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

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

It is important that politicians, when talking about the Electoral (Amendment) Bill, speak well of politics. It is difficult to expect others to have respect if politicians consistently criticise and find flaws that do not exist in a new system. This State is changing and young people are responding well to that change. Children as young as ten can find their way around a computer with the greatest of ease.

The argument has been made that the money could be better spent than on this new electronic system, but that argument could be made about most Government spending. A few years ago we dealt with the estimates on Waterford County Council and my colleague of smoking fame suggested that the money for roads should be spent on playgrounds. People might agree with him, but the argument does not hold water.

Electronics have taken over and have been of great benefit to the country. Our country is prosperous now and we have adapted to IT well. Technology plays a major role in everyday life, from the mobile phone to the tractor. The tractor breaks down in the field and the man with the suitcase fixes it. It is the same with the car. It is part and parcel of life regardless of whether we like it.

Some people might say that the old system was great but for those who had to wait hours, or even days, to find out their fate it was long and tough. It is shocking to think that under the old system 24,000 people cast votes that were not acceptable and I am glad the new system will eliminate that. I often think of the first open and democratic elections held in South Africa. Our television screens and newspapers were filled with pictures of queues that stretched for miles as people waited to vote. The vote is sacred — nothing should take from it — and we are enhancing it even more.

Recently there was a television programme to find a singer to represent us in the Eurovision Song Contest. I am glad to say that Chris Doran from Waterford was eventually successful. The way in which electronic voting worked in that context was simply amazing. Our young people were glued to their televisions and voted electronically. They are no fools and I have no doubt they will vote. Moreover, older people have always voted.

It is wrong to suggest there is something underhand about the changeover to the electronic voting system. It has been tried here and in several other countries where it has worked perfectly. We remember the pictures of Nora Owen and her shock and, as a human being, I have great sympathy with her. However, the machine was not wrong. Rather, the candidate did not get enough votes. It is as simple as that.

We will never know that.

It is a fact.

There is no way that can be proved, no matter what one does.

It is a fact.

Science has not yet found a way to prove it.

In February 2000, the Government approved in principle the introduction of electronic voting and counting at specific statutory elections. The scope of the project was to procure an electronic system to replace the existing manual voting and counting processes which would meet a number of objectives, including it being easy for the public to use. It is also easy for electoral staff to use, which is a good thing. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on electronic voting.

We have had a broad-ranging debate up to now and people have made arguments on both sides from polarised positions. Some views have been favourable to electronic voting and others have been very much opposed. The basic question is why, if it is not broken, should it be fixed? If there is no demand or need for this system, why introduce it? If it is to cost in the region of €60 million, why spend the money? Those questions have not been adequately answered by the Government in this House or in the media. I would like to hear the Minister of State come up with a decent answer.

Hear, hear.

Deputy Conor Lenihan referred to the entire Opposition as Luddites who do not understand or want technology and are opposed to its introduction. However, Deputy Lenihan does not know what he is talking about — he simply wanted to score some easy political points. Deputy Fiona O'Malley stated that we had an opportunity to make our electoral system 100% perfect and accurate. If anyone thinks that any electronic or other voting system is 100% perfect, he or she has much to learn.

The other day I heard that people who e-mailed their submissions to the Commission on Electronic Voting only found out their e-mails had not been received when the verifiable paper trail came out with the publication of the commission's report. There is no way they would have known the e-mails were not received if the commission had not published the submissions it received. It is ironic that the commission which was set up to examine the pros and cons of electronic voting should itself find that the electronic mechanism which it used to communicate was flawed and failed to deliver.

A system based on computers or, as the Minister of State himself called it "a counting machine" that has no record or paper trail verifiable to the person who uses it, must be inherently inadequate and liable to make mistakes. There is a range of other areas in which mistakes can be made in electronic voting. In that context, it is important that there be a verifiable paper record so we can see what is happening. It will be particularly difficult given yesterday's announcement that we will have a constitutional referendum on the same day meaning that another vote will be added to the ballot.

