to vote but I wonder why. Voting is a serious business. Voters make serious choices about who they want to represent them at various levels and that should not be done flippantly. Text and on-line voting have been proposed. However, by making it easier for people to vote, there is a risk that their vote will be devalued. If people must make an effort to vote, they will take it seriously. Our energy should be directed at educating and informing people about the importance of voting so that, no matter where the polling station is located, people will make an effort because they will value their vote that much.

In the South African elections, hundreds of people queued for hours in extreme heat to vote, having travelled long distances to do so, because they valued their vote. A number of people in Ireland want the ballot box to be placed outside their front doors. The Government should embark on a voter information and education campaign not only on how to press buttons but on the importance of exercising the franchise.

It is difficult to ensure the electoral register is up to date but it important to do so. More resources should be put into updating the register to ensure people are registered and the names of those who have emigrated or passed away are removed so that the register is accurate. Not enough effort is put into this and I would be happier if the Government had put more effort into making sure the electoral register was up to date and encouraging people to vote, given the significant decrease in voter turn-out in recent elections.

The Government is going ahead with a system, which I think will discourage people from voting because people are not sure of it and that could damage the democratic process. That is serious. Why is this being rushed? The public was not demanding electronic voting. It will cost a great deal of money. Let it not be said that I am against electronic voting, because I am not, but the system should not be rushed through. I do not think it is beyond the bounds of possibility to have a verifiable paper trail. Also, a button that will allow a voter to register that he wishes to vote for none on the ballot sheet should be an option in the system. Given that people choose to protest by spoiling their vote, we do not have to take that choice from them.

They can stay at home.

We should take heed of their protest. For example, during the first referendum on the Nice treaty, people protested by spoiling their vote, whereas in the second referendum, they voted. People are not stupid and make a choice, and spoiled votes are not always inadvertent as the Minister contended. Will the Government reconsider its position?

As elected representatives under the old system, Members will have to take a long hard look at the proposed electronic voting. On a personal level, I could take a closer look at it because I lost out in a general election in 1982 by a fraction of the number of spoilt votes cast in the constituency. The electoral system has served us well, but it is time to move on and deal more sensibly with elections. Electronic voting, as it is proposed, is a vast improvement on the system down the years. We have experienced long counts and it is well known that some counts have lasted for weeks and during which it took days to scrutinise the votes.

In Florida it took a couple of weeks.

If Deputy Durkan is having a problem with Mr. Bush and his brother, he should address them to the White House, rather than across the floor of the House.

Deputy Ellis should remember the hanging chad. He would not want that in Sligo.

Is the Deputy concerned about that?

I am concerned for the Deputy.

I am delighted about that. Before I was interrupted by Deputy Durkan, I was making the point that the paper system was efficient up to a point.

It was accurate.

That is out of the question. If somebody with bad vision crossed the line on a ballot paper, his or her vote would be a spoilt vote.

Does the Deputy think it will be easier to work the machines?

When the scrutineers from the various parties examined the ballot papers, they would argue the point relentlessly. The net result was that, in some cases, people were disenfranchised because of minor errors on the ballot paper. That point must be accepted. If Deputy Durkan listened rather than dictating to everyone in the House, we would have a more progressive debate.

Members are rushing through this at speed.

The Deputy is a prime example of someone who does not want to hear another's point of view. Everyone has a right to make his or her point in a democracy. We are a bad example to the students in the Visitors Gallery who see Members bickering at each other.

On a point of order, I do not wish to be lectured by the Member opposite.

I do not accept one from the Deputy.

That is not a point of order.

The old system was quite effective, but there were serious discrepancies when someone made the slightest error. We have all seen examples of what was written about candidates when somebody deliberately wished to spoil his or her vote.

The electronic system will record the vote as cast by an individual and the machine will be able to provide the following information: the number of votes cast at a polling booth, the total number of votes cast and the preferences cast for each candidate. The net result is that, instead of a black box being sent to the count centre to be opened at 9 a.m. the following morning, a disk will be taken to the count centre and the counters will be able to conduct the count quickly. Some may argue that this takes away from the drama of counts but, for those who have been involved in counts for a long time, the drama and the rise in blood pressure that goes with it are best avoided even if the decision will be sudden and sharp. It has been agreed that a reasonable period will be left between the announcements of the results of the various counts.

I have listened to the points made by the Members opposite on the paper trail. Members may not realise the danger of the paper trail. Deputy Stanton said that ballot papers were taken out from polling booths. I can confirm where that happened and I know people who did it. People were intimidated to go to the booth with a specimen ballot paper in their pocket and, having had the ballot paper stamped, post the specimen ballot in the box and bring out the stamped ballot paper in their pocket. I am aware that a certain candidate was elected to a local authority in that manner to ensure the bet was won.

There are staff to ensure that does not happen.

It cannot be prevented. You do not have the right to ask a voter to show the stamp on his ballot paper before he posts it in the box.

You have.

You do not.

The presiding officer is supposed to be able to show that the ballot paper is stamped.

The ballot paper is stamped by the presiding officer and given to the voter, who goes behind the screen and does not put the stamped ballot sheet in the box but a specimen ballot paper instead. The net result is that the stamped ballot paper can be taken out of the polling centre.

If that is the best the Deputy can come up with, he is in serious trouble.

The stamped ballot paper that has been taken from the polling centre is given to somebody else. Let me say that this is still done in certain constituencies to intimidate people. Deputy Kehoe and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, would want to watch out in their constituency because it could be done to them.

It is well known that people have been intimidated into taking out a stamped ballot paper and giving it to somebody outside who in turn brought it back in and posted it in the ballot box. There is nothing to prevent it happening.

It was found out.

Electronic voting will help to deal with that problem. Once it was found out, nothing could be done about it. The issue could not be dealt with because the ballot paper was properly stamped and marked and was part of the electoral system.

It could have been prevented.

It could not be dealt with because the ballot paper was properly stamped and was part of the official poll. These are things we all have to face.

Another issue we must face is impersonation. I agree with Deputy Stanton that the electoral registers are in many cases chaotic. People refuse to place their names on electoral registers or in other cases have their names listed in three or four places. The system is in need of such an extensive review that it should be placed under the remit of the Garda, as it was previously, to allow the force to ensure that everyone is registered. We can all agree that people should not have the right to fail to register. Whether they wish to vote should be their own business. This must be examined.

In considering electronic voting, we are considering progress. In that context we should examine the issue of unstamped ballots which were mentioned earlier. They have been a major problem. Everyone who has been a scrutineer at a count will have seen a number of unstamped or improperly stamped ballot papers, some of which have come into question. In some cases, they have decided elections. We have heard during this debate of people who failed to win seats in this House by margins of one vote. Others were defeated by two, three or four votes. If a presiding officer forgets to profile or stamp a ballot paper, that paper is invalidated and cannot be counted. A speaker mentioned 300 such ballots at one polling in Ferbane some years ago. If only one ballot paper is unstamped, it means somebody has been disenfranchised. None of us will stand for that irrespective of his or her political viewpoint. Electronic voting will ensure that everybody's vote will be recorded to the full extent of transfers.

Under the manual system, if a person who made six transfers down the ballot paper and missed a line before continuing to the ninth transfer, the seventh, eighth and ninth votes were uncountable. This is typical of the manual system. Many Opposition speakers have attempted to scaremonger about the accuracy of electronic voting. Any Member can say that a machine might go wrong, but the new system will be capable of verifying the manner in which votes were cast. That is terribly important. The only note of caution I would sound is that the coming local and European elections will be the first occasion on which the system is used and, for that reason, it would be useful to provide extra time to allow people to cast their votes. Perhaps, polling stations could stay open until 10 p.m. rather than 9 p.m. The process will be much slower than the manual system for people who are using electronic voting for the first time. They are entitled to the extra time necessary to allow them to vote in comfort and to become accustomed to the new system.

Impersonation is a serious problem, especially in major urban areas. An onus should be placed on presiding officers and polling clerks to identify by some means every person who hands in a ballot paper if it is not possible to make a personal identification. Voters should be required to produce a driver's licence or passport to prove they are the people named on the ballot paper. We have all heard horrible tales of the impersonation which goes on. It rarely happens in rural areas as most polling clerks and presiding officers know everybody who attends a polling station to vote. In a major urban area nobody knows anything except that a polling card has been produced. Unless a person is challenged to produce identification, the ballot paper is counted.

I lived in an apartment in this city to which were posted three polling cards. When I asked how they had come to be sent there, I was told they were the cards of people who had lived at the address four years previously. This is the sort of incident which upsets the entire electoral system. This has done more to create worry among people than will electronic voting.

Electronic voting will take people into the modern age. Candidates and the public will have full confidence in the electoral system as a result. I have heard Members say that people may feel intimidated at having to vote electronically, but I disagree. People will actually feel more confident as they will know that what they input will be recorded fully by the machine. There have always been cases of electoral abuse under the manual system and there will continue to be attempts in this regard. We must ensure that we do not dent people's confidence in the system before we begin to use it.

Tally information has always been very important to candidates, their supporters and others. The fact that this information will be made available is important. It has always given confidence to those who work for political parties to know how many votes had been cast at a polling station. They can in many cases divine that the percentage of the vote gained by each political party is at the usual level or that there has been change. At least, they have a record to show what happened. They can reconcile the number of votes they think were cast with the tally. The new system will allow that process to continue. Some people have said that the tally system was problematic in small polling stations. While I can understand the worry, in most cases people accepted that no one had greater access to information than anyone else.

I will have a great deal more to say about the number of Members when the next electoral Bill comes before the House to deal with the amendment of constituencies. The number of Membersper capita has fallen by 16% over the past 20 years. While there are those outside the House who feel there are too many Deputies, people are being distanced from their elected representatives. There was always a great exception in this regard here. Irish citizens have always had access to their public representatives to a greater extent than citizens of larger European states who might not even know where to find their local member of parliament. Elected representatives abroad may never come to see their constituents. In rural Ireland the important relationship between the electorate and public representatives has always been maintained. That will go out the door if something is not done about the number of Members and the growing number of constituents they represent.

We must encourage young people to become involved in the electoral system. It should be mandatory to provide every child at primary or second level education with the opportunity to come to the Houses of the Oireachtas to see how the system works. It is terrible that people who have been voting for many years are not made aware of how the system works. While they know for whom they are voting, it is sad that they do not know more about the Oireachtas. It is a scenario which needs to be improved.

The composition of the commission has been mentioned. Does any Member of this House have a reason to say any High Court judge is not fit to be a member of the commission on electoral voting? No. Other members, such as the Clerks of the Houses, are people of the highest integrity. To challenge this commission is wrong. Two others with experience in the field of information technology will also be included in the commission.

Persons involved in IT have criticised the proposed system of voting. Why do they criticise it? They do not provide any real background that shows why it cannot work. As far as we are concerned, the proposed system will work and contribute to our electoral system. The new system may encourage more people to vote than voted under the old system. It will give people greater confidence when they know the system cannot be interfered with.

I fully support the Bill. It will make a tremendous contribution to the accuracy of ballots cast. Everyone wants to ensure that his or her ballot is fully recorded.

I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. I will refer to comments made by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, and Deputies Ellis and Dennehy. This House should be proud that it allows Members to apologise for comments they have made. I have read the Official Report and have spoken to other Members about this. I am sad to see that Deputy Ellis has left the Chamber; he does not like to hear the truth. Yesterday, the Minister said, "Some Deputies have been more active than ever in hiding behind parliamentary privilege. The performance of one Fine Gael Deputy in casually slandering an eminent judge, while this was later withdrawn, showed just how far things have gone." I was surprised to hear Deputies, including the Minister, referring to something I said for which I have apologised. I am disappointed in the Deputies for saying this.

The manner in which this Bill has been rushed through the House is a poor display of democracy. I cannot understand why the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government cannot build a consensus from all Deputies and parties. It is of utmost importance that all Members are happy with the electronic voting system before we proceed with it.

I have argued with the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, on local radio on many occasions, including on the issue of electronic voting. I feel strongly about the need for a paper trail. Many Government Deputies have said they do not feel strongly about paper trails. Electronic voting should be accompanied by a paper trail, as we have no way of tracing ballots if something goes wrong. Deputy Ring spoke about computer viruses. Under no circumstances can anyone say there will not be viruses in electronic voting. While computers have been with us for some time, we are not able to keep them free from viruses.

When one withdraws cash from an ATM one gets a receipt.

Most people choose not to take a receipt.

That is the person's choice. It would be a simple matter to have these devices do the same thing. The receipt could be put into a ballot box — I do not mind the way it is done. A paper trail would back up this important element of our democratic process. After all, we will use this system to elect representatives to town and county councils, Dáil Éireann and the European Parliament and also use it in referenda.

I have spoken to older people who are afraid of their lives about using electronic voting in the next election. I think of 80 year old citizens who have voted all their lives but are unable to use a mobile telephone. They are frightened about the prospect of this. This should have been held back and introduced before the next general election. The Opposition is fighting for the addition of a paper trail. Each Opposition and Government Deputy is frightening the people.

It is the Opposition, not the Government, which is frightening the people.

I never heard the like of Deputy Allen when he spoke on this Bill yesterday.

The Deputies are wrong; people are afraid of their lives to vote using this system.

They are happy with the system.

When people go to the polls in Wexford and Enniscorthy in the forthcoming elections — of course, they will vote for Fine Gael candidates — they will vote in town council, county council and European Parliament polls and maybe a referendum too. The array of candidates, colours and buttons that must be pressed would frighten any person. One will have to take time to ensure one is voting for the right candidate and a party——

All the good-looking candidates are in Fianna Fáil.

