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

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

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.

At the outset I was concerned by the new system but, as time goes on, I am being convinced by it. I may be fully convinced by the first opportunity to see it in operation.

It is time we moved on. We should not follow the British way and be the last to change in anything. Anything would have been better than the old system in which I have seen many flaws over the years. This will be considerably more tamper-proof than the old system. I have gone to counts where up to 50 ballot papers from one box were not stamped and were ruled out as a result. I remember the 1984 Connacht-Ulster European election count in Bundoran, where there was a difference of 5,000 first preference votes in one recount. This system will be much better than the old system which may have had more flaws than people knew about.

More reform is required, not so much of the electronic system but of the registration requirements for independent candidates. In a council election an independent candidate must get 15 people from the register of electors to register his name as a candidate. That number rises to 30 members of the public for a general election. That is unconstitutional and should be examined. It is unfair that independent candidates must do this and, more importantly, the secrecy of the identity of those 30 people goes out the window. For that reason it is unconstitutional and I ask the Minister to examine this with a view to introducing legislation to resolve the problem.

I am also concerned by the ease with which votes can be registered. Previous speakers referred to personation. If the Minister of State looks at County Donegal he will see that before long the number on the register will be equal to the population. At that stage one will wonder if there is anybody in Donegal under the age of 18. The number on the register is way over what it should be. Certainly reform is required.

Impersonating at polling booths is a big problem. One hears quietly, here and there, what is going on. It should be necessary for every person to have a photo ID at a polling station and to show it to the presiding officers. I am very much against a constitutional referendum. If we are to have local elections, European elections and a possible constitutional referendum on the one day and want a good turn-out on the electronic voting system, I suggest the screen should not be cluttered with too many ballots. The introduction of the electronic system would not be helped by holding the constitutional referendum as well.

The lobby for a spoilt vote is crazy and I cannot understand it. Voting should be compulsory. The 30% or 40% who do not vote could change the whole political scene if they were unhappy with who represents them at whatever level.

There is a problem with presiding officers in Donegal. Many of them have held such positions for 30 or 40 years plus. The new county registrar is ill-informed on the old practice of delivering ballot boxes to collection points after the close of polling. Directives that should have been given on the day of polling were not handed down the line to presiding officers with the result that they will lose their positions. They have not been told individually but they have heard through the grapevine that they will lose their positions. That is not good enough and somebody should go in and sort the matter out.

Much has been said here during recent weeks about electronic voting. There is nothing I could possibly think of that would be new. However, there are a number of questions I want to ask the Government. There are a number of questions thousands of ordinary members of the electorate would like to ask if they got the chance to come in here.

Electronic voting is a service which the Government is providing to the people and one they did not require. Certainly it is a service they did not want. Not a single constituent in East Galway asked me to make representations with regard to electronic voting. I did not have a single letter of telephone call on the issue. The service will eventually cost €60 million. The easiest way it sits on people's minds is that it is equivalent to four Punchestown projects rolled into one. We know the reaction we got to the €15 million spent on Punchestown and the evaluation that went into that project. We are aware of the feedback from the public to all the Ministers but they did not learn from it. I will return to that issue in a moment.

Who wants electronic voting? We will go through the matter to see who actually wants it. What effect has electronic voting on the image of Ireland abroad? I heard the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government speak on this topic a couple of weeks ago. He said it was a new step in technology and that it would be great for our image abroad. Let us take a look at what exactly it would or would not do. What losses would be incurred by the loss of inward foreign investment if we never moved to electronic voting? We would not lose a penny. If we take the path of electronic voting will there be fewer holiday makers in Ireland in 2004? It would not make any difference. Would what we are doing with electronic machines have any effect on interest rates on the continent? I do not think so. I cannot understand the international significance. I heard the Minister speak on this a couple of times in the House and I am mystified as to from where he can draw that conclusion.

I have no hang-up about electronic voting in the sense that I have been a Member of this House a long time. I will shed few tears for the tallying system and for hanging around for 12 hours waiting to see the outcome. As the years go by, the statistics clearly show that as a percentage of those eligible to vote, fewer people are doing so. That phenomenon is not new to most other countries.