In any given town, there will be county council elections, town council elections, European elections and the referendum. This will be quite complicated for a number of people. The Minister of State will know that elderly people in particular are saying they will not vote this time because they do not understand the system and feel they will be embarrassed. Many elderly people have been saying this because they do not have any knowledge of modern technology in that respect.

Those facts do not stand up. In the constituency in which the trials of the system were held, the elderly were the most active users.

It was not held in my constituency.

No, it was not held in the Deputy's area.

The Minister of State should refrain from interruptions.

I am trying to help the Deputy.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle should throw the Minister of State out.

Does the Minister of State have a breakdown of the age categories of the people who voted in the pilot constituencies to demonstrate that the same proportion of elderly people voted as prior to the system's introduction?

In that case, what is the Minister of State talking about?

Surveys were carried out to see if people were satisfied and they were.

How did the Minister of State find that out?

I asked the people.

Did the Minister of State use his own PR company?

One little survey of 2,100 people was carried out in Buncrana, which I do not think elicited anything other than the fact that when the votes were counted manually as well as electronically, they turned out to be the same. Well done to the Minister for carrying out one very small uncomplicated counting activity. What happens when four different elections are held at the same time and people have to vote on them all? Nothing is verifiable about the Minister's counting machine, which may very well encounter a flaw or fault. I would not like to use a new system which cannot give an indication of how I voted at the time I did so.

We are entitled to the secrecy of the ballot as well as the knowledge that the manner in which we vote is correct and accurate. We need some support from the Government, which seems to be proceeding with this system, to enable all participating parties to have staff in the polling booths so they can scrutinise the mechanism. A great deal of assistance will be given by the presiding officers because many people will not have used the system before. The presiding officers will have a great deal of power in respect of telling people which buttons to press or not. People can be confused very easily. We know of ordinary, normal intelligent young people who cannot remember the registration numbers of their cars because they get flustered. In those circumstances and with only the presiding officer to show one what will happen, it is important that a third party be present.

The Government should provide the resources to enable political parties to have a presence in polling booths so that the new mechanism can be properly supervised and scrutinised. So far, this has been done on a pilot basis and there have not been serious problems. However, we now face local and European elections and a referendum all on the same day in thousands of polling booths. That is a different kettle of fish.

I do not object in principle to electronic voting. Modern technology should be used wherever possible. However, in an area such as this, modern technology should only be used after wide-ranging consultation, with all-party agreement and sufficient mechanisms in place to ensure that everyone is satisfied with the system. Once that has happened and the technology has been used on one or two occasions, the system will operate with whatever adjustments are required. Why did the Government choose this system, fail to consult interested parties and insist on introducing it throughout the country on this occasion? The need for electronic voting is questionable.

The money could have been spent on other things. Social welfare payments to widows and widowers have been drastically cut for no good reason. Widows are protesting outside the gates of Leinster House today. We remember the recent 16 savage welfare cuts. A small amount of money would have made a great difference in those areas.

Today, the Minister for Education and Science replied to my inquiry regarding cutbacks to post-leaving certificate courses. A ceiling has been placed on the number of people who can access these courses. The most vulnerable people with the least number of opportunities will be unable to access post-leaving certificate courses because many of these courses will be discontinued. Better-off students can access third level education but post-leaving certificate courses were particularly valuable for people in the lower socio-economic ranges. The Minister has capped numbers doing post-leaving certificate courses and has told vocational education committees that they cannot allow enrolment above a certain level. These are stupid little cutbacks.

Valuable community employment schemes in the Minister of State's constituency and mine have been cut. The jobs initiative has been similarly cut. Why must the Government be so miserly in the area of social deprivation when a little extra money would make such a difference in providing services and giving a lift to people who do not have much? I do not wish to speak about the €2 billion which was promised for the RAPID programme.

The Deputy might as well. He is speaking about everything else except the Bill.

We are now talking about dormant accounts funds being slowly dribbled out to a few pet projects here and there. That is peanuts. There are areas where money could be much better spent, even though Exchequer figures suggest that there is more money available than previously.

