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.