——that will not ram something through the House and could not care less about anybody else.

This system was used in the general election two years ago.

Deputy McCormack told me what happened at an environment committee meeting. I could not believe that such a thing could happen here; it sounded like something that would happen in a non-democratic country. The committee agreed to meet with independent experts to discuss electronic voting. The morning session of the meeting went well and the independent experts posed 41 questions. Fianna Fáil Members put an end to the questioning in the afternoon session, saying that the Minister had called a halt to it. The Fianna Fáil Members said that no further questions could be posed. Everything was signed, sealed and delivered the next day and the machines were brought to Waterford. The Minister told the House yesterday that he did not know where the machines are being stored. He is in charge of electronic voting and does not even know where the machines are being stored. Information received under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed the machines are stored in the Minister's constituency.

The Minister is treating the House with contempt. A number of Fianna Fáil backbenchers have told me they are totally against electronic voting. While they have said so at parliamentary party meetings, the Minister wants to get his way. Like the Minister for Health and Children who introduced the smoking ban——

The Deputy supports the smoking ban.

——and the Taoiseach who wanted to build the "Bertie bowl", the Minister wants to have his little party piece before he retires.

I ask that consensus be arrived at across the House. This has not yet happened and it is important that everyone agrees with this 100% before the system is introduced.

Deputy John Bruton said it is as easy as one, two, three.

I have to laugh when Government Deputies talk about Deputy John Bruton. In a letter to the Taoiseach before the last election, Deputy Bruton outlined his concerns about electronic voting. This letter was published in all the newspapers. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, reads them on a daily basis. It was in theIrish Independent, The Irish Times and the Irish Examiner.

I do not read those papers.

I will not outline what else was in the newspapers. I would like to know where the Progressive Democrats stand on this important issue. I am looking forward to Deputy Fiona O'Malley's contribution.

I hope the Deputy will stay for it.

I will stay and I am looking forward to her contribution. The Progressive Democrats were on their high horses when the Minister, Deputy Cullen, was away for a week. I am not sure where he was or why he was away. As soon as he arrived back in the Dáil Chamber, the Progressive Democrats shut up. It was end of story and they had to agree with the Minister. They have become more Fianna Fáil-like than ever before.

There is nothing wrong with that.

This is the same party that had the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, up the pole to protect us from a one-party Government. This is the same party that went to Killarney last weekend and was going to look after the whole of Ireland. This is the party of the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, who was unable to come in yesterday morning to say whether she agreed with the Punchestown trio. It is unbelievable. The Progressive Democrats claim to be holding the country together. Along with the Fianna Fáil Ministers and Deputies, they are treating the country with contempt. As a relatively new Member, I find it unbelievable.

I cannot understand why the Ombudsman was not invited or allowed on the Commission on Electronic Voting. A person of her stature and importance who listens to the people should have been allowed on the commission to say whether she was happy with electronic voting.

I have strong views on those who want to spoil their votes. The Minister of State, Deputy Browne, said earlier that they should stay at home. There is something anti-democratic about telling people who might want to spoil their votes to stay at home. As somebody over 18 years of age I should be allowed to spoil my vote if I wish.

If they all spoilt their votes, the Deputy would not be here.

I have great respect for the Minister of State, who is my constituency colleague. While I had this argument with him on a local radio station and he said the same thing, I do not agree with him.

I only listen to the people who vote for me.

If I wanted to spoil my vote, I should be allowed to go to the polling booth and do so. I see Deputy Fiona O'Malley nodding her head in agreement. I am glad she is coming around to my way of thinking. At the last election I witnessed many spoilt ballot papers. A person might make a genuine mistake and insert ticks beside every name. This might not be a genuine mistake — perhaps such a person wanted to cast a spoilt vote. Other people might insert a flowery message on the ballot paper. While I am glad there were no such messages left for me in the last general election, many were left for candidates from the other side of the House, who having been in Government were unable to deliver for Wexford.

Is that why Fine Gael ended up with only one seat?

People should be allowed to spoil their votes.

I wish to pick up on Deputy Ellis's point on polling cards. While I was not paying much heed to him as I had had enough of his nonsense, he said that two or three polling cards can come to a house with only one occupant as the others might have moved on. How will electronic voting prevent such cards from being used? The Minister's officials should take note of this and explain why Deputy Ellis believes electronic voting will prevent these cards being used when they cannot be stopped under the manual voting system. The Deputy believes that electronic voting will solve all these problems and nobody will be able to get away with anything like this. I was amused by his comment about people bringing the ballot papers in and out. I would like to know how he knew so much about it.

I have many reservations about electronic voting. As Deputy McCormack said yesterday, since I was elected to this House in May 2002 having been actively involved in politics for years, not one person ever suggested to me that we should move with the times and introduce electronic voting. I have spoken to many Fianna Fáil members in Wexford who are also totally opposed to it. It is unbelievable that millions of euros have been spent on this system. The bill will ultimately come to about €60 million. There are many more important matters on which we could spend €60 million, for example hospital waiting lists and the school building list — I could go on for about three days talking about the schools in Wexford alone.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government disabled person's grant is administered through local authorities. Not a day goes by without a constituent contacting me about a disabled person's grant. Why cannot the €60 million to be spent on electronic voting not be spent across the country? We have cancer patients in the south east waiting for treatment. At the last general election, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, promised cancer treatment for the south east in his election leaflets, which I have kept to back this up. However he subsequently decided it was more important to spend it on a sham system of electronic voting.

People have to wait five or six years to get orthodontic treatment. Other priorities are people on hospital trolleys, widow's pension, medical cards etc. We could have a far happier country if the €60 million had been allocated to such areas. I have spoken to many in the Fianna Fáil Party who are totally opposed to electronic voting, which could be proved if they were polled.

A poll on Fine Gael members could be interesting. They all just follow the leader.

Electronic voting is the Minister's hobbyhorse. He hopes to be able to leave the Dáil — he might be gone after the next general election — having introduced electronic voting. I am very disappointed that the Minister was not able to take Dáil privilege and neither were many other Deputies on the other side of the House.

The people of Wexford cannot believe the Deputy.

With the sole exception of Deputy Stagg, I doubt whether anybody in this House has not found the experience of electronic voting in this Chamber to be a positive experience.

The system here is verifiable.

Deputy Stagg is the only person who continues to request that we go through the lobbies. We all find electronic voting considerably more convenient.

We also have a printer in the Chamber, which produces a printed record.

We will have a counting machine in the elections too. Will the Deputies who were so keen to come before the House to listen to my contribution permit me to make it? I am sorry I was not a Member of the previous Dáil. It is a matter of record that I am learning about the massive and extraordinary U-turn Opposition parties have taken in respect of this matter.

This is rubbish.

I never heard the likes of so many of the contributions made yesterday, particularly that made by Deputy Allen. Is the Deputy going to boycott the election? Will his party, which has cast many aspersions on the system, do so? Fine Gael appears to think the system is worse than one would find in deepest, darkest Africa in the 1950s.

That is exactly what was stated in theIrish Examiner a couple of weeks ago.

According to Deputy Allen, there is no way of verifying the election results. Of course there is a way of doing so. Has he no faith in electronics? It was extraordinary to listen to the Deputy's contribution. Deputy Bradford stated that people are afraid of their lives.

I am Deputy Kehoe. I am disappointed the Deputy does not know my name.

I beg the Deputy's pardon. It is no wonder that people are afraid of their lives when they have to listen to the kind of nonsense uttered by Deputy Allen. Is Fine Gael going to boycott the elections if the electronic system is put in place? It clearly has no faith in it. Deputy Bruton made the point that using the system is as easy as one, two, three.

It is easy to use the system. We are concerned about verification of the results.

Why is there such a chasm between those two positions held by members of Fine Gael?

I was surprised by the contribution of Deputy Gilmore, a man for whom I have tremendous regard. He has done a great deal of work in this area and is extremely knowledgeable about it. The Deputy highlighted an instance to demonstrate the unreliability of the electronic voting system. He referred to a case where an opinion poll placed a person at a certain percentage and indicated that when the real poll — the only one that matters — took place, there was a difference of 11 points. This is meant to demonstrate that electronic voting is not reliable. I never heard such nonsense from a man of such high standing. The only poll that matters is the election. The Deputy's example demonstrated the fickle nature of opinion polls rather than anything else.

All parties recognise that the most important element in introducing electronic voting is that it should have the trust and confidence of the people. That is why we should not engage in opposition for opposition's sake. It is not helpful to be scaremongering and that is exactly what is happening in this case. The notions with which people have come out are simply extraordinary. We all use electronic communications each day and we do not experience the type of breakdown to which people have alluded. If we did not have electronic communications of the sort which exist, society would not be nearly as efficient as is the case. It is disappointing that the Opposition has not put forward any constructive arguments against electronic voting.

Many speakers asked why we should introduce electronic voting. Why should we not introduce it? Is it not part of natural progress? If we have the ability to improve our electoral system, should we not grasp it? We have the opportunity to make our voting system 100% accurate and people are finding grounds to criticise us. As democrats, surely we want the will of the people to be reflected in this Chamber. There have been instances where seats were won and lost on a slim margin of six votes on people's fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth preferences. Such instances show one area in respect of which we are going to enjoy the benefits of accurate information. I would have thought that this would be applauded by all Members. To seek to introduce a system that will guarantee such accuracy is important.

People have also asked why there is such a rush to introduce electronic voting. That is an extraordinary question. This system was first mooted in 2000, it was put into effect in 2002 and people are talking about us being in a rush. God forbid that any of the Opposition parties ever get into Government, particularly if they call a four-year interlude a rush.

The fact that the electronic voting system operated in three constituencies in 2002 means that we have been able to modify it. There were difficulties with it, particularly in terms of the cruel nature of having instant results, etc. We have reaped the benefits of using the system in three constituencies on a pilot basis. There has been no rush to introduce it.

It is disgraceful that the integrity of the commission has been brought into question in the House. I agree with Deputy Kehoe that the Ombudsman should be a member of the commission. However, I would criticise the Ombudsman for having aired her opinion and natural bias because doing so has precluded her from membership. How can one possibly be independent if one questions the effectiveness of the system? Had the Ombudsman indicated here enthusiasm for electronic voting, everybody on the opposite side of the House would be jumping up and down and stating that there is no way she could be a member of an independent commission. If one is in a position of responsibility, one must ensure that one does not air one's views. The Ombudsman occupies an influential position which is meant to incorporate an independent overseeing role and the holder of the office must not comment on the pros and cons of particular matters.

Is that not gagging the Ombudsman?

If one is a member of the commission, one can raise such points at that forum. To expect the Government to appoint somebody who has demonstrated a bias is irresponsible. The Ombudsman has, therefore, excluded herself from the process, which is regrettable.

I have no enthusiasm for audit paper trails. If we are going to change the system we should do so and have confidence in our choice. If we use an electronic recording device and a paper distributing device, which holds supremacy? If we want to embrace electronic voting we should do so, not half-heartedly but wholeheartedly. If Members are interested in having a paper trail, why do we not retain the existing balloting process? It is ridiculous to have two elections, which is effectively what will happen because there would be two methods of recording the results. What would happen if there was a discrepancy between the two? I do not believe in an audit paper trail. We should embrace the change wholeheartedly.

Some Members referred to the fact that the source code would remain in private hands. I do not see any difficulty with the Minister trying to acquire it and I do not believe that he is precluded from doing so. I would encourage him to procure the code. It is in the interests of the State that it should retain technical electronic information regarding the running of elections. I would encourage the Minister to obtain the code but his not possessing it is scant reason for not proceeding with electronic voting.

Previous speakers referred to the electoral register which does not have much to do with the introduction of electronic voting. However, the register is a vital element in our electoral process. Anyone who monitors electoral registers will be aware that they are in a lamentable state, that standards differ from county to county and that different electronic means are used for the recording of data. A great deal of work needs to be done in this area. My name was included on three electoral registers at the one time despite a request from me for it to be taken off. The message just did not get through. We need to set aside time to deal with this important issue and to ensure our registers are accurate. Apart from anything else, an inaccurate register reflects badly on voter turnout, an issue about which we are all concerned.

Another issue about which we, as democrats, are keen is voter participation and voter education. The proposed change in the electoral system will provide us with an opportunity to encourage people to participate. Young people are enthused by the introduction of electronic voting. However, I am concerned that elderly people might find it rather frightening or intimidating. Rather than scare them, as Deputy Allen did yesterday, we need to encourage and help them understand that the system will not bite and is fairly straightforward. That is the type of service we, as public representatives, should be providing to our constituents and the country at large.

I visit many schools to speak to students about politics which, I believe, is an important profession. Their participation in our democracy is vital and it is their duty to vote. The current electoral system is quite complicated. It is not easy for the person voting for the first time. I refer not to electronic voting but to proportional representation generally. It was pointed out to me during one of my visits that 18 year olds are confident and do not like to be faced with situations in which they do not know what to do. That is a valid point. Our schools do not provide any form of in-depth voter education which would teach people how to vote. People need to be taught how to vote. It is not as easy as simply putting an X in the box opposite the name of a particular person. There is an art to voting in terms of who one would or would not like to be elected. We need to explore this issue.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill. However, it would have been in all our interests if this legislation had been held off until there was consensus on the way forward in respect of our electoral system. It is a little rich of Deputy Fiona O'Malley to come into the House this morning and hold up as an example the electronic voting system used here. Nobody has any difficulty with electronic voting. They have a problem with electronic counting which they know is not secure and in which they cannot have confidence. That is the difficulty.