I am not wistful or nostalgic about the passing of tallymen and electoral gurus or for the good old days when we pored over votes. Nevertheless, election counts had a culture of their own. Fianna Fáil was especially adept at reading votes, much as one might read entrails or tea leaves. That party was able to interpret tallies very accurately and say who had voted, how they had voted, where the votes had come from and where they had been lost.

The day of an election count was always an interesting one. The count rarely lasted longer than one day and almost all seats were decided by the end of that day. If the count continued to a second day, it was usually to decide the last seat in a five seat constituency. A longer count than that was a novelty. It was not something about which candidates needed to worry or agonise. We can count on the fingers of one hand the counts that continued for a number of days. Time is not of the essence. We campaign for a month in advance of an election, so what is the significance of another day? Saving one day does not justify the spending of €60 million.

Concern about the integrity of the process is at the heart of the matter. Every piece of electronic equipment can spew out a receipt. If one does not get a receipt from an ATM, it will apologise for failing to print a receipt because it is accepted that everyone expects a paper record of a transaction. What transaction is more important than voting?

It is of concern that the Ombudsman is not a member of the commission on electronic voting which must report before 1 May. This appears to be a deliberate exclusion and raises a question which has not been answered. It is wrong that a commission which is dealing with this issue and is hearing the views of the public does not include the public watchdog which was established to keep an eye on these matters.

The Bill would not have come about if Opposition spokespersons and party leaders had not insisted on the need for primary legislation. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government denied the need for this legislation. If the judgment in the case concerning the Aliens Order had not been made, we would never have seen this Bill. The Government had no intention of conceding the opportunity of debating the issue in the House.

I often wonder at the way the House is treated by the Government. Debate on matters of profound concern to Members and to the country is avoided if at all possible. The proposed constitutional referendum will be debated tomorrow in the dog days of this session. We only know about tomorrow's debate because the information was dragged out of the Taoiseach. Only the heads of the Bill will be presented tomorrow. There is a deliberate intention to conceal as much as possible, to give the elected representatives as little information as possible and to give it only at the last moment, to allow the debate to take place in as short a time as possible and then to use the guillotine. That is no way to discuss matters which relate either to our democracy in terms of how we vote or to the Constitution in terms of the broad spectrum of rights and policies under which this country is run. It is bad form for any Government to behave in that high handed fashion and it is wrong for it to continue to do so.

The money we will spend on electronic voting could be used to improve the register of electors and to implement an education programme. Deputy Breen said that approximately 24,000 votes were lost in the last election because they were spoiled or they were not stamped properly. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are not registered because of the system's failure and the fact the registration authority does not do a thorough job. The majority of people who live in apartments or the so-called gated communities in my constituency are not on the register of electors because it is awkward to get access to them. The effort is not being made to get these people. Surely we want to get the maximum number of people on the register with the right to vote. What they do once they have that right is another matter. However, they are currently disenfranchised because the system of registering them is totally under-resourced and inadequate. Some €30 million, €40 million, €50 million or €60 million would do wonders in that regard. It is sad that such large numbers are disenfranchised given that some seats are won and lost by a handful of votes. This is another case of the Government putting the cart before the horse. It is doing something which is not necessary, yet it is not doing what should be done in many other areas.

I admit I am not an expert on computer systems or on the technology of electronic voting. However, I listened carefully to all the arguments for and against the proposed system. As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Local Government, I listened to the parties and the interested groups which addressed us. I listened to their concerns with great interest. However, having considered all the issues, I am in favour of the Government's proposals and of the Nedap-Powervote system.

The Government has been charged with hastily introducing electronic voting. However, any observation of the facts does not bear that out. Electronic voting was first mooted by the Minister in 1999. Electronic voting was referred to in two Acts which have already been passed by this House, namely, the Local Elections (Disclosure of Donations and Expenditure) Act 1999 and the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001. Those Acts came before the Oireachtas Select Committee on Environment and Local Government where these issues were thrashed out at an early stage. I admit that Deputy Gilmore raised concerns when these Bills were discussed during the previous Dáil. He has been consistent on the issue. However, I cannot say that about the other parties in this House which have suddenly decided, for whatever reason, that they are against this proposed system.