If a Government wanted to get behind the reasons people do not vote, would it not be better to use part of that €60 million in a different way? I shall suggest some of the ways it could be done in a moment. We are getting to the stage where almost half the electorate do not vote. I have my views as to why they do not vote. In certain parts of the country and in parts of Dublin the number voting is less. I see no effort being made by the Government, or most other Governments, to try to discover the specific underlying reason they do not vote. Do not try to tell me the introduction of an electronic machine at the polling station in Mountbellew will ensure more people come out to vote. That will not happen. I have anecdotal evidence that suggests that a certain section of the people will have difficulty coming to terms with this system, although I appreciate that if they go to the polling station they will not have much trouble with it. The fear of the unknown is the problem. We will lose a cohort of people who always regarded voting as an important civic duty. Many of the elderly have told me they will not vote because they think it is very difficult. If that is all we get out of electronic voting, someone has got it awfully wrong.

There is a more sinister reason for those electronic machines. They will be like mushrooms all over Ireland on 11 June. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is on an ego trip. He is not without a certain number of ego trips and is given to them when he gets going. They feed into a Government that has become arrogant. If a Government has spent 17 or 18 years of the past 20 years in Government, arrogance comes naturally. It comes from the belief that the Government can do what it likes, when it likes, and take less notice of the people than normal. When the Minister for Finance was asked about the controversy surrounding the now famous Punchestown centre, he replied in typical fashion that it was a fine building. This was as much as to say he could not give a hoot what others thought, but that he and the Minister for Agriculture and Food believed it was a good idea. Whether the project was well evaluated, they went ahead with it.

At the local elections on 11 June, many voters will stand back and decide that the Government needs to be taught a lesson. Given a combination of factors, including electronic voting, many, including those normally supporting the Government parties, may stay at home, although I do not believe they will change sides dramatically. This will hit Fianna Fáil. When a party is in power for so long, the objectives and principles for which it stood — I accept that Fianna Fáil has done much good for the country — become blurred, particularly when the economy is doing well.

The question of value for money is beginning to be blurred by the Government. As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I am regularly made aware, through the good offices of the Comptroller and Auditor General, that every single Department appears capable of losing millions of euro unnecessarily and speedily. In an economy using modern technology and counter-balances, this should not happen. It only does so because of the arrogance which has entered this Government and which it is now difficult to remove. Electronic voting has become caught up in this but if the public sees this as I do, Fianna Fáil will get an answer on 11 June which it does not expect.

I cannot understand how the Government handled other aspects of this issue so badly. Any change in voting procedure is fundamental to the way people think and act, in Ireland and all over the world. We in Ireland have reached a stage where the people are so used to elections that contempt for the process is bred, and many do not vote. It has been pointed out in this debate that one could only look in awe at the situation in emerging nations where people would walk miles through the bush and wait long hours to vote. While we have moved a long way from that, ingrained in the minds of the people is a fundamental value for their vote — they do not vote lightly, as we know. It is the business of Members to try to get the people to vote for us, but when they vote, they do not like to think there has been any messing around with a system they are used to and which, for all its faults, was, by and large, regarded as fair.

I have no idea how electronic voting will work, and I think no other Member has either. However, the method by which it was to be implemented left much to be desired. Many feel that the Government should have had an independent process from which politics was removed. That this was not the case was a fundamental blunder which, again, is connected to the Government's arrogance. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government believes he can walk on water — a dangerous assumption. Given that many accept that electronic voting may work — I accept it has worked elsewhere — why did the Government not remove politics from this process and appoint an independent electoral commission? It appointed a half-hearted commission only after uproar among the media and Opposition. The tactician behind this got it wrong if he or she thought the public would accept that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the main mover of this ego-trip which he believed would be his legacy, could decide one day to introduce electronic voting and, the following day, be selected as Fianna Fáil director of elections.

Ordinary people with no great interest in politics reacted with huge suspicion, as might have been expected. I have heard said by some who are not in any way dyed in the wool politically that this is a throw-back to the times when Fianna Fáil tried to get rid of proportional representation. I have been around long enough to remember the 1959 and 1968 referenda, although they took place a long time ago and a whole generation know nothing of them. However, on the days of the referenda, Fianna Fáil won the other votes run in conjunction with them — one was a presidential election — but lost the votes on proportional representation. There is a correlation between those instances and the current thinking of the people.