The system used in this House is one whereby one pushes a chosen button and immediately sees verifiable evidence that one's decision is accurately recorded. There is also a checking mechanism available so that we know exactly what are the results and the system is transparent. In addition, a print-out of the result is available. It is true to say that Members have no difficulty with the system used in the House and that it has been successful. The Opposition is making the point that it would like a similar type system for elections and referenda. We want a verifiable system, not one which requires us to put our trust in the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Nobody is prepared to trust in this Government given its record, something which Deputy Fiona O'Malley will have to accept.

There was a time when the Progressive Democrats claimed to be the guardians of the State.

It was forced upon us.

The Deputy is aware what the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, did in the previous general election. The Progressive Democrats Party sold itself as the watchdog of Fianna Fáil. Following more than one and a half years in Government, that party's Members are more like Government pussycats because they are prepared to roll over on major issues. Yesterday, we witnessed the Tanáiste's pathetic performance when asked serious questions about Punchestown. It is sad to see a politician who had such stature and respect in this House at one time for standing up for probity. The Tanáiste was placed in an indefensible situation by the behaviour of the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, the sharp practice involved and the money wasted by being given to friends of the Ministers. Were the Tanáiste in Opposition, as she was some years ago, she would be ranting and raving about such practice.

When asked yesterday what she was going to do about the situation, the Tanáiste refused to answer. She made a ludicrous comment and sat down as quickly as she could. She has lost her edge, the reason she is in politics and the reason for the Progressive Democrats' existence. The Progressive Democrats Party has reached the point of being a pathetic partner in Government doing no service to the public in monitoring Fianna Fáil. As other speakers said, the Progressive Democrats has become more Fianna Fáil than Fianna Fáil and is a disgrace to those who elected its Members.

The fundamental question which arises in respect of the proposal to introduce electronic voting must be why the Government is doing this. That is the question people are asking. It is the question I have asked since the idea was first mooted. I cannot answer it. There is no public or political demand for electronic voting. There are umpteen areas where Government funding is urgently needed. There is no need to recite them. We all know there are umpteen obvious and glaring areas where €60 million could be put to good effect. Nobody sought the introduction of electronic voting.

By and large, the public is happy with the current voting system and has rejected past attempts by Fianna Fáil to change it. The people are comfortable with the current system and, although it is complex, they have shown they are well able to understand and operate it. It comes into its own on the day of the count. It is the one time when people are genuinely interested in politics. The system is exciting and interesting and brings home to people the importance of their vote, of voting down the ballot paper and how important that vote can be at 3 a.m.

The manual counting of the vote is an education in itself for the electorate. People set aside the day, watch television or turn on the radio and listen to the count and enjoy it. It may not be as enjoyable for the candidates but the public enjoys it. That procedure generates a great level of interest in politics and brings home to people the importance of their vote.

The current system is a good one and I do not believe there is a need to change it. There is certainly no public demand in that regard. One must ask why the Government is introducing this change. Is it a diversionary tactic as has been used in numerous other areas? The Minister for Health and Children has played a blinder in terms of the smoking ban, which I welcome, because it has worked a treat as a diversionary tactic in taking everybody's minds off the appalling problems in the health service. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, has made a mess of the criminal system and has failed to tackle problems of public order, drugs and under-age drinking. He has introduced the idea of a referendum on citizenship, which is another clever diversionary tactic.

One must wonder if the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, is using a similar tactic to detract attention from the fact that we have unprecedented housing waiting lists and environmental problems. There is a whole list of other areas that he is failing to tackle. Is this another rabbit pulled out of a hat to distract attention from that or is it something more sinister? One cannot blame people for thinking that there might be a more sinister reason since it is inexplicable that the Minister is going ahead with this, particularly since the system has been so severely criticised by those expert in the field of IT.

We saw it some time ago at the Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government when the proposal was first announced. The committee examined it very seriously and brought in several experts who examined the Minister's proposal and identified several questions that needed to be answered. I believe that 41 questions were raised. Most of us here have only passing expertise in computers, but the committee did the responsible thing and brought in the experts who expressed grave reservations and raised those questions, which to date have not been answered. Politics is about trust. The political system, and the accounting system in particular, must enjoy the trust of the public. If the Government is not prepared to answer fundamental questions asked by experts about the technical aspects of the system proposed, how can anyone have confidence in it?

Not only did computer experts raise concerns and questions about the system, the Ombudsman said that she was concerned and wanted a system of validation. From listening to Deputy O'Malley, it seems that no public figure is allowed to express an opinion any more. It is a good job the Ombudsman did not express those opinions before she was appointed or she might never have been so. Is that what this State is coming to? Public figures are not allowed to express opinions on anything and are punished if they do so and their opinion conflicts with the Government view.

As well as the Ombudsman, the Comptroller and Auditor General raised concerns. Another senior public figure, the chief accounting officer of this State, has said on behalf of citizens that he has serious concerns about the proposed system, yet none of those concerns has been addressed. The Government has completely ignored the comments of the Comptroller and Auditor General. This is certainly not the way for the Minister to go about building confidence or trust in politics. Given the lack of trust that has existed for some years, I would have expected the Government to take some responsibility for that.

Such lack of trust has come about, by and large, because of the performance of Fianna Fáil in government over several years. The way in which the Taoiseach and senior Ministers used political language has now rendered it meaningless. Something can be said one day and the exact opposite is said the next. The Taoiseach has made an art form out of such deception. He uses weasel words and fails to give a straight answer to a straight question. He mumbles, mutters and stutters to avoid having to answer any question in a straight manner. We have now got used to that from Fianna Fáil, as has the public, which is increasingly sickened by the litany of disreputable behaviour unfolding daily at the tribunals.

In addition, various Fianna Fáil luminaries over recent years have utterly disgraced themselves, their party and politics. All those things have led to a situation where the public, particularly young people, have no trust whatsoever in politics or politicians. This is the most damaging thing that Fianna Fáil has done to this State in the last century. Over the past ten or 15 years they have done untold damage to the political system and confidence in it. That is having all kinds of repercussions throughout the country. It is unsurprising that there is such a sense of hopelessness among young people. Given the leadership provided by Fianna Fáil over recent years, anyone would feel hopeless about human nature and standards in politics when they see that kind of performance.

That makes it all the more necessary to ensure that the political systems that we have in place, particularly the voting system, are beyond reproach and can withstand scrutiny. However, the Government is now proposing to introduce a system over which major questions remain concerning its security, since there is no validation for it. I see that the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Noel Ahern, has just come in. We shared a radio studio on this topic a few weeks ago. The Minister admitted that neither he nor the Taoiseach knew the first thing about the system.

I did not, that was the Deputy's summary.

However, he said that the experts said that it was all right, but the experts did not say that. They continue to say that there are major problems with the system, and their questions remain unanswered. The Labour Party has made several proposals to deal with public concern about the proposed system — the critical one is having a validated paper trail.

The Deputy's constituents in Finglas will be able to come out and show that they voted for her.

That is not what I am talking about.

Deputy Shortall, without interruption, please.

The Labour Party has proposed a system whereby there would be a print-out of one's voting choice as happens when one withdraws money from an ATM. However, that print-out would not be dispensed by the machine but printed out behind a screen. The person, having cast his or her vote electronically, could validate that by looking at the print-out. Provided that it satisfactorily reflects the voter's choice, it can be stored in the machine. That is what the Labour Party proposes — a validated system. I am convinced that, at some point, either before or after the elections, this issue will be challenged in court. People have a right to a secure, genuine electoral system. That right is covered by Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. There is no way of proving that the system the Minister intends introducing will be genuine. Every citizen has a right to a secure system, and that right will be upheld in the courts at some point. Anyone standing for election also has a right to have his or her vote validated.

In the next election, if by chance the result is called out in the Dublin North-West constituency and the returning officer says that Noel Ahern has received only 4,000 votes — that is, that his vote has collapsed — and he is amazed, having put in a good canvas and being convinced that he would top the poll, what will he do? What recourse will he have?

The Deputy and I would look at the tallies and know immediately whether there was a problem.

What tallies would there be?

We would get them.

That is not accurate. There is no way of validating that, and one cannot see——

The Deputy should address the Chair rather than the Minister.

Certainly, a Chathaoirligh. One has no way of validating that system and without question this will end up in the courts. There are several other technical issues regarding the proposed system which must be addressed. It seems it is possible for the database on the count centre PC to be interfered with. Many experts have said this is possible and that the system could be corrupted. There is no security system in place to ensure this cannot happen.

There is also an assumption that the presiding officers are somehow expert in information technology. Presumably some might be good and others might not have a clue. If there are people in charge of a machine, there must be a security system to ensure that there is no way that someone may put another disc into it or employ some other way of corrupting the computer system. Experts say that this is possible because no security system is in place. Unless people who have some expertise in this area are in charge of the machines, this cannot be ruled out. There is also the security issue surrounding the transfer of discs from the polling stations to the count centres. Again, there is no guarantee that one disc will not be substituted for another disc——

What if the ballot box were to be lost?

The point is the system is open to abuse. Whether it is under this or some future Government, we should not have a system that has the potential to be abused. That is the way it is at present because of so much secrecy surrounding this whole system. There is no reason, for example, the source code could not have been made public. No issue of confidentiality or security is involved in this regard. Perhaps 1% of the public know about and understand these matters. The Government should make the source code available and allow it to be examined by the experts, to confirm whether or not it is all right. The fact it is not prepared to release it certainly raises questions, such as why the Government is being so secretive and why it is not prepared to have the system validated by experts.

The Bill is highly suspect. It is outrageous that this Bill will be law before the commission that is in place can report. That is putting the cart before the horse. A commission should be established to examine the different systems and made a recommendation on the one to be used and the safeguards to be put in place. However, all that is happening after the event, when the system has been bought and paid for. It is clearly a flawed system and rushed job and should not have happened. The public deserve better than this.

Two questions arise. Why is the Government doing this? It is bound to raise suspicions. There is no answer to why it is being done when there is no public demand for the system. What is the rush? At a time when confidence in politics has never been so low, why is the Government proceeding with a system which will damage confidence even further?

The Deputy is damaging it.

There is no question about that. We have heard people on the airwaves and we have seen the letters and received the phone calls.

They are being stirred up.

They are not being stirred up. They have every reason to suspect the Government and what it is trying to do and every reason to be suspicious of this electoral system. What is the Government's rush? Why does it not take its time? Why not build political consensus about this?

Life is about making decisions, not just talking about them.

There is a consensus and people are quite happy with the notion of electronic voting. The difficulty is with the counting system. There can be no confidence in that as it stands. This is a shambles.

I was nearly tempted to concede some of my time to Deputy Shortall to allow the northside debate to continue. I am sorry, as a southsider, to have to intervene. I am sure my contribution will not be as exciting.

I have been listening carefully to the debate. Deputy Fiona O'Malley made some points about the various contributions, but some of those I heard were so scary and frightening that I thought it was Hallowe'en and not April Fool's day. Perhaps that irony will not be lost on the public.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Ahern, and applaud his efforts as regards his remit. I am sorry the Minister is not present as I had sought an opportunity during the week to speak on the Private Members' debate. However, so many of my colleagues were anxious to defend the Minister against the amazing attack on him that I was unsuccessful. Someone said about the Green Party motion that the Minister must have felt he was being attacked by a flock of dead sheep. It was that sort of debate. It is a pity given that better use could be made of Private Members' time.

As regards this debate, I am reminded that it is ten weeks from tomorrow to the local and European elections — 71 days and counting. Many issues have yet to be dealt with. Is Deputy Gregory counting as well?

I am just making notes to be able to reply to the Deputy should he happened to speak on the issue.

I am only learning, like all the other new Members. If I was in the Dáil as long as Deputy Gregory, I would approach my speeches differently. However, I will come to this Chamber and act as I want. I am responding to what I have seen. There are other issues to be dealt with over the next ten weeks as far as preparation for the elections is concerned, and they are important. Other colleagues, including Opposition Deputies, have made the point about the importance of voter participation. I believe there are many ways in which we can encourage that. There are also issues concerning registers and how local authorities and returning officers will handle the challenge of personation. This is talked about after every election and I am not convinced sufficient effective action is being taken.

It is generally acknowledged and applauded in Tallaght that the Labour Party is adept at tallying. At one of my polling stations during the last general election, a tallyperson from another party approached a Labour Party tallyman and asked how many votes his party had got. The answer was something like 37. The reply was that it should have been 69. Challenges must be faced in the personation aspect of elections. I would like to spend much more time dealing with such issues over the next ten weeks.

Why does the Minister not deal with that instead of squandering money on electronic voting?

The Minister is dealing with those issues, as the Deputy well understands. In any event the Deputy said he would not heckle me until his own contribution on the debate, so——

Deputy Gregory needs to be out representing the civil liberties gang. He needs to make up his mind which side he is on and be consistent.

I was interested in what was said about spoilt votes. In my constituency of Dublin South-West I am consistent in all the debates about spoilt votes.

The Deputy will proceed without interruption and without provoking other Deputies.

I greatly appreciate the Acting Chairman's protection. I thank God he is the Chair because, if he were sitting in the Opposition benches, he might be adding to the challenges I face. I was thinking about spoilt votes because this is something with which we must all deal. In some of the boxes in Tallaght at the previous general election, Dustin the turkey received a few votes. Some of the students who visited Dáil Éireann last week were telling me about their experiences in Australia. We should value the vote. I am not talking necessarily about people choosing to spoil their votes, but democracy is something that was fought for and deserves to be defended with regard to voting rights.