There were no major objections to the voting system when it was put in place for the general election in 2002 and for the second Nice referendum. I was able to participate in electronic voting in my local polling station during the general election in 2002 and I found it an enriching experience. Deputy Glennon asked me if I voted for him; I did. I observed the people who used the system and there did not seem to be any trouble. Elderly people did not have any problems using the system. The Deputies who say that elderly people will have great difficulty using this system underestimate the intelligence of the electorate and of our citizens. The system worked extremely well and the results were positive. Everyone complied with the system and was happy with it.

I accept the concerns expressed by people in the wider community. I welcome, therefore, the establishment by the Government of the electoral commission. This independent panel will verify the secrecy and accuracy of the system. It has important and worthwhile work to do and I understand it must report back by 1 May. I look forward to its conclusions and to debating them at the Oireachtas joint committee.

I also welcome the fact that the Government introduced primary legislation to facilitate electronic voting. If there is a doubt about the effectiveness of ministerial orders, we must deal with it. We are doing the right thing by introducing primary legislation in this House to deal with that issue.

I note that the commission will also consider the question of abstention, which is a legitimate voting practice. The previous procedures were not satisfactory. From time to time I hear people on chat shows on RTE and elsewhere saying that they wish to vote for "none of the above". I am not sure we should facilitate such requests. If a voter goes into a polling station and does not wish to vote for any of the candidates and wants to register that, he or she should run for election. There are generally a wide range of candidates from which to choose, so there should not be a switch entitled "none of the above". That would be a cynical exercise. If people are unhappy with the candidates, they should run for office.

There has been much talk about tallies. My understanding is that the breakdown of the vote will be available box by box, which I welcome. That is worthwhile.

It is important in the overall scheme and I do not believe it challenges the secrecy of the ballot.

The previous Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, did not provide for such a breakdown of the vote on the basis that it could challenge the secrecy of the ballot. However, it would be extremely rare to have seven members of the same household voting in a particular box and for nobody else to vote in that box on polling day. I cannot envisage that situation arising. If there is an outside chance that it would challenge the secrecy of the ballot, an exception could be made against releasing the data in that case. Overall, however, it is important and worthwhile that candidates and the general public be given a breakdown of the boxes. It will be accurate as it will be compiled electronically, which is welcome.

Computer-based information systems are used in every facet of modern life because they are more accurate and cost-effective methods of information processing. Computers are used in banking systems, aircraft, cars and navigation systems with little, if no, problem. Electronic voting will improve the efficiency, speed, accuracy and user friendliness of the voting system. We should embrace and support it. Electronics are part of everyday life. I am not aware of aircraft falling out of the sky every day due to problems with electronics. We rely on electronics for all facets of life and it is simply a logical extension to apply them to voting.

There were approximately 20,000 spoiled votes in the 2002 general election. Many of those spoiled votes were unintentional. Speaking as a candidate and a former tallyman, it is heartbreaking, from a Fianna Fáil point of view, to see three Xs opposite the names of the three Fianna Fáil candidates on a ballot paper. There are people who genuinely believe that is how to vote when they wish to vote for Fianna Fáil.

There were not enough of them. That is the problem.

There were any number from ten to 40 such ballot papers. It was always the Fianna Fáil votes that were spoiled in that way. I do not know why. That will not arise with electronic voting, which will enhance the democratic process.

I wish to question the role of the Opposition in this debate. The job of the Opposition is to oppose and I congratulate the Opposition on its effective opposition on this issue. For several weeks it has whipped up hysteria about the proposed system of electronic voting. It engaged in all types of scaremongering. For a while even I was beginning to have doubts about electronic voting on the basis of the hysteria it produced. Thankfully, however, reality set in and the real situation has been exposed.

The Whip was applied.