I have no problem with those appointed to the commission as they have great experience and expertise. However, I question why the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Ombudsman were not included. It would have been just as easy to ensure they were, and the Government would have covered all options if it had appointed them. That they were not appointed leaves the sneaking suspicion that the commission was set up for one reason, to try to get over the people's lack of trust in electronic voting. Although it seems likely the Government will drive this measure through the Oireachtas, whether it is good for Ireland and its democracy is another question. If the elderly tell me they will find it difficult to vote because of their fears of voting machines, one cannot say where this will finish.

On the issue of value for money, it must be asked whether we could better spend €60 million on behalf of taxpayers. The Minister first introduced this with a price tag of €30 million, which then rose to €50 million. Given the experience in this country, we can rest assured that the cost will be 50% higher than the original baseline figure, which happens in regard to roads, sewerage and otherwise. There is no reason to believe that by the time people start voting on 11 June, this will not be over €60 million.

The question is whether it could be better spent. The widows of Ireland would certainly think so and they would be right. The penny-pinching in their respect in recent weeks is nothing short of a disgrace. I went to the trouble of tabling a parliamentary question, as so many Deputies do in respect of many hundreds of schools. It concerned a school in Killeaney, outside Craughwell. All they wanted was a chance to build two or three extra classrooms and they were prepared to fund much of the cost themselves. The news from the Minister was that it could not be done. He said they were on band three which is a system in the Department of Education and Science which means it could be four, five or six years before the project is put out to tender. That is where the €60 million could be used.

I will not list all the problems in the area of health. Young married couples on low incomes cannot get medical cards for their young children. I believe the electorate will decide it got bad value and does not want electronic voting because it does not improve our country and certainly does not appear to do anything to foster democracy. It is an abuse of power.

It is becoming more difficult to persuade young people to vote. This is a phenomenon which exists not alone in our democracy but in many others. A Government that is so interested in having people vote by electronic means should consider the evening of 11 June which is one of the longest of the year. I hope it will be a nice, fine evening. My understanding is that polling stations will close at 9 p.m. One would have assumed that they would at least be open until 10 p.m. to allow the cohort of people attending universities and institutes of technology or working in Dublin to return to Cork, Limerick, Galway and the provinces. It is difficult to leave Dublin at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. and be in Ballinasloe before 9 p.m. to vote. I do not understand why 10 p.m. was not chosen, especially as 11 June is almost the longest day of the year.

It is against that background that I express my opposition to the introduction of electronic voting. I am not against the concept but there are doubts about the security of this system. I do not understand why the paper trail has not been included to give an assurance to people who vote that their vote has been registered. We are getting a bad deal in the form of a badly thought out proposal from a Government that has become arrogant. If this is all it can offer the people, it is on the wrong track.

I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy Kelly. How much time is available to me under this arrangement?

There is 20 minutes available in the speaking slot.

I am not quite clear how that is divided so I wanted to clarify it.

That is not a matter for the Chair.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this valuable debate. I note with interest that there has been great interest among the backbenchers on both sides of the House in contributing to the debate. It reflects more than anything else the affection in which the old system is held that the House has heard so many pronouncements of gravity both from the Labour Party and Fine Gael regarding the introduction of the new system. It seems that the people who are ranged against this proposal are a combination of those with the Luddite tendency and those who do not want to come into the 21st century and prefer the 20th century for a whole host of reasons. On the left-wing side of the House, it would appear that certain old Bolsheviks hate giving up the 20th century because, in a sense, that century was one of Bolshevism and socialism——

Academic Luddites.

——and rather foolish views about how humanity could be changed if one only held up the red flag and forced a particular ideology on others.

I thought the Deputy was a member of the Labour Party in Britain.

On the Fine Gael side I suspect that the opposition to this measure is characteristic yet again of the confusion that seems to exist in that party.

There is no confusion.

Here is a party that ostensibly supported the smoking ban, yet its chief spokesman for matters of justice and law enforcement — even more grave than the health spokesman — undermined that support——

He would not be fired in Fianna Fáil. He could smoke a pipe in Fianna Fáil.

They do not sack them in Fianna Fáil.

——and outlined the utter confusion that appears to reign in Fine Gael these days by saying he was against it. In recent days that same spokesman has asserted with abandon that he was right, and this is despite that, when given every opportunity to do so in this House, where it counts, to vocalise his discontent or objection to this measure, he sat on his hands and said nothing. He did not say he was against the smoking ban but proceeded to the bar and, in a moment of madness, declared that he was against the ban while he voted for it in the Dáil.

