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

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

When the debate was adjourned last Thursday, I was speaking about the need to address the question of secrecy within the electronic system, particularly as it relates to the source code. There are a number of areas in which the secrecy of the ballot and the confidence that people can have in our voting system are exposed by this system and the legislation the Government is attempting to foist upon the House.

The source code is probably the most important issue. The source code represents the electronic DNA of what a computer programme does and how it does it. If openly available, it is possible to scrutinise if it does properly what it is meant to do. The fact that the Government has chosen to allow a commercial firm to retain the copyright of this source code, a firm which operates outside this jurisdiction, on the basis that the code is a trade secret does nothing to add to confidence in this form of voting. This is in marked contrast to the approach taken in the Australian capital of Canberra. Its electoral commission produced a source code, at far less cost than the Government has managed, but has made that source code open source, which means copyright is vested in the Australian Capital Territory Electoral Commission, not the hands of a private company. This was done according to the electoral commission to ensure appropriate transparency, a term that does not find resonance with the Government but it is important to indicate this as it is something voters would like to see attached to a process which involves the casting of their votes in future elections. It is unfortunate the Government has taken this proprietary approach which allows the vendor of the system, Nedap, to hold onto its copyright of the source code which as of now is not available for proper scrutiny for possible flaws.

I have mentioned the second area involved — secrecy for those voters who wish to abstain, particularly in multiple elections. The Government wants the first widespread use of the electronic voting system on 11 June, the day of the local and European elections. We heard on the Order of Business today a poorly thought-out proposal for a constitutional referendum which will only complicate the introduction of a new voting system. It means voters will have four ballot papers on the screen and the Government does not seem to realise the extent to which this will affect people's right to abstain, not just from the voting process — the natural right to abstain to register an objection to what they see wrong with the political process — but also selectively in different elections.

From where does that right come?

I can give the Minister of State the 1999 figures. In the 1999 local elections there were 25,000 spoiled votes, in respect of 40% of which the ballot papers were blank. In the European elections held on the same day there were 46,500 votes deemed ineligible. In respect of 70% of these the ballot papers were blank. One does not need to be an Einstein to work out that the blank ballot papers were returned by those who chose to abstain selectively from the various elections which took place on that day.

That is not an interpretation with which I would necessarily agree.

Blank ballot papers mean abstentions. Electors had a series of voting papers and they chose to fill some in while leaving others empty. They could do this in a paper system but their ability to do so in an electronic system will be severely compromised.

The real lesson the Government needs to learn in foisting this dangerously divisive citizenship referendum on us is that in the referendum in 1999, a non-contentious referendum on local government, there were 110,000 ineligible votes on the same day as the local and European elections. Unfortunately, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has never released figures on how many of the ballot papers were blank but the likelihood is that the trend in the local and European elections on the same day was repeated to a greater extent.

I would like to see how the Government will have an electronic voting system in place on 11 June with four sets of ballot papers on the same day. The possibility that electors may want the right to abstain selectively, depending on the election or referendum in which they choose to participate, has not been thought through.

Previous speakers have mentioned a third level, the ability of the visually impaired to mark their votes properly and secretly. It might be said that with the paper ballot there was always a degree of sharing the voting intentions of a visually impaired person with a third party but the electronic system increases the lack of secrecy.

It is the same.

Several more people are involved. If we are talking about using information technology in a more advanced way, a means could have been found to ensure a tactile or auditory response which would enable the visually impaired to use technology to cast their votes. The Minister might say the intention is to encourage such persons to use postal votes but that is reverting back to the old technology. The point the Government seems to be missing is that people with disabilities want to live independently and express their intentions in the same way as other citizens. We should give them every opportunity to do so but unfortunately the Government's proposal does not allow this.

Moving away from the issue of secrecy, there is also the question of the accuracy of the system. Those of us who are aware of the potential of information technology wish to see it progress and used more widely in society. However, we also know that it carries significant risks. Any computer based system can produce different outputs from similar inputs which harks back to the fact that the source code is secret and vested in a third party operating outside the jurisdiction. The security of the system depends on this knowledge.