This is not a major change, as the Opposition suggests. The Opposition was effective on this issue. Unfortunately, however, it picked the wrong issue. It is a pity it was not effective on many of the more important issues. That would have enhanced politics and democracy. There are far more important issues to claim the Opposition's concern. While it might have scored for a few weeks on the electronic voting issue, my advice is that it picked the wrong issue to get worked up about on this occasion.

Having listened to the views of Opposition Members, I am forced to conclude that they are Luddites. That description has been used a great deal in this debate but one cannot use any other. The Opposition Members are determined to break up the electronic voting machines for reasons best known to themselves and that makes them Luddites. There is no other term for it.

The Dáil has allocated 20 hours for the Second Stage debate on this Bill. Is that really necessary? Last week and this week, Deputies were presented with a great opportunity to say a few words and build up their record for the annual reports in the newspapers and for the Vincent Browne end of term report at the conclusion of each Dáil. Opportunities for backbenchers to speak in the Dáil are limited. However, one must question if it was necessary to have a 20-hour Second Stage debate on this legislation. The Government does not wish to be accused, and cannot be accused, of rushing it through the Oireachtas. From that point of view the Opposition is being facilitated. It will be interesting to see if the debate continues until lunchtime tomorrow.

As a candidate in elections, I favour electronic voting. A short, sharp and quick result is preferable to an agonising, slow count. Under the present system a candidate might be waiting for days to learn his or her fate. That is agonising and there is no reason for it. The case of former Deputy Nora Owen is regularly aired in the debate in this House and in various media programmes

The Deputy should not cry for her.

To this day, she still appears to be extremely upset about what happened to her. She is entitled to feel upset but we should not rush to implement her suggestions for the future. If the final results are available immediately, they should be made available. If a candidate has lost or won a seat, he or she should be given notice of, perhaps, half an hour to digest that result, come to terms with his or her fate and prepare for the formal announcement. That would be an appropriate way to deal with it.

I disagree with the Minister's suggestion that the counts should be announced in sequence with a pause after each count for various people to note the results and so forth. Again, that is only agonising over the situation. The final result should be declared and after that the details of the various counts can be made available separately. To delay artificially the announcement of the result for the sake of nostalgia or tradition is not a good way to proceed.

Electronic voting is more reliable than the present manual system. I have heard many of the arguments against electronic voting at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. However, even more arguments can be made against the manual system. People can put forward many unlikely scenarios, such as what happens if the polling station catches fire and the boxes are burned. While people have correctly put forward possible scenarios for electronic voting, far more dangerous scenarios can arise with the current manual system. The manual system is archaic and antiquated in comparison with electronic voting. The wait for results, which has been as long as a week in some cases, with the result changing on each count, should be consigned to the past. We have had many examples of this, involving Deputy Mildred Fox and Nicky Kelly in one count and former Deputies Eric Byrne and Ben Briscoe in another. In the latter case the nation had to wait a week for the result, a result which was a factor in determining the Government formed after the election. That should not be contemplated any longer.

I do not know how electronic voting stands at present but I often turn on the Sunday evening news on television to see that elections have taken place somewhere in Europe that day. When one turns on the news at 9 p.m. one has the results.

That is boring. There is no drama.

It is certainly decisive. We must be the laughing stock of Europe if we have to wait for a week to declare our results.

I have received some e-mails, particularly from young people, expressing concerns about electronic voting. Those e-mails have been very technical and while I am not qualified to determine whether their arguments are valid, I acknowledge I have received them. I have relied on the advice of the Minister and his officials in stating I favour this system.

It is a pity there is no unanimity on the issue, as voting is important across the political divide. It looks like the Opposition is opposing this for the sake of opposing it, which is regrettable. In future I hope the Opposition is more effective on more important issues. This is not a particularly important issue on which to divide the House.

I will start where Deputy Haughey finished.

The Deputy has a safe seat. He is fine.

He mentioned unanimity but how does one get that? The only way to do so is through consultation. If there had been some consultation on this issue initially, rather than the Government going ahead regardless, there might have been some hope of ironing out any problems.