Does the Deputy know if he lost his memory?

There is a class of self-serving politician in this House who discreetly leaks to the media that he or she is against unpopular measures, but I did not hear any word that Deputy Deasy had let even a word slip to the media which congregate around and outside this House. It would be surprising but is not in the context of a Fine Gael party that seems to be schizophrenic in its Christian democratic and social democratic wings. It seems that the party is riven by these two different instincts. Deputy Deasy is clearly on the libertarian side of the House. He believes in smoking if one wishes. Vote for the ban but smoke anyhow.

The use of tobacco is far removed from the issue of electronic voting. The Deputy should go back to the Bill.

A level of confusion reigns in Fine Gael and it seems that party is being led by Deputy Rabbitte rather than Deputy Kenny. The former has entered into the twilight zone-type argument that is so appealing to the Green Party and other fringe left-wing parties on the issue of electronic voting. Deputy Rabbitte has resorted to his old stock in trade which is the grand conspiracy luridly painted up, namely, Fianna Fáil will miraculously manufacture a majority out of this new electronic voting system. That is what the Opposition is trying to say. It is an insult to the intelligence of the electorate, not to mention the intelligence that resides on this side of the House. I do not think we could ever try to do such a thing.

It is pure craziness but of the sort that, once on the Internet, tends to be believed by people on the green-left fringe who attend anti-globalisation marches, have gold credit cards and travel to Milan or Genoa to assert and effect change against the major capitalist conspiracies that exist in these world fora. When it comes to changing things at home, they sit on their hands and are extremely conservative.

The defining point in our political system at present is where one positions oneself regarding electronic voting. It says a lot about one's orientation. There is now an intellectual and ideological chasm between those who are wont to believe in conspiracies and way-out philosophies and ideas and those who wish to remain and live in the real world of real ideas and real change. That seems to define the difference between both sides of the House. People on the Opposition benches will oppose the use of Shannon Airport by American military aircraft but support it in another way, will oppose electronic voting but support it in another way, and will oppose the smoking ban but support it in another way. That kind of duality seems to be swimming through the system and I abhor it.

There is no great conspiracy where electronic voting is concerned. It is a simple item of technology. It is noteworthy that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our citizens, have already adopted this technology when booking airline tickets or spending hours on the Internet making purchases or shopping.

People have long been used to ATMs, which have entered folklore. This technology is not new and people feel safe with it. It is noteworthy that when ATMs were introduced there was considerable suspicion that the cash dispenser would not count money correctly and people would be defrauded. Nowadays, according to the banks, hardly anyone seeks a print-out or statement of the balance in their accounts because they trust the system and are not suspicious.

Unlike the Green Party, Deputies Rabbitte and Kenny and other speakers, people are not Luddites who claim there is a conspiracy behind the use of ATMs to which they are not privy or that banks quietly rearrange accounts when one withdraws money. The harsh reality is that the only way one can have money seized from one's account at an ATM is if a nefarious character sticks something into the machine to stop cash dropping into the box, a rather basic form of fraud. There is no fraud involved in the electronics or technology used in ATMs.

Much of the brouhaha on this issue appears to be an effort by the Opposition parties to undermine citizens' faith in democracy. This will not work because people are much more savvy than Opposition Members allow in their rhetoric and the assertions they use in debates.

People are fairly comfortable with electronic systems. Cash accounts for only 6% of transactions in the economy of Iceland, with all others fully electronic. The increasing use of systems of electronic payments and transfers will result in such systems becoming the norm rather than the exception. While this country is rather slow in this regard, with most transactions cash based, younger people here are comfortable with electronic systems.

The electronic voting system introduced by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is very safe. One of the most nonsensical comments in this debate is the claim that the system is untried. It has been tried and tested in the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom and worked in all three. Its introduction did not cause a major furore or result in a fundamental appraisal of the democratic system of these states. People accepted it and moved on.

The system has also been tried and tested here, with 400,000 voters using it in the most recent referendum without a word of complaint. It is noteworthy that neither the Labour Party nor the Fine Gael Party made grave complaints or advanced conspiracy theories when the system was used in selected constituencies for the second referendum on the Nice treaty. No hue and cry was raised on that occasion.