On various occasions I have made short contributions to Bills in the Dáil and have referred to experience in my constituency clinics. I am not suggesting it is scientific, but I hold seven clinics a week in my constituency and, during a busy period last week between Thursday and Saturday, I asked people how they were responding to electronic voting. I am not suggesting this is scientific by any means, but I found to my surprise that the majority of people I asked could not understand why we in Leinster House were becoming so vexed about electronic voting. A number of constituents told me that daily they depend on technology for their banking, their wages or pension payments, their shopping bills at the supermarket check-outs and their national lottery tickets. They asked me what all the fuss was about.

Does the Deputy think that someone coming to his clinic would disagree with his views?

I run clinics all over my constituency, with an open door policy. People come in to talk to me. I attend all my clinics personally. People are entitled to give me their views and I report them accurately. Some of our colleagues have been telling tales from Hans Christian Andersen over the past few hours, and I could do that too.

I do not agree with the Deputy.

Unlike some colleagues, I do not have a spin person to write my speeches for me, I write them myself. There is no spin in Charlie O'Connor's constituency office. I walk the streets of Tallaght, Firhouse, Greenhills and Templeogue, I hear what people say to me and represent them in my constituency. I do that without fear or favour, and if colleagues are vexed about that, I am sorry. I will be supportive of you, but if you do not wish to support me, that is fine. If you want to check with the Fine Gael organisation, if you can find it in Tallaght, it will tell you how I go about my business.

The Deputy should address the issue as well as the Chair.

I certainly will. Does that rule apply to everybody?

The Deputy is new and does not understand. He has been in the House only two years.

People ask me what all the fuss is about. People have also said to me that we as politicians are quick to preach that people should embrace change. They tell me that technology is the future and that the first thing we do when faced with technology is scream blue murder and cry wolf. We all have to go through change. If the furore about the change in the electoral system is designed to undermine confidence in the system being used, and in the Minister introducing it, perhaps our standing as elected representatives of this House may become diluted. Any Member who believes that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, or his officials, would foist on us a software system that will not work is being disingenuous and should reconsider his or her opinion on what is clearly a major change.

Like many in this House — perhaps leaving aside the Fine Gael bratpack on the Front Bench — I cut my political teeth on the tallies at election counts. Like everyone else, I experienced the buzz of the figures being collated and the strange feeling of celebrating the stages leading to the success of the party candidates. Later I experienced the lows and highs of the results on such occasions. I lament the departure of the old way, as one does with the passing of many old ways. I was a member of Dublin County Council from 1991 to last year and I was upset at giving up the dual mandate, but I did so earlier than many colleagues because I believe in the continuity of political work. I miss my council work and miss going to council headquarters in Tallaght every day, as I did. Because of the pressures we are all under, I have to do things differently, though I still try to visit the council offices during the week, usually very early in the morning.

Times are passing on and are different. We must embrace change. I am of a generation which finds change challenging, but I accept it. I am not a natural advocate of the technology era. I have struggled with computers, as other people of my generation have, yet they are clearly the way forward. I look with awe at how younger people respond in that regard.

There have been many contributions to the debate on electronic voting, both in this House and in the media, some of which have been mischief-making and attention-seeking. In some cases the debate is being brought to extremes. We should consider the facts. The up-front cost of the electronic voting system, standing at €43 million, with a shelf life — another buzzword I have noticed recently — of 20 years, would appear to most people to offer value for money when one considers that the general election in 2000 incurred over €8 million in administrative costs, excluding the three electronic voting test machines. As the Minister explained, the vast bulk of the current spending on the electronic voting system is a once-off capital expenditure on voting machines.

We must also consider the integrity of the new electronic voting system. This has been vigorously tested by six independent internationally-accredited test institutions. The Minister has publicised details of their names and findings. In response to claims that Microsoft Access is not a suitable application for counting votes, the Minister and his Department have received advice from experts who reviewed the use of Microsoft Access in stand-alone security-hardened computers for the counting of votes, and they certified such computers as fit for use in elections. I depend on that same Access software to run my constituency office, as do many successful companies in their database management systems.

Regarding information integrity, the votes stored in the ballot modules will be intact and kept by the returning officers for six months. If so ordered by the courts, all votes cast in an election can be printed out and counted manually.

Whenever I prepare for a contribution to a debate on a Bill, I learn something new. I thank the Minister for the following gems. At the last general election, seats in 18 constituencies were decided by fewer votes than were spoiled. In the last local elections, there were 40 electoral areas where councillors were elected by a margin of fewer than 50 votes. During the last local and European elections, the votes of 70,000 people were declared invalid, in spite of calls to Joe Duffy — Members know how much I admire Joe Duffy. I do not believe that many Irish voters sought to spoil their votes and the new system will remove that inadvertent occurrence. The new system will also make it easier for people to cast their votes. It counts votes more accurately and speedily and will improve electoral administration.

I said earlier that I try to bring to these debates my experience in my constituency, as do other colleagues. I notice that I am the only Member from the south side of Dublin in the Chamber, and we are no different. This new system presents challenges. The public information process is important in this regard. We must encourage people to vote, and the elections approaching in 71 days give us that opportunity. The democratic process is important, as will be the local and European elections. I regret that I am not involved in the local elections, but so be it.

I do not wish to be parochial, but in my constituency we have had to make strong representations to the city and county sheriff and to South Dublin County Council in its Tallaght headquarters about ensuring that local communities have their own polling stations. There are a number of estates in Tallaght where we need to get that message across. People should not have to travel to vote. I am talking of places like Westbrook, Brittas, Aylesbury and so on, places I am sure the chairman has heard of and which the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, has often visited with me. It is hoped that the city and county sheriff will find it possible to ensure that people can exercise their right on election day to vote in local polling stations, and that is the way it should be.

In anticipation of this legislation being passed, in the run-up to 11 June, I ask the Minister and his Department to make as much effort as possible to ensure that people become used to the system and that it is user-friendly. As Deputy John Bruton and his colleagues said, it is as easy as one, two, three, but the many people who have not yet used it must get used to the process.

There has been much political hype surrounding the issue and I am sure Members who follow me will take up that point. I apologise to Deputy Gregory if I do not hear the whole of his speech. I must rush off as President McAleese is visiting Jobstown today and, as that is in my area, I would like to be there. I hope the Deputy will not be offended, but first thing tomorrow, I promise to check the "blacks" of his speech.

Listening to the debate, I know political points have to be scored. However, all Members will have to sell the system to the public and ensure that the democratic process prevails so that by 11 June people will be comfortable with it and will come out to vote. As a democrat and one who waited a long time to be elected to the Dáil, I have no problem with how they vote.

Democracy is strengthened by vigorous debate, encouraged by change and supported by leadership. I agree with the Minister, Deputy Cullen, when he said that it is not too much to ask that this debate be informed and that wild claims be subject to the scrutiny they deserve. All Members rise in the Dáil to make statements and claims on all subjects, but they should be subject to scrutiny. It is important that every Member who wishes is given the opportunity to speak on this legislation and I compliment the Whips on ensuring that so much time has been given to this debate. I am pleased to commend the Bill to the House. I apologise to the Acting Chairman for my challenges, but it is that sort of day.

I would offer to send a copy of my notes to Deputy O'Connor, but I am afraid they are illegible. I wish to share my time with Deputy Twomey.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Before Deputy O'Connor leaves the Chamber, I am in tune with him on the issue of personation in elections, of which my constituency has had some experience in the past.

Part 2, sections 1 to 4, provide for the use of electronic voting at European, local and presidential elections and referenda. It is symptomatic of the arrogant cynicism surrounding this issue that the Minister's original intention was to extend electronic voting to these elections by ministerial order, as if it did not affect anyone. He would have done so were it not for the Carrickmines case in which the courts disputed the use of ministerial orders to amend primary legislation. This is why this Bill is before the House.

I have no objection to the principle of the introduction of electronic voting at some stage. However, I strongly oppose this proposed system on a number of grounds. Most Members will agree — obviously those on the Government side cannot say so — that the system does not have a back-up, transparent and checkable record of votes cast in a polling station. The voter simply presses a button and hopes for the best. They put their trust and political faith in the reliability of the electronic machine. In those circumstances, speaking from common sense, it must be a machine that cannot err or be interfered with in any way, no matter what the circumstances. I was not aware that such perfection with the absolute impossibility of anything going wrong exists. Apparently, such a system does exist and the Government has discovered it. There must be a voter verifiable audit trail whereby the voting machine prints a record of each vote for the voter to see and the machine then stores the ballot paper. That is the essence of transparency which should be the basis of the democratic process, but apparently that is to be got rid of. This is the first basis on which I oppose this electronic voting scheme.

The proposed system is a scandalous waste of public money, with various estimates from €45 million, and another €5 million for advertising, to €70 million including maintenance. A handful of marathon recounts in the last few elections is hardly sufficient basis on which to squander a colossal amount of taxpayers' money when there are so many other areas in need of funding. These are the areas that the Government is cutting back on, such as schools, hospitals, child care and care of the elderly. To nail the cynicism to the mast, it is at a time when the Government has robbed widows and widowers of their meagre entitlements. In those circumstances, it is scandalous that so many millions of euro are wasted on machines that will be used a handful of times every five years or so.

If the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government wished to reform the voting system, he would have been better off concentrating his efforts, as Deputy O'Connor mentioned, on the electoral register and the identification requirements for persons casting their votes. I tabled numerous parliamentary questions on this issue, yet I always got the same reply. I am told that the matter is under review but, as the present system is working satisfactorily, there is no pressing need to change it. The same logic was not applied to the issue of electronic voting. I was not aware of the ballot paper system breaking down, unless there was some pressing need to change it.

This again raises a question that I have not yet heard satisfactorily answered as to why there is such a rush at this time to squander millions of euro which has come from the taxpayer. What is the urgency? I have not heard an answer to this question from anyone. Would it not be better to ensure a more secure electoral process in the manner I have suggested?


If a citizen wishes to obtain a resident's parking disc, for example, he or she must supply items of verifiable identification on a rigidly-applied basis. Is it not extremely odd, therefore, that no such requirement is applied, rigidly or otherwise, when one casts a vote to elect a Dáil and a Government? Identification is demanded on a random basis — I estimate that one in five people are asked for it. When one considers the enormity of what is involved, it is hard to understand the Government's reluctance to alter the casual and random system of challenging voters to produce identification.

It has been stated that some candidates are elected at every election by a margin of a handful of votes. Most recent Governments have been put in power by a small margin of seats. If the Minister is genuinely interested in a more effective, secure and democratic system of running elections, as he claims to be, he should address such issues. He needs to streamline the reliability of the electoral register and to ensure not only that those who vote are entitled to do so, but also that they cast just one vote each. I understand that most modern democracies require reliable identification from each voter before he or she proceeds to vote. Very stringent steps are taken in this regard in the emerging democracies. Why is there a reluctance to take such measures here?

If one wants to open a deposit account in a building society or a post office, if one wants to cash a social welfare cheque or if one contacts one's local authority to get a parking permit, one will not be entertained for a minute if one does not produce a variety of checkable identification. No such rigidity applies, however, if one wishes to cast a vote, thereby electing a Dáil and installing a Government. I would like to hear an explanation of this matter. When he gets a chance, perhaps the Minister will elaborate on the reasons for not doing what I have suggested.

I have pursued this issue at every opportunity. In relatively recent elections, I have brought organised personation by one of the main political parties in my constituency to the attention of the Garda. A conviction has resulted on one such occasion. I do not doubt that such practices continue at every election, but I would like them to stop.

Hear, hear.

Most Members of the House would like them to stop. I have raised this issue with Ministers, including very senior members of the Government, all of whom have agreed that something should be done about it. I would like to know why nothing is being done.

I would like to conclude by referring to the proposed independent electoral commission. I have always been intrigued by the suggestion that such bodies are independent. I do not have time to elaborate much further, but I would like to ask a question. If a commission is independent, should its members not have expertise in the areas under its remit? Those who are appointed to such organisations should be people whose careers or future prospects do not depend in any way on the Government. I would like the two criteria I have mentioned to be applied. If that is not done, it is a scandal to state that such commissions are independent. It might be an idea to give the job of selecting and appointing members of such commissions to the Ombudsman, or somebody who is independent.

Like Deputy Gregory, I do not oppose electronic voting. My only objection to it, in some respects, is that it may spoil the most enjoyable day of any election campaign — the day after the election when the count takes place.

It is fun.

Regarding the failings of the ballot paper, I am surprised that Government Members are defending electronic voting on the basis that some councillors or Deputies may lose their seats by a handful of votes. The outcome of an election is not greatly affected, as far as democracy is concerned, if people deliberately or accidentally spoil their votes or if ballot papers are not stamped by a returning officer. It is an attack on democracy if the electronic voting system is not open to proper scrutiny or if there is any attempt to abuse the system.

It might be a large-scale abuse.

Other speakers have asked how much it will cost to run an election in which electronic voting is used and I would like an answer to that question. Is electronic voting useful from a cost-benefit point of view? Given that the machines will be used so little and their maintenance will cost so much, I cannot see how they will represent value for money. I do not know why we are investing many millions of euro in electronic voting when IT systems are not available in many other areas of public administration, such as health boards, hospitals and primary — general practice — care. An improved IT system is needed to allow the different parts of the health service to talk to each other, but the Government prefers to spend money on electronic voting. Many of the fears that have been raised by the Opposition have been steamrolled by the Government, which has said that the new system is perfect.