We have been assured as far as we can be by a Minister who, I am certain, is not technically capable of making any argument in relation to his brief. We argued this point last week. The security methods endorsed to date do not represent a full testing of the system. In the first instance, it seems the testing only covered the possibility of attack by unauthorised persons who were not defined. It did not seem to take into account the fact that there were risks posed by authorised persons at different stages of the process — staff at storage depots, maintenance staff and the workers of Nedap/Powervote.

This reopens the security argument. At least with the paper based system possible interference was restricted to the time before the vote was placed in a box which was sealed and subsequently opened and the period after the box was opened at an election count. With the electronic system, the potential for abuse by third parties is far greater because there will be several additional stages, and the likelihood is that the Government has not tested any of these grounds. It has certainly not tested the procedures for storing, transporting, setting up and dismantling e-voting systems because all the arguments made were made after the Government stated appropriate security tests had been carried out. The failure to ask what security tests had been done and the extent to which they had been done and what they had showed only underlines the lack of confidence many on this side of the House have in the Government's proposals.

To a small extent, we have seen the company's machines in operation. Last week there was a local referendum in the Netherlands in which the voting system used was not exactly the same but the same company and the same technology we are supposed to be buying, technology in which we are meant to have confidence, was employed. The referendum was not a success. There were difficulties. It involved testing in an actual vote. The Government needs to respond but it is not willing to do so.

The Government, in which Fianna Fáil is the majority party, is coming round to a strange irony. This is its latest attempt to change the way people vote, although it relates to the system of voting rather than the mechanics involved. Fianna Fáil's arguments about voting in 1959 and 1968 centred on the need to simplify the system. It argued that the people would not be able to continually look at the complexities of the STV-PR system and produce the appropriate response — meaning that occasionally Fianna Fáil would not serve in government. The reality is that the people rejected Fianna Fáil Governments quite emphatically.

The Government may need to think about this issue because it wants to change the Constitution in otherwise very warped ways but the likelihood is that if such a proposal for electronic voting was put to the people, it would be rejected because of the loss of confidence. The Government is failing to introduce a system in which the people can have faith. At the end of the day there will be a question mark. I do not ascribe it to attempts by Fianna Fáil to gerrymander the system. History and destiny will take care of this.

We are already set on a course where the people are choosing to vote differently. It is important, therefore, that our voting system, the bedrock on which the people express their support for a system of representative democracy, is one in which they can have confidence. I fear the Government, not only by the legislation it has introduced but, more importantly, the method by which it has chosen to introduce it — what it has referred to as a consultation period and debate that preceded it — is attempting to make a significant change in the nature of our democracy. I hope there are some, either within the Government parties or among the individuals who comprise the Government, who will think hard before legislation of this type is passed and that we will not have a fiasco in how the mandate is sought for local and European bodies on 11 June.

The debate on this issue has been taking place for some time. I am sorry Deputy Boyle is leaving as I wanted to address some of the issues he raised. Perhaps he will listen in his office. He referred to the referenda held in 1959 and 1968, times when a referendum was held at the same time as other elections. It is ironic that the Green Party is criticising the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, for proposing to hold a referendum on the same day as other elections and at the same time praising the one occasion when it occurred and acknowledging the people are more than capable of separating issues on a given day.

That is appreciating the fact that it is valid.

The point was that they were able to separate the issues involved. My criticism is that the Opposition is not generous enough to acknowledge the people's capacity to distinguish the issues involved if we were to proceed with the referendum on citizenship on 11 June.

I would also have liked to refer Deputy Boyle to an historical truth on what he calls gerrymandering. It was the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government which tried to gerrymander the 1977 election but it went horribly wrong. It tried to create optimum seat gains for itself by changing the number of seats in various constituencies. The effect was that Fianna Fáil won three out of four seats in many constituencies and gained a huge majority, which generally was probably not great for it. To say Fianna Fáil had exclusive control over this issue was a distortion.

In much of the recent debate there has been reference to Luddism. I have not had time to look up who Mr. Ludd was. Apparently, there was a group of English rebels who believed industrialisation was terrible for England. Various stories emerged of people lying on railway tracks to stop trains. They were objecting to all manifestations of industrialisation. Luddites are considered to be those against progress in general and afraid of the consequences of change. The description is fairly safe and accurate for the opponents of this measure as they are not being honest in their objections. In many cases the objections are clearly the result of a particular political agenda, evidence of an axe to grind. There is no strong argument made, just possible arguments. That Deputy Boyle referred to the referenda held in 1959 and 1968 proves the weakness of the argument. The Green Party is hoping that by bringing so much doubt to the system it will be a case of death by 1,000 cuts. There is nothing particularly damaging that it can suggest, except to continually hark on about the dangers it might pose.