According to the coverage of the use of the electronic system in the previous general election, the only hue and cry raised in this House at the time was connected to the typical civility and concern of Members for the plight of another Member, in this case former Deputy Owen. The only accusation that can be levelled at Members, one which is often made outside the House, is that we look after ourselves too much, given that the greatest concern expressed about the electronic voting system after the previous general election related to the plight of Nora Owen who, it was stated, received the result too quickly and found it difficult to deal with failing to be re-elected to the Dáil.

The nice, caring Minister has adjusted the process to make it less harsh and mollify those who raised a hue and cry about the inhumanity of the electronic system and the ruthlessness with which it spilled out the entirely accurate result in the previous general election. One will not be informed of the loss of one's seat by a sudden spilling out of the result and a quick count announcement. The Minister has doffed his cap to the Luddite tendency and slowed down the machine. He decided to give the Opposition what it wants, namely, slow motion politics, similar to slow motion football, where one sees all the goals being scored in slow motion, or the modern habit of Sky News, which produces an excellent service of showing the action replays that people love. The Minister is providing for slow motion results and possibly even action replays for Members who lose their seats. Is that not marvellous?

There will be no paper trail.

We have heard a great deal of misty-eyed romanticism concerning the count. It is constantly stated that the count is marvellous and highly mathematical, with polymaths being used to try to calculate which way the trend, vote, transfers or swing will go. Much of what has been said about the count is nonsense. Counts are not particularly scientific or accurate. My experience of tallies in the 1980s, for example, was that they were widely inaccurate and sometimes mischievous.

Some activists in certain parties apparently wrote up the dire consequences of particular candidates not being elected to frighten their supporters and settle scores. I remember some members of my party taking a vicarious pleasure in the fact that the RTE news bulletins led with what was obviously a wildly inaccurate tally suggesting the then Deputy Des O'Malley would lose his seat. While there was no doubt the report was inaccurate, members of the party enjoyed the prospect of their ancient foe losing his seat, even if it was not about to become a reality. This sort of nonsense is turned into lore and people romanticise the old system in a misty-eyed way.

There was nothing particularly humane, interesting or wonderful about the system. While it produced great moments and excellent television, I have no doubt the new system will produce as much drama, now that the count process will be slowed down and the machine will feed out its print-out of the counts in a slow, deliberate fashion. For those who like the old system, a small part of it has been retained in the new system.

The electronic system is more efficient in tabulating, collecting and releasing election results for the public to examine and analyse. There will be plenty of analysis of swings on election night in 2007 and after the local and European elections in June. I suspect that the change will be similar to the difference between premier league soccer in Britain and baseball in the United States, where fabulous statistics are produced around the game. One will see lots of statistics with the new system and there will be no change in terms of the wealth of information that can be produced. These wonderful machines are more accurate. There will be less inadvertent spoiling of votes, although obviously a person who wishes to spoil his or her vote can still do so by not pressing the Cast Vote button.

The new system is a marvellous improvement, which will also eliminate the terrible, long-standing problem of large overtime bills associated with contested results in constituencies in which counts go on for seven, eight or ten days. I believe my grandfather was involved in a count lasting 13 days. Former Deputy Briscoe had to wait for two or three weeks for a result and we had a long count in Cork during the previous election. The public is neither better off nor wiser as a result of long, slow counts in which people fuss over votes and whether ballot papers have been properly filled in.

People confuse the electronic voting system with the mechanical system operated in America where a hole is punched in the ballot sheet. This method leads to significant problems, as we saw in the most recent presidential election in the United States, where every state has a different rule about what indicates a clear preference. None of this will feature in the electronic system.

The daft practice of bringing in senior counsel to decide whether a preference is for Deputy Kelly, Lenihan, Costello or whomever will also be eliminated. It is about people making themselves important and is irrelevant. People are interested in results. As Jack Charlton once stated, it is the result that counts. That is what people want from electronic voting, not all the messing that takes place.

The paraphernalia of elections and counts is attractive to political activists and enthusiasts, but outside the limited base of those with an interest in politics who go canvassing and so forth, all of whom are wonderful and committed people, there are few others major fans of the political process. People want to get the result so that the Government can get on with governing the country. Most governments get re-elected on the basis that they do not badger the public with reform, nonsense and drama and things they do not want to hear about and uncertainty of one kind or another. This system provides certainty. It has done so in Holland and Germany and in the UK to a lesser extent. We have used it ourselves and it is now time to move on to this system.