Deputies have mentioned that ballot papers are sometimes held up to the light to check whether they have been stamped by the returning officer. This issue was raised on a number of occasions, but nobody has asked how ballot papers get into ballot boxes if they have not been stamped. What percentage of ballot papers emerging from certain boxes have not been stamped? Has there ever been an inquiry to ascertain why such ballot papers have found their way to count centres, even if they are then dismissed as spoiled votes? Have such ballot papers been examined? Has there been an independent inquiry into the problem of unstamped ballot papers? The existence of such papers means that there is already a weakness in the system. If we have not inquired into such matters, the integrity of the electronic system is called into question.

It is true that we trust returning officers, but it is also the case that we often hear rumours of fraudulent political activity. It is hard to say these things publicly, but we are safe enough in the House because we are covered by parliamentary privilege. It has been suggested that ballot boxes are sometimes stuffed with extra papers when polling stations are open, or during the night before the count.

It can happen in the last ten minutes.

How does it happen? We should examine this important issue.

That is why we are introducing the new system.

That is an important point. It is difficult to carry a ballot box under one's arm, but one can quite easily fit a cassette from an electronic voting machine in one's inside pocket.

That is right.

It will be quite convenient for the switch to be made. When a Senator in the United States was asked about electronic voting he said he was sure it would make matters much easier for him, as he would no longer have to stay up all night stuffing ballot boxes. If the system has weaknesses, we should examine them. Although returning officers have done a great job, we have not tackled this issue to a great extent. How will the new system work?

The voting machines are quite simple. They will probably be no more complicated than the computers of 20 or 30 years ago. To tamper with the voting machine one must tamper with the disk that goes in. I do not see any grave problem with these machines. However, after voting is finished the disks are taken away and, as I said, they could be exchanged before being put into the mainframe computer which will add up the votes. This system is definitely prone to abuse because it is run by a computer programme. It will be a closed system in the sense that it will not be connected to the Internet, so if there is to be abuse it will need to be programmed in beforehand. It may also be the case that the disks being used have been interfered with.

It is important that we know how the programme is set up and the code that is used because this machine will not just give us the bare count and then let us work out the rest for ourselves; it will do the transfers for us, sort out the surpluses and eliminate candidates. It will do all the things we see happening in the count centre in front of our eyes. We see the papers being taken from the boxes in front of 200 people. All this will not happen any more. Once the disks are loaded the result is available five minutes later.

Members of the Opposition are very supportive of electronic voting, but their questions and concerns are genuine and we need crystal clear answers. Up to this point we have been able to send representatives to every polling station to sit beside the returning officer and try to limit the amount of fraud that happens. If there is deliberate spoiling of votes, that is a different issue. We have little or no control over how this new system will operate down through the chain. I do not focus much of my concern on the machines themselves because the general public will learn how to use them, but the scope for making changes along the way is worrying. Disks containing 10,000 votes would fit in one's briefcase. They could be transferred before reaching the count centre.

There is a spare copy in the machine.

That is true, but it might not be called upon because the fraud might not be extensive enough to be noticed. People may not go to the trouble of checking the spare copy. To carry out the same operation with paper votes would be impossible because the ballot boxes to carry all those votes would fill the back of a van.

It is important that we keep the integrity of our voting system intact. The tribunals have revealed corruption among elected and unelected officials. I am not casting aspersions on any Member of the House, but I do not think anybody on the other side of the House, certainly not the senior people, could have been unaware of what was going on. Certain Members who have appeared in front of the tribunals had been the subject of rumours three or four years before any tribunal was set up. It was known that some of their practices were corrupt, to say the least. Those people got away with it for many years. I would be surprised to hear that Members who have much closer contact with the political system were not aware of these rumours and allegations of corruption in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Why did these people do this? It was either because of fear for their own political positions or indifference. This sort of thing could happen just as easily with the polling system. We should keep this in mind.

The new system will be much more secure.

Openness and transparency should be the hallmark of good government and good elections. The integrity of this system will in some respects depend on the commission on electronic voting. It is important that both sides of the House have the utmost trust in the commission. The Clerks of the Dáil and the Seanad will be impartial because that is the way they operate. The other appointments to the commission, however, are wide open to political influence. This system has many potential weaknesses and much potential for fraud. Much will depend on the impartiality of the commission. Many sections of the Bill contain provisions which try to make the commission a very secretive organisation, which is detrimental to the long-term integrity of and trust in the voting system. It is imperative that the Government opens up the system and that the commission members are all passed by a Dáil committee at the very least. Opposition Members should have a say in the appointment of these members. The commission will consist of a limited number of people who will have a major influence on our trust in the system. We should bear this in mind when we are setting up the commission.

When all the scaremongering and disinformation are removed from these contributions, one can effectively distil the arguments against this legislation into two parts. First, people are saying that if the system is not broken we should not fix it. We have relied on the system for decades and it serves our democracy well, so we should not tamper with it. Deputy Howlin of the Labour Party based almost his entire speech on this. The second argument is that perception that the efficacy of the system is questionable — that the system is somehow unreliable. When all the padding is removed, those are the two central planks of the Opposition's attack on the Bill. However, neither of these stand up to critical scrutiny.

Since I have come to the House I have never seen any debate such as the one we have had on the reform of our electoral system. I have seen many other debates in which passions have run high but I have never seen such a debate based upon a complete lack of basic knowledge and information. Whether that is deliberate or otherwise I cannot say, although I suspect the latter. I have never seen any debate characterised by so much disinformation and scaremongering. I thought the debate on electronic voting was finished and that this legislation was merely to deal with the Mulcreevy decision, which questioned our ability to bring in reforms such as this by ministerial order as distinct from primary legislation. I thought we on this side had won the debate, although others have different views. Now we have had it all over again in the last two days. Nothing I have heard has persuaded me that the two central tenets of the Opposition's argument are not flawed. I have heard many contributions about other matters but none of them have been able to undermine the legislation.

I do not know whether the comments of Deputy Stanton represent Fine Gael policy, but his remarks must be looked upon extremely gravely. He effectively proposed that people should be allowed to register to vote on-line. This is a worrying suggestion and has grave implications. There are parties in the House that would like to see such a system being introduced because it is obviously open to total abuse. I will speak about that matter later, if I have time to do so.

I would have more sympathy for the Opposition's arguments if they had been made consistently since electronic voting was first introduced on a trial basis. The fact is, however, that they have not, with the notable exception of Deputy Gilmore. On the whole, however, since the system was introduced people have not complained about it. Fine Gael was happy to endorse it in the last general election.

They complained about it privately to the Taoiseach. The Deputy experienced that on the "Pat Kenny Show" when Deputy John Bruton exposed his work.

What Deputy John Bruton said on that programme has been misinterpreted.

It is not being misinterpreted. We have the letter.

In response to my exposé that double standards were pervading the Fine Gael Party, it said on the one hand that electronic voting is as easy as one, two, three, and everybody should embrace the system.

It is as easy as one, two, three. It is the integrity of the system that is in question, not its operation. The Deputy wants to spin it that we are against its operation.

I accept that Deputy John Bruton wrote his letter questioning the system, but my fundamental challenge to him is that he is a former Taoiseach and is currently a Member of this House.

As a public representative for close on 30 years, why did he not make his views public?

He made that quite clear.

He did not have the courage of his convictions and it was too late for Fine Gael to change its policy.

No. He did not want to undermine——

I have strong views about the way in which Deputy John Bruton did that.

Deputy Neville will have an opportunity to make his contribution later.

He will be gone by then.

It will be on the record.

Who reads the record?

The other main feature of this debate is the U-turn conducted by Fine Gael. That party embraced electronic voting since its inception, with all the party's TDs speaking approvingly of the system at the time. I suspect, however, that once Deputy Gilmore started to make political hay by attempting to undermine the system, Fine Gael performed an enormous U-turn on the issue.

I will now return to the twin-plank approach of the Opposition. First, it states that if the electoral system has been working appropriately and effectively for many decades, why fix it? It is a reasonable argument that deserves to be analysed but it does not stand up to scrutiny. It has never been established that the existing system is perfect. Some people have tried to hold it up as the holy grail, and have asked why the Government is changing it. The main problem with the existing system is that in many instances over the years it has had a material and adverse effect on the outcome of elections. It has effectively disenfranchised many people, as well as having had an adverse effect on the results of many elections. Public representatives, both at local and national level, know that is a fact because they have witnessed extremely tight votes and have seen how human error can play a part in all of this.

I can draw from my own experience to illustrate how the system is imperfect. I was fortunate to have been elected in the last general election and it was fairly obvious from the first count that I would be there or thereabouts when the final results were announced. That was not the case for other candidates in my constituency, however. The count began on a Saturday morning and proceeded at a snail's pace for 48 hours. Candidates who were not certain of being elected had to hang on endlessly, without knowing what their fate would be. I spoke to many of those who attended the count from all the political parties. They felt that their confidence in the existing system was undermined by the snail's pace of the count in Limerick East. I was extremely critical of that count. The electronic voting system can deal with that problem, not just in Limerick, but throughout the country. At the last general election we did not know for seven days after polling day what the composition of the House would be. Surely, that does not inspire confidence in the democratic system.

I could have waited longer.

The composition of the Government is not known until we vote for a Taoiseach.

Yet, we on the Government side of the House were accused of undermining that system. Far from it, we are trying to enhance the system. The sight of senior counsel going down to Wicklow, at enormous expense to all parties concerned, and holding ballot papers up to the light — as was done in the last American presidential election, although that system is totally different from ours — did not inspire confidence in our electoral system. It undermined confidence in it. People around the country were saying, "For goodness sake, the politicians can't even get their own election right; how can we possibly have confidence in the sort of policies they are introducing." This legislation seeks to cure that.

Many Members will be familiar with what happened in Taiwan a few weeks ago when there was great publicity over the alleged attempted assassination of one of the presidential candidates. Deputy Olivia Mitchell may be familiar with this. The election was won by a wafer-thin margin of a mere 30,000 votes.

They tried to have a referendum with that election. The Taoiseach should be very careful.

We can address that point later. People do not realise that while there was a wafer-thin majority of 30,000 votes, there were over 300,000 spoiled votes in that election. I accept that Taiwan's system is different from ours but if they had electronic voting the situation would not have arisen. India, which is the world's largest democracy, has a population of one billion, over 300 times our population. They are confident enough with the electronic system to register the votes of almost one billion people, yet we seem to have major problems introducing a simple system for an electorate of three million.

If the margin of electoral victory on the last count is less than the number of spoiled votes, it immediately gives rise to a suspicion that some people's votes were not properly recorded. In every election over the past 20 or 30 years, some people have spoiled their votes without realising it. When politicians are presented with a system that can eliminate such a basic flaw, it ill behoves us not to grasp it with both hands. That is what the Bill is all about. There must be a better way than the current system, of which everyone in this House has direct experience. Some may say that we have a perfect electoral system but that argument does not stand up to logical or critical scrutiny.

The second argument that has been made by the Opposition is that once the new system is in place it will not be able to record votes accurately or reliably and, thus, its efficacy is questionable. It is extremely easy to make such an argument because one can conjure up images for people who do not have experience of the electoral system, such as we have in this House. One can tell inexperienced people, for example, "Once you press the button to cast your vote, it goes into cyberspace and is lost". I suspect, as do others, that since that argument is so easy to make, it is tempting to embrace it for political purposes to fool people and undermine their confidence in the system. In that way, some people can be led to believe that the Government is introducing a system to con them. That argument is so attractive and enticing that, unfortunately, it has been embraced by far too many. Deputy Gilmore used an example to prove how unreliable is the system. He said polls were conducted three or four weeks prior to the last general election in the constituencies in which electronic voting was used and the result of the election was much different to the result of the polls and, therefore, the system was unreliable. This raises a question which is at the core of the legislation. Is the Government entitled to rely on the best independent, specialist, expert advice or should it second guess? The debate centres on this question. The Government is entitled to make decisions based on the best expert, independent advice and I fundamentally disagree with those who oppose that position.

The proposed electronic voting system was tested by PTB, a German institute which undertook a code review of 25,000 lines of embedded software. A Dutch firm, TNO, conducted extensive environmental electromagnetic testing. Another Dutch firm, KEMA, certified the safety aspects of the machines. The Electoral Reform Society ran functional tests to verify the system implements the PR-STV count rules properly. Lathean Technologies Limited, an Irish software company, undertook a full architecture and code review, while Zerflow Information Security, an Irish firm, assessed the physical threat to the system's hardware.

The Government and the Legislature are entitled to rely on the best expert advice. I am not an expert in this area but, when one seeks expert advice, one must rely on it subsequently. The best expert advice is that this system is a proper and efficient way of recording and counting votes. To quote Fine Gael, "It is as easy as 1, 2, 3".

The other issue raised by those opposed to the system is that a paper trail should be provided. This is the fallback argument but it is easy to make and is fundamentally flawed. If a dual system were employed, the electoral system would be impossible to administrate and Ireland would be the laughing stock of the world. Can Members who oppose the system imagine the administrative chaos and undermining of the electoral system that would ensue? According to them, a voter, whether his or her motives are political or genuine, can enter a polling booth, vote electronically and receive a piece of paper that he or she can use to question his or her vote every time. However, Opposition Members advocate such a system but it does not stand up to scrutiny.

People have concerns about the system and I accept they have a right to test the electoral system to the last. If they have the courage of their convictions, they can apply to the courts to have a paper audit and count carried out. I cannot think of a better verifiable audit trail than that.