In today's edition ofThe Irish Times there is a good article which makes the argument very clear. It refers to the fact that on a daily basis 747s lift off into the sky. We have all bought into them. We have all travelled. We are not afraid that they travel on auto pilot across the ocean. Nobody appears to concern themselves about this. Nobody appears to concern themselves with the fact that the passage of aircraft over airports is controlled by computers in general at air traffic control. The safety of our person would be considered to be endangered by computers in this area but people do not have this fear.

At the same time we are supposed to accept the argument from the Opposition that there is a grave danger that these computer systems will either be hacked into or damaged by those with a mission to destroy the system. I do not think that will happen. I trust computers. I cannot look behind what is proposed by the Government in terms of the computer technology involved. I have to assume that the company hired is doing the right thing. I have to assume that the tests were carried out in a professional manner and accept that the technology used will be safe. What I can question is whether the Opposition, in pursuing this objection, is doing so with any degree of honesty.

On a routine basis, one of the most irritating aspects of voting in this Chamber is when a member of the Opposition calls for a vote through the lobbies. This is done because, allegedly, the Whip of the Opposition has formed an opinion that the computer system is not correct. Somehow or other the Opposition satisfies itself that there is a serious danger that some injustice is about to be done and that the democratic will of the Chamber is not reflected in the computer vote read-out. Therefore, it calls for a vote through the lobbies. We waste another ten minutes of parliamentary time, which is at premium, walking through the gates and having our names ticked off in this Stone Age fashion.

Any right thinking person knows perfectly well the reason this is being done is to try to annoy, irritate, embarrass, or destabilise the Government's position. In other words, the objection to the voting system is designed only to pursue another political end. It is not in itself an objection to the outcome of the vote, rather it is used to try to destabilise the Government. It is used as a stick with which to beat the Government. Therefore, I argue strongly that the same motivation and incentive lies behind objections to this Bill. Fears are being stoked about the computers to be used, the potential for hacking and the research which went into the creation of the codes. In all of this, there is no doubt that the Opposition is motivated by the desire to find a stick with which to beat the Government, as Opposition Members would accept if they were honest. I challenge the Opposition to call a walking vote when the Bill is voted upon. Shame on them if they do so, because it would expose this situation for what it is. The Opposition is playing games with a serious issue, something to which I greatly object.

Deputy Boyle referred to the abstention votes of those who enter voting booths with their ballot papers but do not vote. The Deputy suggested such abstention votes are somehow sacred and should be protected as if they are a healthy part of Irish democracy. I do not agree. To allege that this is worthy of protection is dysfunctional. If somebody has gone to the extent of going to a polling station, had his or her name signed off the register, entered the polling booth with his or her ballot paper and then found no candidate to satisfy his or her political aims, something is wrong. We should not legislate for those who cannot find a candidate.

In the last general election some 17 candidates were included in the ballot paper in my constituency of Dún Laoghaire. I cannot believe there was not some candidate who would reflect the views of the vast majority of voters in the constituency. Nonetheless, it seems to be the view of Opposition Members that we should legislate for this type of dysfunctionality. If anything, we could perhaps provide a button on the voting machine to reflect the need of people to abstain from the system because they do not buy into Irish democracy or because there are not enough political parties to represent their views, which I find hard to believe.

It is a pity we should make this change to the electoral law without cross-party support. In general, it is better to make changes to the procedure of electoral law with the support of all political parties because it goes to the core of the way we run our democracy. There should be no need for this lengthy debate or to repeatedly explain the safety of the system. It is a pity this is necessary but that is the nature of politics today. It reflects the division within the Opposition in regard to the upcoming local elections and the desire to achieve some kind of prominence on issues that interest the people, but it does not reflect any strongly held belief.

We could set up a Ministry for conspiracy theories, given the number in circulation. If it is not a case of the grassy knoll, it is Princess Diana's or Frank Sinatra's driver.