We set ourselves a very brave target. This crosses both parties. I would not claim that my party has a monopoly on wisdom on this issue. The rainbow government tried to position this country on the cutting edge of the development of new technology unleashed in the wake of the Internet. We had a technology bubble and a "boom-bust" cycle there, but this technology is important and gives Ireland a leading edge. We must concentrate on that. That is a cross party issue and not a case of Fianna Fáil versus the rest as is normally the case. It is simply an idea shared across all these benches that we must adopt new technology and we must move on to this new and exciting platform and the freedom it offers from the nonsense that went on in the past. There is a verifiable audit paper trail, despite the canard that has been flung out in the public domain to be believed by certain zealots.

Fair play to the Deputy for finding it.

If Deputy Costello wishes to challenge the results in his area at the next general election, legally or otherwise, this wonderful machine introduced by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, will give out all the results so that the Deputy can check all the individual ballots. Machines and new technology can come and go. The law and the Constitution are there to protect the Deputy from the awful experience of being on the brink of losing his seat and questioning whether ten votes have gone missing. The old system was much worse in this respect because it was arbitrary. The result could change from one count to the other. The new system will be absolutely scientific, one will know when one has lost his or her seat. If one wants to complain he or she can go to the High Court and blame the machine instead of the public.

When sensible people lose an election they blame the public. Brian Farrell once asked a losing candidate in an election what had gone wrong, and the candidate replied that he simply did not get enough votes. That flattened Brian Farrell for a few minutes. That is the nature of politics and elections. If a candidate does not win, it is because he or she did not get enough votes. Under the new system the votes will at least be counted more accurately, so a candidate will know to the percentage point by how much he or she has lost an election.

People have a difficulty with trust at the moment and that is the kernel of the debate. Under the old system, people could see the ballot boxes being opened and the votes counted. Man has put a man on the moon and has sent rockets to faraway planets. It should be within our expertise to devise an electronic system which is to the satisfaction of the people and which is transparent. The citizen must be sure the vote cast is for the candidate for whom he or she has voted. There is a perception in people's minds that the proposed system does not allow that to happen.

I am concerned that a system has been put into place at an enormous cost of more than €45 million. How can we afford this system when in my county, 21 people were on trolleys in hospital and people could not even get in to the accident and emergency department because ill people were clogging it up? People that needed attention could not receive it as they were on trolleys. These were ill people who had been assessed as needing a bed, yet there was no bed for them. I wonder where all this money is coming from.

In my county there are vast areas crying out for development. Communities have put together some wonderful projects but there is no money to fund them. We are told that all the money that was earmarked for the west was not there. However, there is plenty money available for electronic voting.

What is being proposed is very bad value considering that we have a system that works. These machines will have to be maintained and stored in a safe place when not in use. This will cost a great deal of money. They may only rarely be used in a five year period. That is surely bad value for money in an age of transparency. This is what is wrong with the Government. There are 200,000 people promised medical cards who have not got them and yet it can spend €45 million on gadgets that we do not need. It is more important that the money be made available for special needs children, for parents who cannot bring their children to the local doctor because they can not afford to do so.

I am in favour of electronic voting but if I speak against it I am classed as someone who is living in the past. If people had confidence in the system and if there were safeguards built in, then there would be general acceptance of what is being proposed. We have heard stories of computer hackers interfering with the electronic system, neutralising the vote recording mechanism. We have all seen programmes like "Mission Impossible" where people can substitute one briefcase for another. Let us imagine a machine, in which electronic votes are stored, is transferred to a central computer. What would happen if someone substituted one machine for another? That may be simplistic but the reality is that people see potential flaws in the system. It could change the entire course of government here and people see it as interfering with their democratic will.

One certainty besides death is that people know they have the right to vote. They can vote out a bad government if they choose. That is now being interfered with and it is seen as a problem. We are witnessing increasing apathy among voters, especially among young people. We do not need any more cynicism among young people. There are many things that can be done to improve democracy. We know from surveys carried out that there is a difficulty with registration. Many young people are unable to vote and it is more important to encourage people to register. We should find out how difficult is the problem in registering. If the same vigour was applied to those issues as it has been applied to electronic voting, we would have a much better democratic system.