The experience of the trial in the three constituencies at the previous general election highlighted a major problem. The announcement of the result to all the candidates at the same time was grossly unfair. I am glad that has been addressed in the legislation. Public confidence in the system is important. I am concerned that, for political purposes, our electoral system has been undermined through misinformation and misrepresentation. The contributions of a number of Members have not done them or the electoral process any favours.

Doomsday predictions were also made as Y2K approached, but it passed without a hitch. When the euro was introduced, it was predicted that the European financial system would collapse overnight.

We did not say that.

Who said that?

Fine Gael Members made that argument.

The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, made that argument or else he said the Deputy made it.

I am confident that, this time next year, people will ask what all the furore was about with the elections having passed off peacefully, although with an unhappy result for a number of parties.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. No Opposition Member objects, in principle, to electronic voting, but we have a problem with the verifiability and credibility of the system. Voters need to be confident when casting their vote that it will be picked up by the system and will be counted.

I agree with previous speakers who have criticised the cost of the system. It is estimated the cost will be between €40 million and €70 million when public relations campaigns are included. The House debates the needs of the electorate every week. Last we debated the €5.8 million cutback in the widow's pension, yet the Government can spend upwards of €40 million on an electronic voting system. We regularly debate the need for new school accommodation and the difficulties in the health service. The Tánaiste expressed concern about the elderly last weekend and a sum of €40 million would go far in addressing these issues. For example, if €2 million were invested annually for the next five years in suicide prevention and research, it would have a significant impact on the number of suicides and attempted suicides.

I refer to the credibility of the electronic voting system. There is no provision for a voter to verify that the ballot cast corresponds with that recorded, transmitted or tabulated by the system. All programmers can write a code that displays one result and records a different one in the print-out. It must be ensured the voter is confident that is not happening in the system. An electronic voting system that does not provide individual print-outs for examination by voters does not provide an independent audit trail. All voting systems, especially electronic systems, are prone to error. The ability to perform a manual count of the ballot is essential to ensure that the voter believes the system to be credible. No electronic voting system in the world has been certified to even the lowest level of international acceptance by international computer security standards, that includes the ISO, nor has any been required with such a level of certification. Hence, no electronic voting system in the world has been certified as totally secure. Electronic balloting and tabulation makes the task performed by poll workers, challengers, returning officers and officials purely procedural and removes any opportunity to perform bipartisan checks. We should pay tribute to the many returning officers and their staff who, over days and nights, counted votes and entered into their work enthusiastically, ensuring that the result as expressed by the people was the outcome of the election. This was scrutinised by the candidates, the representatives of the candidates, the general public and the media and at the end of the day nobody questioned that the system was not fair and credible in the context of our democratic process. Now we will have a conceptualised election process and all the work that was done previously will be entrusted to a small group of individuals who programme, construct and maintain machines.

The various computer systems and programmes can be cracked or hacked thus leaving the valid contents along with the identify of the voter open to perusal and this has happened elsewhere. One of the top US cryptographers, Bruce Schneider, recently expressed his concerns on this matter and has recommended that no computer voting system be adopted unless it also provides a physical ballot paper perused by the voter and used for recount and verification. It is a known fact that the computer industry does not have the capability at present to ensure a safe, reliable election, using only electronic devices. Failure of performance in actual elections has demonstrated the existence of major flaws. Interviewed on the RTE programme "Five Seven Live", Dr. Rebecca Mercuri stated it is incumbent upon all concerned with elections to refrain from procuring any system that does not provide an indisputable ballot paper which can be checked by the voter visually before deposit and used by the election board in the case of a recount.

I would like to draw attention to experience in the US. In Alabama in 2002, the election voting software changed the outcome of the governor's race as 6,300 Baldwin County votes mysteriously disappeared after the polls had been closed. The Republican candidate was declared the winner but six months afterwards the provider of the machine said something happened and he did not have enough intelligence to say what.

In the November 2002 election in Scurry County, Texas, poll workers became suspicious about a landslide victory for two Republican candidates and were told a bad chip was to blame. A new chip was flown in and they counted the votes by hand and found that the Democratic candidate had won by a wide margin, overturning the first result.

A software programme error ensured the wrong candidate was elected in 1999 in Oneida County, New York. Bob Faulkner, a political newcomer went to bed on election night confident that he had helped to complete a Republican sweep of three council seats, but after election staff rechecked the totals, he had lost to the Democratic candidate and a few hours later election officials discovered that a software programme error had been the cause of the mistake. In 1998, in a Salt Lake City election, 1,413 votes never showed up in the total. A programming error caused a batch of ballots not be counted, though they had been run through the machine like all others. When the missing 1,413 votes were counted they reversed the election because they were traceable. These votes could have been traced because there was a back-up system. According to the Wall Street Journal in the 2000 election, an electronic counting machine in Iowa was fed 300 ballot papers and reported four million votes. The county auditor tried again and got the same result. Eventually the manufacturers agreed to have replacement equipment sent. Republicans had hoped that the tiny but heavily Republican county would tip the scales in George W. Bush’s favour, but tipping it by 4 million votes attracted national attention. Bill Rowe junior, the county auditor, pointed out that there were not 4 million votes in the state of Iowa. In 2003, officials fromBooneCounty, Indiana, wanted to know why the electronic voting machine counted 144,000 votes when only 5,352 ballot papers were in the box.

With computerised voting, the certified official returning officers, scrutineers and so on will step aside and let technicians tell us the results. In Dallas, Texas, a software programme error caused Dallas County's new $3.8 million high-tech ballot system to miss 41,015 votes during the November 1998 election. The system refused to count votes from 98 polling stations on the basis that they were already counted. Operators did not realise this until they saw the votes were missing at the end of the count, when they were carrying out a double check on it. One manufacturer's response was assuring, he said the electronic system recorded the votes but they were not counted. That is just some of the experiences of electronic voting in the United States which as the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, would say is one of the foremost democratic systems in the world, and which is held up as a model to others. The American democratic system is considered the father of democracy and so on.

Has the Deputy done a trawl?

I am like the general electorate, I do not know the details of the programming or the system that will be used. I am being asked to place a vote of confidence in the proposed system. I have recorded experience elsewhere where people had confidence in the system, but it did not work and cheated them. We do not have confidence in the Government system. I cannot evaluate the system proposed by the Government in comparison with any other. I want the opportunity to do so. I want a text element in the system which lets me know that what was inputted into a machine was what was recorded when the votes were finally counted. That is our request rather than a demand that electronic voting should not be considered at any point. We want a verifiable, credible system in which we and the public can have confidence. That is the key to our contributions and the contributions of all speakers on this side of the House. It is the credibility of the system which we question.

The accuracy of the proposed electronic voting system must be considered in the context of elections in general. Credibility in the recording of one's vote is the foundation of our democracy. Citizens expect their votes to be confidential, given equal status and protected from alteration or loss. Contributions from this side of the House have demonstrated that no voting system is perfect — and I challenge anyone to assert otherwise — yet the Minister of State is asking us to accept that the system proposed is.

It is possible to have a better system than the existing one.

I do not agree with the Minister of State.

I am sure the Deputy can speak to that from personal experience.

We have been using the current system in our democracy for 82 years. I defy the Minister of State to inform the House that it has not served us well. We might not always have been happy with the outcome just as Members from the other side of the House may not have been happy on other occasions. However, we respected the integrity of the system.

Were there not occasions in west Limerick when the odd vote went the wrong way or was not counted?

At least one could see if a mistake had been made.

I have experience from the previous general election, as the Minister of State knows, of two days of rechecking. I saw candidates' representatives and members of the press scrutinising in great detail the outcome of the count. Everybody who left the counting hall on the day in question had confidence that the correct result had been recorded. That confidence is important for our democratic system.

Was every vote cast included in the final count?

It would not necessarily be included in the case of electronic voting.

In America, 4 million votes went missing.

If more than one or two votes are missing, the system will show it.

The disappearance of 4 million votes demonstrates the lack of credibility of the system.

The introduction of electronic technology brings a new and unfamiliar risk model. It is not unusual for electronic systems to be attacked by persons willing to wait a relatively long time before seeing any benefit. Frequently, attacks on electronic systems are practically undetectable. Many forms of attack require minimal experience to carry out. Excluding deliberate attacks, electronic systems are inherently prone to random, unavoidable and naturally occurring errors. Inadvertent failures of hardware and software have occurred in voting machines abroad as we have seen. While failures have been most widely documented in the USA, they have also been experienced in Belgium where a single event resulted in a 4,096 vote error in a declared result. The previous speaker spoke about the reliability of checks in various continental countries, but I have provided the example of a breakdown in a fellow member state.

While a similar, naturally occurring and unavoidable error could occur in the proposed system, we may not notice it unless it is absurdly large. The loss of 4 million votes in the USA was absurd and, for that reason, noticed. Would 500, 1,000 or 1,500 missing votes be noticed? The Minister of State has already described the manner in which a small number of votes can affect the outcome of an election. When he is considering future policy, the Minister of State should consider the real needs of people.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill and contribute to the debate on electronic voting. I have paid particular attention this morning to the contributions from all speakers on the subject. Some of the remarks have been a little humorous and off the mark. Given certain contributions, one could be forgiven for thinking the Government had been trying to foist electronic voting on the people over the past four or five weeks. While the details of the proposed electronic voting system have been in the public domain since 1999, it is only in recent months that the proposal to use the system on a nationwide basis has exercised the minds of the Opposition. People used the system in the previous general election and both referenda on the Nice treaty and it was of great benefit to them.

Reference was made to the drama and theatre of traditional counts. Many candidates will be delighted to see the end of that long, drawn out process. While I am happy I succeeded in being elected on some occasions, I feel for those who had to wait a long time for the result of a count. The current system has been in use for more than 80 years and stood the test of time. Its integrity has been beyond the reproach of all parties. An argument in the debate on electronic voting has been that, while they may not have liked it, parties have always accepted the will of the people on election day. It has been asked, therefore, why we should introduce electronic voting. The basic purpose of the new system is to improve the efficiency, speed and accuracy of elections and to make them more user-friendly. It is also designed to eliminate the wastage associated with spoiled votes, of which there were more than 20,000 in 2002, equivalent to 1.1% of all votes cast.

This is not simply a case of moving to improved technology. By modernising and transforming elections visibly, the opportunity is created to tackle voter apathy and improve the image of the electoral process, especially among younger members of the electorate.

While the system has served us well over the past 80 years, it must be open to change. We would not get too far if we were to canvass on the doorsteps in the forthcoming local elections, or the next general election, using policies from the 1920s; Ireland has changed.

This computer system that will be used is the best system to apply to Irish elections. It has enjoyed the proven advantage of wide-scale and successful use in national and local elections in the Netherlands for many years and in some German elections. The new system was extensively piloted in the general election in 2002 and in the second referendum on the Nice treaty. The reaction of users has been overwhelmingly positive. No significant complaint or challenge about the fairness or integrity of the process has been made by any candidate or voter in the constituencies concerned. The integrity of the system has been questioned on a number of occasions during this debate. People are scaremongering and raising fears that this will not work. If one had said 20 years ago that computers would carry out most work done in offices and Departments, people would have claimed that it would not be possible. They would have claimed that a hands-on approach was required. We have seen the benefits that have derived from computers across the spectrum in recent years. It is about time computers were introduced in the electoral system.

The audit trail, from the programming of the ballot modules to the end of the counting, has been brought to the fore. Statements will be produced by the voting machine before polling commences and at the close of polls to confirm the order of candidates on the ballot paper is the same as in ballot module. The returning officer will use specific seals and locks to secure the voting machine. It will always be within the presiding officer's control and supervision. The count software will have an audit trail of votes cast. If a petition hearing at the High Court orders a recount of the votes, the system will print a ballot paper for each vote cast and it will be possible to manually recount the votes. As is the current position, the order of votes after they have been mixed before the first count will not be disturbed.

No change introduced by the Government has ever had greater independent scrutiny. Independent agencies have reviewed all parts of the machinery and software. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is making publicly available all test reports on the various elements of the system. It is important to note that most countries do not make any source codes available owing to security concerns. This issue will be kept under review.

On one hand, we are trying to increase participation by young people in the electoral process. On the other hand, fears have been articulated that the elderly will not be able to use the machine. I am delighted the Government is rolling out a huge publicity campaign across the country. This will encourage people to familiarise themselves with the system and grow comfortable with it. We must ensure the electorate is fully informed of the new system and that it is competent and comfortable with using it. The Government has organised a series of television, radio, newspaper and billboard advertisements, and has also organised road shows and mail shots.

Many Members will already have been canvassing on doorsteps with local authority and European Parliament candidates. Many questions have been asked about electronic voting. As with most issues, when people are given the necessary information, they feel happy with it. There is a general acceptance that this is the way forward. Computers are used right across the spectrum, why should they not be use in the democratic process?

The Government has responded to concerns raised in order to maintain public confidence in the system. As politicians, we are beneficiaries of the electoral system and it behoves us to ensure the public has confidence in our voting mechanism. To ensure this, the Government has established an independent electoral panel to verify the secrecy and adequacy of the system and I wish this body the best of luck. It is vitally important that it produces a detailed report about which the public can be confident. Membership of the panel is under consideration. The electoral commission will have to deal with a number of issues to ensure the electorate has total confidence in the system.

For politicians, tally data has always been important. For generations, politicians have used information supplied to them by the tallymen in every poll from local authority to European Parliament elections. The information allows politicians to discern voting patterns and helps to develop strategies. Prior to the last general election, many candidates were advised to take a proper tally as it was thought this would be the last time a verifiable tally would be available. I am glad to say that tallies under the new electronic system will be made available to interested parties. Such information is vital for politicians.