Or a case of "was there a meeting or not?"

The Taoiseach will have his opportunity to explain that to the public in due course. In any case, whether there was a meeting is irrelevant, although I would be happy to discuss the matter in another forum. However, I wish to discuss the conspiracy issue and the suggestion that Fianna Fáil has, somehow, stitched this up to try to ensure hegemony for eternity. It is said to be a great plan by Fianna Fáil to rub out all Opposition parties in order that Fianna Fáil Deputies would fill the Chamber and there would be no Opposition, perhaps with the exception of Deputy Enright. The Opposition suggests, however, that it has cleverly found this out and has blown our cover. The suggestion is silly and does not stand up. As the debate continues, fewer Members say such things because they sound increasingly ridiculous.

I speak on the Bill neither as a madly committed electronic voting expert with a vested interest in a computer company or voting machine, nor a member of the club of tallymen. I know from what she said recently on radio that Deputy Enright was a member of that profession, as, indeed, was the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern.

I come from a background in teaching. When I began teaching junior infants, I often had to use an abacus. By the time I left teaching in 1997, we had, thankfully, moved on to calculators and computers. It is a question of moving with the times. There is no suggestion of any kind of conspiracy other than this.

My only reservation is that in talking about electronic voting, we are only moving one step beyond the manual paper voting system. I have used the electronic voting system on two occasions, once for the general election and once for the Nice treaty. All of those I spoke to, of all ages, seem to have had little or no difficulty using the system.

When one considers the opportunities we have in our personal lives, whether setting the video recorder to record tonight's "Oireachtas Report", which we would all want to watch in omnibus version at the end of the week, or a match, which is more likely, we all engage on an ongoing basis with the new electronic media. If we were serious about e-voting, we would be able to vote using our mobile phones on a constituency based electronic register for which we would all have a PIN number, in the same way we have such numbers for bank accounts. However, we are taking just one small step in the direction of modernising our rather antiquated voting system.

We should not return to the system of a shouted vote which operated in County Clare and elsewhere, whereby a voter stood at the door of the polling station and shouted out his or her preference. The Government is trying to bring this process forward in order that we will engage with the electronic systems in a reasonably proactive way. However, much mischievous comment has been made in this regard. Members, who otherwise have made fine contributions in this Chamber on other legislation, have been gratuitous in the way they have insulted the Minister, and tendentious in the way they have put forward arguments about what the Minister and Government are trying to do. If we in Fianna Fáil were so good at conspiracies, we would be able to rule by overall majority. This has escaped us and the experts agree it is unlikely we will return to it in the short term, although, naturally, we will work towards it.

We are concerned with providing opportunities for voters, particularly the young, to exercise their franchise. It is difficult. I spend a good deal of my time talking to transition year students, junior certificate students, university students and people in ordinary communities, trying to give them reasons why they ought to vote. This should be advanced as one more reason they, as members of one of the most modern communities in the western world which is wide open to globalisation and embracing change at a fantastic rate, should surely give them opportunities.

I do not believe the argument that older persons, even the elderly, cannot engage in the process of electronic voting. In Dublin city libraries, for example, there are many elderly persons who regularly e-mail their sons and daughters living abroad or elsewhere in the country. They engage with the senior help line and are able to access the Internet. We should not be looking down our noses and deciding they could not possibly do this.

The introduction of electronic voting will, as has been stated by others, help those persons who mistakenly spoil their vote. The Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, and I share a constituency. I have been disappointed and often appalled at the level of spoiled votes in each election in our constituency and others throughout the country. If one has an opportunity to examine the voting paper, one will find that the vote has been spoiled by mistake. With electronic voting that will not be possible and will not happen to the same extent. That is another good reason we ought to promote it.

I was in the RTE studio on the night of the first counts in the last general election. I pitied Nora Owen because of the manner in which the results were outlined to her and her colleagues. The changes made in the system will make it easier for all of us who, sooner or later, will have to listen to the news of whether our vote has gone up or down. At least there will be time to prepare for that moment. Those tied to the tally system might well have an opportunity of analysing the pattern of voting which is extremely important.