People also talk about the need for a proper audit trail. They do so not because they want to complicate the system, but because they want to be sure that there is proper verification of their vote. If that could be done to the satisfaction of Seán citizen, there would be a very different outlook. Having been elected in my county using the manual system — let us call it that — I noted that it worked fine. It is fine when one is doing well. I was the first elected, which was fine, but I am sure it was quite frustrating for others who might have had more difficulty in getting elected. I know people talk of the cut and thrust of the present system and say, "If it is not broken, why fix it?" There is a great deal to be said for the present system. A point could be made for changing it if we could afford to do so.

People believe the present system makes good television and entertainment. Why is it now being changed? This is the question people are asking because there is great mistrust in the body politic and great suspicion that the Government — it may well deny this — is rushing the introduction of the new system. People would like to know that when they press the button to cast their vote, it will accomplish what they intend to accomplish. However, they do not know from Adam where their vote will end up when they press it. This lack of trust is based on the daily spoon-feed of tribunals, in which the integrity of even our leading politicians is being questioned daily. It is also based on the spend before the general election, in which the Government achieved a majority the people feel it did not deserve.

Everybody is familiar with computers and we all know how one can change things around on computer. For example, one could change the colour of somebody's hair or the colour of the sky or the fields. Therefore, people are suspicious deep down that political parties will manipulate the electronic system in some way to suit themselves. Even if there is to be no deliberate interference with vote results, people fear errors may occur that could result in thousands of votes going astray. This is why people talk about a paper audit trail. They need reassurance that a hard copy back-up exists which can be checked to show conclusively that the choice they made is the one they intended to make and that it has found its way into the ballot box.

One cannot blame people for wanting this reassurance and verification that the system is working. We would all like it. There are real fears that the system will not work. It would be very detrimental for the Government to ignore these very real concerns. Anything that could undermine democracy is not good. It is very interesting to note that there is a paper audit trail in some jurisdictions. People talk about the USA, which I suppose is the home of computers. Silicon Valley is where it all started. It is very interesting to note that the authorities there have major doubts about the electronic system and now use a system that produces a paper trail.

People feel there is great secrecy surrounding the proposed system and that there is no proper transparency regarding how electronic voting systems work. This is feeding further cynicism and the suspicion that already exists. Why not make the systems available to the public so it can study them, test them and have experts look at them to determine how they could be improved? This would involve a public consultation effort that would allow people to comment on the properties of the systems and their potential for abuse.

People also state that source codes are held secretly. As I stated, in this age when we can do so much we should surely have a transparent system in which source codes do not have to be held by private companies. There is a suspicion that private companies equate with big business, big money and the manipulation of the system for private gain. Governments might state this is nonsensical but it is a very real perception, which would be confirmed if one conducted a survey. Where the electorate is concerned, the Government must be above suspicion, just as Caesar's wife must be above suspicion. It behoves Government to ensure that people's fears are allayed by proving that electronic voting systems cannot be manipulated by those who have the power to interfere with them.

We all have computers and know how they can crash. We know how wonderful they are as long as they work, but it is a different story when they do not. Chaos can result. I am not happy that everything has been done to assure the public that the electronic voting system will work and that there will be full transparency. I do not believe there is full transparency.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Wilkinson.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

It is time for a change in the voting system. Irish youth are the best educated in the world. We are world leaders in the manufacturing and exportation of computer parts. We are number one in the world in modern technology, which is a great achievement. We will make bigger and better strides.

I compliment all our primary, secondary, vocational, comprehensive and community schools and universities and ITs, in which we have been educating people to the highest standards. The men and women of Ireland, including parents, teachers and pupils, are to be congratulated on working hard together to ensure we can take our place anywhere in the world and be recognised as the best, most knowledgeable, visionary and educated people in the world.

Tonight there are adult education classes taking place all over Ireland in all VECs. In County Longford, an exceptional and unbelievable number of people want to be educated and to proceed with their education. Young people are the future and have the brains. All they need is the wind of the word for any new project and they will pursue it themselves and make sure they master it and move on. Elderly people are quite capable and intelligent and are now educating themselves during the day. Retired people go to community centres and cannot get enough education.

The elderly made major sacrifices to obtain the vote. Voting and democracy are important and politics is good for the people. I am an advocate of politicians and politics and believe the Irish are very knowledgeable. Not only do they know their politics but they also know their politicians.