This issue has most excited the Opposition during this session. The introduction of electronic voting is the best way forward. Computers and electronics have been introduced in most sectors of society, whether in urban Dublin or rural Ireland, and we have seen the benefits that have derived from this. We have an exceptionally well-educated electorate. It is off the mark to suggest that the public will not be able to use the machines. When decimalisation was introduced in the early 1970s, I remember that my grandparents struggled with it and had not fully accustomed themselves to it even ten years later and still talked about pounds, shillings and pence. When the euro was introduced, people who were the age my grandparents were in the 1970s felt they would never get used to it. While there was much discussion about the currency's value, the changeover was simple. I believe people will adapt to electronic voting in the same way.

I commend the Bill to the House and I compliment the Minister and the Ministers of State. I am sure we will be back here in the middle of June and we will all be saying how great electronic voting was. In years to come we will ask why we had such furore over its introduction.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. To pick up on the last point made by Deputy Moynihan, I have no doubt that in ten or 15 years we will ask what the furore was about. However, right now we have every reason for a furore and to ask questions. We have all been accused of being Luddites and technophobes merely because we are not jumping up and down to have electronic voting implemented by 11 June. There is a question over the urgency of the Bill. My colleague, Deputy Gilmore, yesterday outlined the many other Bills due before the House that have been put on the backburner while we rush this Bill through before the local and European Parliament elections in June. One has to ask the reason for such urgency.

Deputy Moynihan's point is well made. We will look back and ask why there was such fuss. However, we will do that in hindsight when we have taken due concern for all the possible glitches that might arise in the system. On that basis, the urgency in passing the Bill is unwarranted and unnecessary. Because of the importance and the need to get it right, a strong case can be made for winding it down and waiting until after 11 June. We do not need to rush this legislation through in time for the local and European Parliament elections.

The public has always had confidence in the paper-based system. None of us will claim there is absolute perfection in any voting system either in this country or elsewhere. However, walking into a polling station, getting a ballot paper containing the candidates' names, marking it up and dropping it into the ballot box inspires confidence in people as they can see the trail. While I am not opposed to moving away from that system, the urgency of implementing the change is unprecedented and unwarranted.

I say this in light of what we call the voter verifiable audit trail. I know the Fianna Fáil Deputies will all tell me this is in place, but while it is in place for segments of the process, a full end-to-end audit has not been carried out. A known number of votes should be input into the system and processed through to the final result. While the system cannot be piloted in any real election sense it can be carried out on an experimental basis with a known number of votes ploughed into the system and the output of the system checked against the known result — in other words a verification of the result. This has not been done. I have no doubt that the system has been checked on a piece-by-piece basis. It would be unfair to criticise elements of the technology as we all want to move on and get into the improved technological age. We are discussing a fundamental right. Ultimately it should be possible to verify people's votes as cast.

If the system is implemented for the June elections, we will be engaging in a very big experiment for the country, with all our voters participating. Because of the lack of auditing and traceability, we will be asking people to make an act of faith and take part in an experiment that should have been carried out initially at laboratory stage, subsequently at pilot stage and finally we could go commercial with it.

We have done this for five years.

This has been done on a piecemeal basis. However, have we ever inserted a known number of votes, followed them through and audited the outcome at the end of the process? While we may have piloted it in a number of constituencies in the last general election, clearly when we counted those votes we did not know what the outcome ought to have been. Has the system been tested where the inputs and the expected outcome were known? Such an experiment should clearly be done in a non-election environment.

When we expressed reservations about the technology, we were described as technophobes or Luddites, or afraid to make progress. None of this is true and all we are saying is that there is a need for caution. We need to take our time — there is no rush. There is no urgency to have this implemented for the local and European Parliament elections. It is unfair to accuse us of being Luddites or keeping our heads in the sand.

Is that all? We did not have it——

The Minister should allow Deputy Upton to continue without interruption.

The Deputy is really saying this is a political issue and that if we called it off for 11 June, she would be happy on 12 June.

I am not saying that at all, I am saying we are facing a deadline, which we are being forced to meet and I believe that is unnecessary.

We started this process five years ago.

However, no end-to-end audit has been carried out. Once this has been completed, I will be happy to go with it. If this were completed by 11 June, I presume I would have no problem with it. I have yet to see an end-to-end audit and confirmation of the outcome. This is about having the best assurances possible to dispense with doubt we might have about the process. I did not set the deadline of 11 June, which has been put in place. If I were confident that all the tests and audits had been carried out I would have no difficulty with the implementation date. I am not against progress or the technology. I am merely concerned about the confirmation and assurances that should be in place before we progress it.

Earlier Deputy Seán Power expressed a concern when one of the Fine Gael speakers mentioned the possibility of on-line voter registration, which would be a logical progression. While I would have grave reservations about implementing such a system now, it should be considered in the future provided we assure the system in the same way that I want the system of electronic voting assured. There is a dichotomy between being critical of on-line voter registration and being confident of the proposed electronic voting system.

On a more practical level, I wish to consider the process of counting votes on election day. Those of us who have been involved in tallying and later became candidates and elected representatives know the nerve-racking day one has. However, everybody agrees there is a certain buzz about being involved in the tally, which should not be dismissed. It is very important from the point of view of the candidates and their supporters who rally around on the day to see the process unfold. Apart from everything else there is a sense of camaraderie among the various political opponents on the day who exchange information, which also has a certain value.

Carrying out the tally is very important to the Irish voter, as is the process of the count. I have the greatest sympathy for those who have been involved in a protracted count and all the nail biting that goes with it. While the system from that point of view is far from perfect, one could say it represents a very good reason for generating interest in elections. The electronic voting system is being put forward as a way of encouraging young voters. I have no doubt that such voters will be particularly attracted to and interested in the idea. However, there are many voters who will miss the tally and the count. I would not wish for counts that last ten days, as has happened on occasion, but there is a certain value in watching counts take place.

A matter which has caused concern among those to whom I have spoken is that of postal votes and special voters. Section 12 of the Bill details how the postal vote will be processed, etc. It has been pointed out to me by a number of constituents that the mechanism outlined in the section will deprive postal voters of the right of seeing how their vote is processed, something they could witness until now. They will still complete their ballot papers and post them in but someone else will be responsible for logging in their vote. While these people are clearly not being disenfranchised, they are genuinely concerned about the idea that somebody else will have responsibility for processing their votes. There are in the order of 300 postal voters in my constituency. If that number is scaled up across the country, it becomes apparent that a substantial number of votes will be effectively handed over to officials to input into the system. I appreciate that the Bill contains considerable detail in respect of how this will be done but my point remains that those individuals will not be in control of how their votes will be finally delivered into the system. That is an important point. Those people who cannot be present at their local polling stations on the day have expressed considerable reservations to me about this matter. They are genuinely concerned that their rights are being diluted by virtue of the fact that somebody else will manage their vote for them.

One must weigh up the cost of the process against the benefits that will be derived from it. What are the advantages involved? The randomness of the process was one of the key features used to market it initially. However, that randomness has now been removed.

Before we commit to the system, there is a need for further assurances to be given. There is also a need for auditing and a system of double checking. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, highlighted the disadvantages of a paper trail and stated his concerns about it. However, it is clear that there are advantages with keeping such a trail. It would appear that there will be no great difficulty in managing the rest of the system. It is, therefore, somewhat naive to state that, in view of the many difficulties involved in having a paper trail, we must dismiss it entirely.

I do not believe that this process should commence during the forthcoming elections. While we are not against electronic voting or electronic counting of votes, there remains some work to be done before we can commit to the system.

As the Minister stated, this has been a live issue for some years. As my party's former spokesperson on the environment, I recall that the initial introduction of electronic voting was buried in legislation which was primarily concerned with political donations. It received little attention at the time and the then Minister dismissed any concerns raised by Deputy Gilmore and me.

Anyone who cares about democracy must have a major interest in this issue. The integrity of the system is vital to everyone. It is as important to Deputies on the Government side of the House as it is to those on this side. I wish those Deputies would accept that Opposition speakers are not dancing up and down in outrage simply for the sake of doing so. We are deeply and genuinely concerned about the partisan way this matter is being dealt with. It is as if it is merely another political proposal in respect of which the Government must win. What is the urgency? Why must the Government win the debate on this matter? This is not just another political housekeeping decision; it is a decision about our electoral system, which is fundamental to and lies at the core of our democracy. It is a decision which stands at a completely different level to other decisions on which we normally vote in the House. It is not really a decision for the Government to take alone.

There has always been a tendency on the part of members of Fianna Fáil to assume that Ireland is their personal fiefdom. However, they are making a major mistake if they believe that they own the democratic system. They do not own it and they cannot behave as if they do. This issue is too important to be messed about in the way it has been. If we are going to change such a fundamental aspect of our democracy, all political parties, on behalf of all members of the public, must subscribe and agree to that kind of change.

The way in which the change is being effected is that which is least likely to bring about any kind of consensus. The latter will only be achieved if there is trust. Everything the Government is doing at present will undermine trust and ensure that we do not subscribe to the new system without question. The unseemly haste with which the system is being introduced is inexplicable. We do not understand why the June deadline must be adhered to. There are questions about the way the commission was established. It will be a toothless commission because, given that the Bill will be passed, it will be obsolete by the time it reports. Questions must also be asked about the way information has been sent out to the people who are going to operate the system. It is as if our passing of the Bill is a mere rubber-stamping exercise. This all undermines the entire democratic process and betrays an arrogance which is unbecoming of the Fianna Fáil and the other Government party.

Many Members have stated that we are merely huffing and puffing for the sake of it and that we should just accept electronic voting because it does not impact on the results of elections. That is not the case. Electronic voting has an impact on the outcome of elections in a variety of ways. One Deputy stated that there were no complaints following the previous occasion on which it was used. It is as if that is a guarantee that it had not influenced the outcome of the election or that mistakes had not been made. The point is that we do not know whether the outcome was influenced or whether mistakes were made. That is our concern.

Trust is everything in an election. If people do not trust the way an election is being run, they will not turn out to vote. There is evidence, to which previous speakers referred, that people have indicated they will be less likely to vote in an election in which an electronic voting system is used. The people who are least likely to vote are those who are opposed to the incumbent party proposing the system. The election result will, therefore, automatically be skewed in favour of the Government. There is also great validity in the argument that the electronic counting system will reduce interest in elections. That will certainly influence the outcome. I am wary about the latter and I will comment further on it shortly.

I would not accept a banking system unless I could see first-hand the accuracy of all the transactions that took place. I want a paper record. I will not even let my credit card out of my hand in shops or restaurants I frequent. Why on earth would I relinquish something as precious as my vote when the only guarantee of the system's accuracy is the fact that the Minister has indicated that it is accurate? The Minister in question is also director of elections for the main Government party. It is real arrogance to think that we would merely lie down and succumb to such a system being imposed in that kind of way.

There are other ways in which the voting system can be influenced, namely, flaws or fraud. I am not stating that I believe anyone in the Government or any political party would have anything to do with fraud. However, if an electronic voting system is in the control of a political party and is not utterly open, transparent and accessible to all, the potential for fraud increases. The rewards for winning an election are enormous. It is the gateway to power. With a prize like that on offer, we would be naive to think that there would never be interference in the electoral system. Such interference might not necessarily be practised by politicians but by people who support them. It could be done indirectly through those who manufacture the machines and the software or those who transport the cassettes to the counting centre. Anybody who has access to the machines or the recorded votes can potentially influence the outcome of the election. There were no guarantees against fraud in the past but at least protective election agents were in place to represent our interests as candidates and political parties. I do not know what is to be their role in the future. It appears they will not be able to perform their verification functions under the Electoral Acts. They will be political eunuchs because the information required by them to do their job will be contained in a machine.

For all the benefits of technology, we should not have blind faith in it or those who tell us it is fool-proof because we know that is not true. Even without attempted fraud, we can never be sure the system is not flawed. Computer experts say it is impossible to devise a large-scale system which is without bugs. While it is possible to test for the presence of bugs, it is impossible to detect their absence. One can never be 100% sure that what the machine counts is what the voters intended to be recorded on their behalf.

We were all amused by the fiasco in Florida regarding the hanging chads and so on. America is moving to prevent a recurrence of that fiasco. It has undertaken a great deal of testing and trial runs in that regard. What happened in Florida proved that the system is full of potential flaws in that votes can be erased or added. The reality is that Florida was in a far better position than we will be if mistakes are made. At least they had hard copies to examine; we will have nothing.

I understand the comments that a paper trail will take away from the advantage of electronic voting but it is possible to provide a voice record. The machine would speak the name of the person one is voting for and that would then be recorded on a separate computer and could be used to verify the vote. I am not a troglodyte; I recognise the advantages of technology in all areas such as my office, business, banking, Government and in everything we do, but I am less and less convinced that the benefits of technology, speed and cost-effectiveness, are ones we need in our electoral system. I am not sure that we will not be giving up too much in moving to a system like this. At the very least, I ask that the Minister agree that a statutory electoral commission to oversee the voting system is absolutely essential if we are to have trust in the system. The Minister should remember that some day Fine Gael will be in Government.

I wish to share time with Deputy Killeen. The Bill seeks to establish the commission on electronic voting as a statutory body to empower the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, to push ahead with the roll-out of the system for the local and European elections on 11 June. It also clears the way for the publication of detailed information on vote transfer patterns in individual electoral areas.