There has been endless argument about the validity and accuracy of the machines. No matter how often it is said, one either believes or not that this stand-alone machine is accurate and tamper-proof. It is about as likely that one can tamper with the machine as one can go around the country tampering with every single ATM machine; it is possible but highly unlikely. For this reason we should try to ensure in the comments made by us from now on we reinforce the confidence of the electorate in this new system which is tried and trusted and has been in use elsewhere and in this country. The fear is unfounded.

I am not an expert on whether the argument about the verifiable paper trail stands up. I do not pretend to understand all of the implications. I have listened to speakers from both sides of the argument. However, there are sufficient safeguards in the legislation and the mechanism of the machines to prevent tampering.

In the manual system a vote is cast by marking the ballot paper and putting into the ballot box. A conspiracy theorist could say that perhaps the box has no or a false bottom, and that it could be tampered with on its way to the counting centre. We all know that this is unlikely to happen because we work on the basis of trust, although ballot boxes have been mislaid and sometimes lost.

The paper trail can be established by a visit to the District Court. The proposed system provides for an accurate transfer of one's vote which is not the case under the current system.

Deputy Andrews expressed his disappointment that Deputy Boyle had left the Chamber and I must say the same about Deputy Andrews. He raised a number of issues with which I will deal.

I do not think Fine Gael or anyone on this side of the House has ever doubted the capacity of the people to distinguish between the issues. With regard to the proposed referendum on citizenship, my core concern is how this issue was dealt with in the last general election. Certain persons used the issue as a means of raising their own profile, the reason I am concerned about holding the referendum on 11 June. When he spoke earlier in the House the Taoiseach stated it would not happen but neither he nor any other party leader is truly in a position to say what will be said by individual candidates on the issue. That kind of abuse is appalling, the reason I have concerns about the referendum being held on the same day as the elections. Such abuse by elected representatives or persons purporting to become elected representatives cannot be tolerated. It is not about whether the people will understand the issue but about how the issue may be used and abused for self-promotion.

I do not have a fear of change. I am not familiar with the history of the Luddites or Mr. Ludd but Deputy Andrews gave the House a brief introduction to the subject. We must ensure transparency in the system and that is my concern.

On the point of calling for a vote by walking through the lobbies in this House, it is important to note that it is a rule of the House and is permissible. I was not a Member of the House when the system was changed. The rule for calling for such votes is in place and Members are entitled to use it. From my recollection of what has happened in the House on previous occasions, it has been used to highlight the Opposition's objection to particular issues or highlight their seriousness. I do not believe it has been abused and Members are entitled to use it. The Ceann Comhairle has the final say in allowing the Whips' request to vote by walking through the lobbies. There should not be criticism of the use of the system in the House. A correlation cannot be drawn with our objections to electronic voting. I do not see the connection the Deputy was trying to make.

Deputy Carey is not now present in the Chamber but in answer to his point about moving with the times, I do not have any such objection but I do have an objection to just teaching children to use calculators in schools. I would prefer if they learned to do addition and subtraction on an abacus and their fingers and by using tables but I am sure that is not the point he intended to make.

Deputy Carey also expressed the notion that we should move and progress further with the electronic voting system at a later date by the use of PIN numbers, for example. I warn that if we progress further than this and consider the possibility of voting by means of telephone text or e-mail, there is a possibility of votes being sold. This matter was examined in the United States, in either California or Florida. I could sell my PIN number to Enda Kenny and he could use it to vote effectively. We should be careful about progressing because the system is not as simple or as clear as stated by Deputy Carey.

Deputy Carey also referred to the tally system. I was a tally person but will not shed too many tears at its passing. The Deputy said he pitied Nora Owen because of the situation in which she found herself. That is a relevant point. I have been in the House when a seat was lost but if one is involved in politics, one learns to get on with matters. The feelings of politicians do not need to be taken into account when considering the system. What we are most concerned with is the openness and transparency of the system from the perspective of the electorate.

Deputy Andrews referred to the Opposition using this issue as a stick with which to beat the Government. I suggest to him that there is no shortage of sticks with which to beat the Government that we do not need to use this system to do so. I draw his attention to the psychological service, special needs, the widow's pension, the condition of schools, the withdrawal of medical cards, hospital waiting lists, the second coming of 2,000 gardaí and the spiralling serious crime rate. There are plenty of sticks available. We do not need to jump on this issue as one with which to beat the Government.

Debate adjourned.