We were discussing the simplicity, or not, of the electronic voting system. I have seen the advertisements on television and consider them a little disingenuous. I used the machine in Offaly County Council about two weeks ago and I had no difficulty with it, but it is not as simple as switching a light switch on or off or as using a cash machine. Deputy Carey spoke about ATMs, how easy it is to use them and how there has not been a difficulty with them. However, I draw his attention to the rising figures for instances of ATMs being targeted by criminals. Only last weekend there was an article in one of the Sunday newspapers about this. Criminals are able to get the information on the PIN card, put a piece into the machine and then use the person's ATM card. That should not be held up as an example of how simple, transparent and incorruptible the system is. Certainly, ATMs have proven to be corruptible. Figures released by the banking sector show banks are losing significant amounts of money as a result of fraud with these machines. They are not a guide and should not be used as such in this context.
I found it simple to operate the voting machine in the council. However, there will be complications. There were three ballot papers for the town council, county council and European elections. One concern with the machine is that the writing at the top is difficult to see. It is yellow, digital style writing. When people press the yellow button a second time, whether through error or otherwise, they cast their vote and the decision is made. That happens quickly.
Should the Government proceed with this system, what are the plans for informing people? It will require more than just the distribution of leaflets to every household and advertisements on television. I use the Internet every day and do my banking through the Internet but that is not the case with everybody. What are the plans for giving people information, particularly those for whom a leaflet will be an insufficient example of how the machine works? A significant proportion of the population still does not use ATMs, the Internet or e-mail. The number who do is growing but we cannot assume that everybody can use them.
There will be complications when two or more ballot papers are involved. If the referendum is to be held on 11 June as well, I do not know how people will be able to read the four ballot papers on the screen. The machine was used in the last referendum in a number of constituencies but voting "Yes" or "No" is different from voting for 14 or 15 names on a ballot paper. The capability of the machine in getting the result in either situation is different as well.
The person's perception of the system will decide whether he or she will vote. The perception is negative at present. The Opposition is not to blame for this. We have a duty to oppose and expose when we anticipate difficulties, and we anticipate difficulties with this. The use of IT in schools is also relevant. The Taoiseach has, on a number of occasions, hailed Ireland as being to the forefront in the use of technology. I am not anxious to disagree with him on that because disagreement might reflect negatively on the country and I have no wish to do that. However, we must look at the reality and the relevant figures. The Taoiseach speaks about how far advanced Ireland is in the use of technology but we were unable to provide the technology for this system.
When discussing technology, it is useful to consider a recent OECD report which showed that Irish school children and their schools believe their performance is being held back by a lack of computers and laboratory equipment. Ireland is 11th of the 15 EU member states in the use of technology in schools and the ratio of computers to pupils. We should not, therefore, clap ourselves on the back in this regard. Our pupil-computer ratio at present is 1:11.5 whereas in Denmark the ratio is 1:3. How is the Government dealing with this? In the last budget €20 million was slashed from the technology for schools programme. That is something that should be borne in mind. If we are to start using electronic voting, we must consider the issue of IT in schools.
Many speakers on all sides of the House have spoken about going into schools and speaking to transition year and CSPE students. I asked earlier about the Government's plans for informing the people who will vote on 11 June, but what plans does it have to inform people in the education system about electronic voting and how to use it? Until now the best way to show students how our style of PR with the single transferable vote works was to explain the voting system from start to finish, organise a mini-election with ballot papers, voting, a count and a result. That shows clearly how it works. Will there be a method in schools to demonstrate the voting machine and how it works? That brings us back to the problem of not being able to see how it works when using a machine. However, we still must educate school children about the voting system. That issue must be tackled.
The main concern with electronic voting is the result and its accuracy. Deputy Cassidy seems to be an expert on my constituency and referred to incidents that occurred there. I am familiar with some of the cases he mentioned. Two elections ago one of our urban district council candidates lost in the election by one vote. He had one vote that was not stamped. It is true that no vote was stamped by the returning officer in a polling station in the Ferbane area of County Offaly in the last local elections and the entire turn-out in that polling booth was spoilt as a result. The people in that area did not go out to vote with the intention of spoiling their votes. We have been given no reasonable explanation for this happening. Obviously, the physical explanation is that whoever was employed and paid as returning officer did not do his or her job. However, all those votes were lost. In this case the mistake was visible and one could see what votes the candidates would have received. The result would have been the same in any event.
There are flaws in the old system. In the Borris-in-Ossory electoral area in the last local elections the count lasted five days. It was the subject of a book,Count, Recount and Petition. It eventually ended up in court on a petition. What is important about this is that people could see the voting system as it was, flaws and all. When the election result went to court, every vote that was at issue between the two candidates was examined in the court challenge and the judge gave his opinion on each. The public could see each of the votes. If there are any such questions with the electronic voting system, we will not see as clearly what, if anything, went wrong.
