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.