Politicians have done a good job for this country and the majority of them are creditable, honourable, hard-working, decent people. If one asks the people in any constituency what they think of their county councillors and town councillors and anybody involved in politics in the different committees, they will be told they are all fine decent people. It is not true to say politics and politicians are not good; politicians are good. I compliment the Minister and Ministers of State in the Department who are bringing forward this new system, namely, the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, and the Minister, Deputy Cullen.

It is important people have a say and that democracy leads the way. This Government is doing a good job overall taking everything into consideration. This Government is the best. The people should not take any chances and should vote Government candidates back on to local authorities. Democracy and voting should be number one, regardless of what people say about there being no problems if we did not have democracy or good government and about our not having to worry about where money would be spent. We have had the best five years in the history of the State thanks to democracy and to politicians.

A speaker referred to entertainment. Politics is a serious business. Running a Government and a country is a responsible job because one must look after the needs of all. County councils and town councils are doing a good job. Many conscientious and serious people are involved in politics. Politics is a vocation for most politicians I know. They could be doing other things in life but they choose to serve their communities. Looking around the Chamber, I see a successful businessman who could devote his energy and time promoting his interests and business but is in this Chamber representing his constituency.

It is time to move on and to apply electronic voting. The Oireachtas has been dealing with arrangements for it since 1999. It was announced that electronic voting would take place nationwide at the European and local government elections in 2004. The purpose is to improve the efficiency, accuracy and user-friendliness of election procedures and to eliminate the waste of all the spoiled votes which most believe are accidental in that people do not mean to spoil their votes but become confused and do so.

It is important that our youth become more active in politics. Is this not a way to encourage them to become more active and to say to them that we are progressive and young-thinking and will conquer the world in all spheres, including education and business? We must send the right message to the youth. The youth of this country have been the fastest to adapt to all types of change. We are adjustable and have proved it beyond doubt. We adjusted to the euro overnight while other countries talked about it. We had no problem adjusting to decimalisation years ago. At times I am amazed at the quickness, vision and intelligence of the people. When I travel the world, which I do an odd time, the Irish people I meet are leaders in their field. They are the people who had vision and dreams and the ability to put them to practical use. They were steps ahead of everybody else.

Politics has been important, and will continue to be. This debate on electronic voting has taken place at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. I emphasise that electronic voting is secure, reliable and can be trusted by the people. It is important that, when a person goes to vote, he or she knows it is secret. Over the years there was much ballyhoo and talk about people trying to cod others by telling them they knew how they voted. The other night on television I saw a programme about two men living up a mountain, one of whom could tell how the other had voted to within five votes. I do not believe that. I want to see secrecy and that a person can be content that nobody knows how he or she exercised his or her franchise. That is important.

There must be a better way of doing things in the 21st century. We acknowledge that in all other spheres, so why not do so in politics through voting? At the previous local elections, 24,000 people had their votes disallowed because of mistakes. That is sad. This voting machine has been successfully tested by a separate international testing institution, TNO Electronic Products and Services, in the Netherlands. It should not be possible to associate a vote with a voter. There will be a voting machine to replace every ballot paper and arrangements have been made to provide battery power back-up in the event of a power failure. Conditions should be in place on polling day to allow people to exercise their franchise quickly and peacefully.

The right message must be sent out about the secrecy of the ballot. It is important we also send out the message that the privacy of voters is protected. It is a duty and responsibility in free elections that people have a right to vote. There is also a duty on people to vote. Let us send out the right message; let us change and do what the people want. In recent years, the people have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the majority understand and react to change. We have changed in every way, so now let us change our voting system. The experience of electronic voting to date has been a good one depending on which side one is on.

I appeal to everybody to put democracy, the people, change and the youth first. Everyone says we need more people to vote and more people involved in politics, which we do. Sadly, when we look around the world, we see that democracy and politics are the only way forward. We must have dialogue, compromise, respect other people's viewpoints and listen to all our people, regardless of whether we have the one aim. However, we in this House all have the one aim, that is, to promote the people and Ireland and to make sure we have a peaceful, happy and contented country in which our young people can be happy growing up, where our teenagers can have the best education in the world and where our old people can live in peace and harmony and have a rest after the turmoil of life.

Electronic voting is important. A speaker said it does not make any difference internationally. I was flummoxed by that and do not know what to say to it. We are part of the international community. Ireland was the first country to adopt the Maastricht treaty. We have led the way in Europe. Although this is an island, we cannot be isolated. We must play our part, and we have done so.

Debate adjourned.