People seem to believe that nothing will go wrong and that the system is flawless. We do not know that, however, and that is the point at issue. Deputy Andrews referred to an article inThe Irish Times today in which two computer experts write about the future of electronic voting and call for a rational debate on the subject. They refer to so-called experts. I am not an expert and the 166 Members of this House cannot be experts on everything but we still have a duty to inform ourselves and deal with the legislation that comes before us. The Deputy used the article as an argument for the proposition from the Government side of the House. However, one part of the article gave the reason for having a verifiable paper trail even though the experts claimed it was not needed.
The question was asked whether there was a way in which any voting system, manual or computerised, could be made 100% safe from unwanted interference. There is not. If someone wants to corrupt the manual vote, then given a reason, they will find a way. It may be much more difficult to interfere with a machine, and the phrase used is that it would be a "big ask", but it could happen and that has been acknowledged. That is why we need the voter-verifiable paper trail.
Section 9 provides that a print-out will be made before voting commences, while section 11 includes a requirement that a print-out be made when voting closes. Section 12 includes a requirement for a print-out to be made before the inputting of postal votes begins. However, certain subsections specifically preclude a challenge to an election result on the basis of failure to produce the print-outs required. What on earth is the point of having the print-outs if they cannot be used in a subsequent challenge to the election result? That makes no sense. We are including something that appears to be a safeguard but is not one because it cannot be used. The legislation clearly states that the print-outs cannot be used, which is questionable. The Minister of State should explain the point of this provision but I cannot see how he can say this safeguard is worthwhile.
Section 16 is similar to Article 13 of the statutory instrument and section 47 of the 2001 Act in that it deals with the recounting of votes in the event of a challenge. Section 16 provides that all votes cast at the election shall be counted afresh. The wording of the section would be significant for ballot papers and so on, but I do not see how it can work with electronic voting. If all votes are to be counted afresh, will there still be a random selection? One cannot programme the machine to do the exact same thing with the exact same votes as far as I know, although the Minister of State should clarify that. I do not see how this section will be practical. It requires more discussion because it seems pointless.
Part 3 establishes the commission on electronic voting on a statutory basis, but I see no prospect of the commission being able to examine the issues that will be raised on Committee Stage or that I raise, namely, the reliability, security, integrity and verifiability of the electronic voting system. The Bill does not state whether the Government will act on or implement the report of the commission. As it stands, if the Government does not want to, it does not have to bother doing so. That is how the legislation is framed, which is unacceptable.
When the commission produces its final report, it will cease to exist. Instead of having a commission which can examine all the issues and bring other bodies which deal with elections together with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, we will have a short-term commission. It is being established to ensure this Bill is passed and, to make people happy, it will appear independent. However, people will not be happy with it. For example, why has the Ombudsman been excluded when she is a member of the other three commissions: the Standards in Public Office Commission, the Referendum Commission and the Constituency Commission. The Comptroller and Auditor General is also a member of two of those commissions and he has also been excluded from this body. Why is that? They are independent people who have done a good job and have something to offer in this area.
Section 29, which provides for the release of statistical information on the votes cast, is of concern to me. Deputy Carey was concerned earlier that I would be upset because the tallyman would be gone, but I will not be upset because I hope not to be tallying next time out. The Minister will be in charge of the release of information on the votes cast. He or she will provide by regulation for the provision, at the conclusion of the counting of votes in an election or referendum, of statistical information on a specified proportion of the poll concerned, including detailed information on the votes cast and comprised in that specified proportion. Section 29(2) states that the format, content and extent of the information which may be provided, pursuant to those regulations, shall be such that the secrecy of the ballot is preserved.
We are leaving this up to the Minister by regulation and, if we are honest, there is little discussion of such regulations. They are introduced and enacted. While I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories, I question giving this power to any Minister as it is undemocratic. Can he or she decide to pick certain areas where he or she feels that the old tally-style results or the results from particular boxes should be disclosed while the results of other boxes should not be? That is the power being granted to the Minister, which is wrong.
Subsection (3) provides for the means by which the information concerned is provided to persons and also provides that there may be payment of a reasonable fee in respect of such provision, which is a bit like the Freedom of Information Act trick. People have to pay for those requests and the numbers applying for information have come down. One can argue the merits or demerits of that situation but paying a fee to find out how an election was conducted or the results of certain counts in an election is wrong. Section 29 should be amended because giving such powers to any Minister would be wrong. I ask the Government in the interests of democracy not to proceed with the provision as worded.