The Bill was introduced following a High Court ruling in January that secondary legislation such as ministerial order or regulations could not be used to amend primary legislation. I am happy the Bill has been scrutinised by the Attorney General, a person in whom we all have confidence. The fundamental purpose of the initiative is to improve the efficiency, speed, accuracy and user-friendliness of the Irish electoral system and to eliminate the wastage associated with spoilt votes. More than 20,000 votes, 1.1% of all votes, were spoiled in the 2002 general election.

This Bill is about more than improving technology. By modernising and transforming elections in a visual manner the opportunity is created to tackle voter apathy and to improve the image of elections, especially in terms of the increasingly younger electorate.

The Nedap-Powervote system has been identified as the best to apply to Irish elections. It has enjoyed the proven experience of widescale and successful use in national and local elections in the Netherlands and in some municipal elections in Germany. The new voting system was extensively piloted during the 2002 general election and the second referendum on the Nice treaty when it was used by 400,000 voters. The reaction of users has been overwhelmingly positive. No significant complaint or challenge has been made by any candidate or voter in the constituencies which operated the electronic voting system regarding the fairness or integrity of the process.

The system was piloted in County Meath. Many people were concerned about its effects and there were the usual cries and whinges from Fine Gael, Labour, the Independents and other smaller parties. I am not suggesting some of my colleagues were not concerned. However, the system was successful. Prior to its use, we were told young and elderly people would not vote. That was far from the truth. The young people came out in their droves, as did the elderly. Never, in my time, had so many people come out to vote. They were interested in the system and wanted to view it. There is no doubt that there have been some minor problems with the system but no problems arose as regards the machine.

There was a minor problem with a machine in one polling station in Meath which failed to start that morning. However, that problem was rectified when the operator received instructions by telephone. That was the only problem encountered in County Meath.

The suddenness of the result was something with which we were all unhappy. Naturally, those who were successful were happy but those who were not successful, in particular those who had served in this House for many years, were not. They were brought to a room and told the results of the election and the returning officer then announced the results. That was not fair to candidates or their families. I am glad the Minister has taken that issue into account and that votes will be announced result by result in future elections. That is to be welcomed.

Under the old system of tallying, we were not able to obtain result by result information from polling stations. I understand that problem has also been resolved. While everybody was concerned about using the new technology, the presiding officer and machine operator took to it like a child takes to an ice-cream and performed a tremendous job on the day. I have always had great confidence in presiding officers and poll clerks. In the future, there will be a third person who will operate the machine.

They will be an additional hazard.

Those who have a say are of various political parties and persuasions, just as under the old system. Presiding officers can be Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, but they always do their job in the interests of voters, and I compliment them on that. Perhaps the Deputy would not show much interest in such people, but I would. I have confidence in those of all political persuasions.

So why change it?

Deputy Durkan should allow Deputy Brady to speak.

It is a pity the Deputy did not talk to some of my colleagues or his own party in County Meath about how successful the system was there. It was successful for both our parties so he cannot whinge or cry. You have nothing else to whinge about at present, and you are trying to make a damnable issue out of this.

I did a fair bit of that.

Deputy Durkan should allow Deputy Brady to speak without interruption. If Deputy Brady addressed his remarks through the Chair, he might not provoke the Deputy.

I never do, a Cheann Comhairle. It is the State's responsibility to provide facilities for the electorate to vote. That is what the electoral arrangements have always done and will continue to do. The electronic voting system makes it easier for a person to vote and easier for a voter to amend his or her preferences in secret if a mistake is made, before pressing the "Cast Vote" button. The electronic system will eliminate all votes spoilt by incorrect marking or non-stamping of ballot papers by polling station staff since that will no longer arise. Typically, at least one in every hundred votes used to be wasted in that way. Under the electronic system, a person may still mark off the register and either refuse to press the "Cast Vote" button or, alternatively, walk away. Activation of the system in such a situation is recorded automatically and anonymously in election statistics without reference to the identity of the voter.

There is an audit trail throughout the process, from the programming of the ballot modules to the end of counting. Statements will be produced by the voting machine before polling commences and at the close of the poll to confirm that the order of the candidates on the ballot paper is the same as that in the module. The voting machine is secured by the returning officer by specific seals and locks and will also be under his or her control and supervision. They will have an audit trail of all votes cast. If a court or a petition hearing orders a recount, the system will print a ballot paper for each vote cast from which it will be possible to recount the votes manually. Like the present position——

There are less than ten minutes remaining.

I will finish in a few minutes. They have been mixed before the first count and will not be disturbed. No change introduced by the Government has ever gone through more independent scrutiny. Independent agencies have reviewed all parts of the machines and software.

Fair play to the Deputy.

He has to finish.

I know. He can say that with a straight face, though.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is making all test reports on various elements of the system publicly available. It is important to note that most countries do not make the source codes publicly available on security grounds. The campaign will consist of television and radio advertisements, notices in national and local print media, roadshows, mailshots and billboard posters. Of all that, the best experience at the 2002 elections was the roadshows, where the machine was available for people to try.

One cannot have an election without a roadshow.

They have been positively received and popular. The number of elderly people in their 80s who came out to test the machine before going to vote was unbelievable.

A gimmick at the Ard-Fheis.

I have full confidence in the electorate because of what I have seen in my own constituency. I am sure that the very same will happen across the country.

I too welcome the Bill, particularly the provisions to facilitate electronic voting at non-Dáil elections, to establish an independent commission and to provide for tally data samples to be made available. I confess that I am considerably less enthusiastic about the provisions regarding abstention. I support the Minister's proposal, but I do not accept that citizens have a right to register an abstention in the manner prescribed or provided for. It is clear that well over 90% of spoilt votes arise out of genuine error. We should look very carefully at the role of the citizen regarding the electoral system and process and be proactive in encouraging participation rather than abstention. The provisions for abstention in the Bill go very far and almost seek to glorify those who wish to attend the polling booth without participating in the election. If I get a chance, I will return to that issue; there are one or two specific elements of the Bill with which I would like to deal.

I welcome the provision in section 33, which proposes to amend section 161 of the Local Government Act 2001. I am not so sure that what I read here in section 33 goes as far as I would like. The Minister should take account of some experiences. There are certainly two cases of which I am aware in County Clare, one of which is addressed by the change made here. It is the case of a councillor of 25 years' experience, who is not a Fianna Fáil member. If this change were not made or were not sufficient, the councillor in question would have to give up his seat, despite the fact that he has successfully managed to combine his work as an electrician for the authority and as a public representative during that period. From my reading of the Bill and from talking to the Minister, I am fairly sure that his case is covered.

There is also a candidate in Clare who is an employee under contract to the county council. I am not sure whether he is grade 6 or 7. On the day he hands in his nomination under the present provisions, he will have to step down from his position. I have no difficulty with the Electoral Act 1997 insisting that a person duly elected must give up his or her position. However, it is extremely severe when someone is forced to give up a position with a local authority completely and with no return on the day he or she hands in a nomination. That is grossly unfair and should be examined. If it can be incorporated into this Bill, I urge the Minister to do so. After all, it is in everyone's interest to ensure that the maximum number of people are able to participate in the process and be candidates. While I understand the provisions regarding those who are employees of local authorities at a very high level and the conflict that might arise were they elected, it is grossly unfair that they have to leave their positions permanently and for ever on the day that they hand in their nominations, with no return in the event that they are not elected.

I will move back to section 32, which has attracted very little attention. It sets out to repeal subparagraph 2(a) of the Schedule to the Electoral Act 1997. As the Minister said in his speech, that dealt mainly with use during an election of property, services and facilities paid for out of public funds. By and large, the facilities in question are in the Oireachtas or Departments and available to Ministers. Clearly, action must be taken following the Kelly judgment. However, it substantially undermines the other provisions of the Electoral Act 1997 and the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 regarding limits on election expenditure. It also impinges to some extent on the integrity of the system into which considerable work has gone over the last seven or eight years in terms of declarations of interest and donations, a considerable raft of legislation in the area of ethics and electoral law.

While the outcome of the Kelly case makes it inevitable that this action be taken, another considerable piece of legislation is required to address the difficulties which now arise. That is on the level of accountability. There is also a major potential problem for those of us seeking to be re-elected at the next general election. There is no area that I know of in electoral law and in the area of donations and expenditure which is less clear than this. It needs to be addressed as a matter of absolute urgency. It is an area where there is likely to be considerable agreement across all parties in the House. It is in all our interests that we do not fight the next general election with a major High Court case hanging over us, the outcome of which affects our positions in the final analysis. On the last occasion the judgment was given on the day of the election, by which time one could have already transgressed, depending on how it went.

Of all the elements of this Bill, the changes provided for in section 32 need to be closely scrutinised by Deputies. It is something that needs to be dealt with quickly, rather than letting it run to the six or 12 months prior to an election, the date of which is indeterminate in any event.

That is correct. It should be a separate Bill.

Many Deputies on both sides of the House have spoken about the integrity of the system and the need for public confidence in it. There is agreement on all sides that this is of paramount importance. There is also agreement, although it has not been much emphasised, that public confidence in the system extends to being able to use it. Deputy Johnny Brady and his colleagues in Meath and the other two constituencies know about that already. For the rest of us it is new territory. However, the measures taken in their cases, which were successful, should be extended. The Minister, the Department and the local authorities throughout the country should make the machines available for people to look at. There is a potential difficulty for people walking into a polling station, particularly if there is a queue, to have to deal with this new machine, and quickly. There is a certain element of fear. It is an important part of the system's integrity that people should have confidence in using it.

The other matter, which received a large amount of media coverage, was how much confidence people have in the integrity of the system. It is difficult to say that any system is entirely error-proof. If I was uncharitable, it might also be difficult to say it was fool-proof. People referred to the large numbers of votes that were disallowed. Whatever else may be said about this system, it is guaranteed to be better than what was there heretofore. We need to have a commitment nonetheless to minimise or eradicate errors.

The former RTE current affairs programme, "Seven Days", once ran an item on monitoring an election in County Donegal, I think, where two activists, one from Fianna Fáil and the other from Fine Gael, were placed on a hill overlooking a polling station in a national school. During the course of the day the activists looked at all the local people going in and out. The Fianna Fáil activist would identify voters for his party and his colleague from Fine Gael did likewise for his. After the tally was completed, it turned that both activists were out by three votes for the entire box.

They should have been fired.

Things have changed.

There was no Green Party in those days.

That type of intuition may be lost these days in Irish politics. Thankfully, Irish voters are much more free thinking. The degree of certainty implicit in a system that has served the country well for 80 years is something that should not be lost sight of. The tally information that came from the election count was a useful snapshot of particular communities as regards voting intentions and was a measure of the country's political pulse.

The Minister has indicated that the tally information will subsequently be made available as a result of the new technology in electronic voting. However, information technology is now so advanced that in doing this he has to introduce a great deal of safeguards. Not only may it be said that so many people voted for a particular candidate in each ballot box, the gender of each voter will also be available, because the names are registered. It will be possible to tell the time of day someone voted. We are then into dangerous territory as to whether the technology is being used properly or not. Ultimately what the debate on this Bill should be about is proper technology.

I have heard speaker after speaker on the Government side say that the Opposition is engaged in scaremongering and has a lack of faith in the Irish electorate's ability to adapt to a new method of voting. I have not heard anyone on the Opposition side say that. All of us on this side believe the people are eminently adaptable. The problem is the method that has been selected. The Government's insistence that this is the only one that may be pursued is undermining the faith which those of us involved in the political process and ultimately the citizenry should have in the electoral system.

There are alternatives. Just the other week, for instance, in what was termed the Russian "election" — there was only one prominent candidate, who had access to the State media — electronic voting was introduced for the first time. However, their system of electronic voting was to fill in a ballot sheet. The ballot sheet was scanned and the vote was recorded electronically and quickly and the ballot paper was subsequently put into a box. That seems like an ideal marriage of technology, past practice and future opportunities.

In devising the contract for this particular system of voting, the Government and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are not for turning. That is unfortunate. Obviously, there would be difficulties in adapting, given our particular system of proportional representation, the single transferable vote. However, that could be done as well. The current law says the vote must express a preference, but it need not necessarily be the "one, two, three, four" model. It could be Roman numerals or letters of the alphabet, ticks or smiley faces. These have all been accepted as votes within the Irish system. In an electronic system, however, the digits must all add up.

The other problem I foresee — and the June elections may be a good example — is multiple ballot papers. There are local and European elections. People may be voting in a European election, for a city or country council and in many towns, a town council, plus — if the Minister, Deputy McDowell, gets his way — a fourth referendum. It may be that the choice of many voters will be to vote in the European and not in the local elections, orvice versa. What system is in place for someone who wants to record a vote in one of the elections and abstain in the other or others? I do not believe such a system exists.

We know what the experience was in 1999 when there was a referendum on local government on the same day as the European and local elections. There were empty ballot papers in one or other of the ballots, in the referendum or the elections. The figures did not tally for the three ballots because people made a choice as to whether or not they wanted to participate in some or all of them. On those grounds I do not believe the Government has made a proper review of the difficulties that could arise from this particular system being put into practice a mere eight to ten weeks from now.

The information about the source code is vital. As we do not know the source code and because it is not being made publicly available as it is in Australia, potential for abuse exists. Fianna Fáil speakers have indicated that this is scaremongering by the Opposition, to the effect that Fianna Fáil is likely to abuse elections, or any electoral process that follows from using this system. We are saying the opposite. If the technology is flawed, if the source code is not openly available, the potential exists for anyone with access to that, and control of it, to abuse a process. That could be an anonymous person, or someone with different political motivations. Although this danger exists, the Government is not providing the safeguards that voters need.

Debate adjourned.
Ceisteanna — Questions.