It was the same today when the proposed new referendum on immigration was raised. There was supposed to be consultation on that issue but there was none, and that is the choice of the Government. There are other ways of doing this, and down through the years my party has shown that it will co-operate on Northern Ireland. This Bill is all about how a democracy is run, whether it is fair and, more importantly, seen to be fair and above board. The Bill is about the integrity of democracy.

I was delighted to hear Deputy Haughey say he had queries from younger people, as there is an idea abroad that the only reason we oppose this is because older people will not be able to manage the system. There are young people with an interest in politics who are worried about this as they know a little more about how these systems work than Deputy Haughey or me. That is why there is a certain amount of anxiety among people.

Deputy Haughey mentioned hysteria on this side of the House, admitting that at least we put up a good battle. I am glad to hear the Government recognising our role as Opposition, but I return to the original point. I believe in efforts to unite people rather than dividing them and we could have had a more constructive effort at the beginning of this process when problems could have been solved on an all-party basis.

As Deputy Haughey said, there are other important issues and one was discussed during Question Time a few minutes ago, namely, health. I would like the same amount of time in the House to be given to a debate on the traumatic state of the health service. We only need to look at my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan to see that. There are housing problems, traffic chaos and, last but by no means least, the widows and their €5.7 million. This system costs approximately €60 million and one can see the widows begging outside the gates of the House for their rights. I agree with Deputy Haughey that there are some very important issues on which the Government has failed totally, and we as the Opposition have possibly failed to put our message across or to put pressure on the Government.

Who will be in charge of the electronic voting software? Will the source code be published? I will return to those vital issues, but there are suggestions that the people who run the next election will be the same people who have always run elections. That is nowhere near the truth. An outside body will feed into the system and while the people running the polling booths will be the same, they will not have the same control or knowledge of the system as before.

We know who is in charge of public relations for this measure as it is a published fact. Although it is a relatively new company there is no doubt it has close links to the main Government party. That is a worry in itself. What is that company working for? Is it working for electronic voting or is it working to give the coalition a lift?

I am amused by some of the points made by the Minister. The fundamental purpose of electronic voting is to improve the efficiency, accuracy and user-friendly aspect of the election procedure. We have had all sorts of platitudes in the past about dealing with the disabled and nobody knows more about accessibility than the Ceann Comhairle. However, if one looks at any of the places where polling takes place one sees that people must go up steps or stairs or go through narrow entrances. There are difficulties with access, yet electronic voting is promoted as the answer to all problems.

Some of the structures in place for voting are a joke. Recently I attended a meeting in Castleblayney where we discussed this issue. The people of St. Mary's Terrace in Castleblayney have to pass two polling stations to get to St. Mary's Hospital where they cast their vote. The people on the grounds of St. Mary's Hospital, in Laurel Hill, have to go to the other end of town to cast their vote. Before starting to overturn systems we should align our towns and polling stations to enable people vote in the nearest station to their home and ensure that the station is accessible. I am commenting on the first page of the Minister's speech. I am not being critical. Those are the facts. We need to do the simple things right if we are to encourage more people to vote and especially to allow the disabled to get out.

Another major issue referred to by the Minister is the waste of votes. In the 2002 election there were 20,000 spoiled votes and over 24,000 spoiled votes at the 1999 local elections. At the European elections 46,500 people spoiled their vote. At least 95% of those invalid ballot papers were inadvertently spoiled. When one looks into the issue, the position is somewhat different. It was extraordinary that we had two Nice treaty referenda — the first of which attracted a low turnout. The Fine Gael Party was completely committed to it but it was obvious the Government was not so committed and it failed to go through. Given that the people did not like that treaty there were an enormous number of spoiled votes. These are the facts to which all can refer. On the occasion of the second referendum there was a greater effort to explain what it was all about. Although the vote was considerably increased there were fewer spoiled votes. In other words, the electorate used the voting system and did not refuse to go out to vote. It was a simple "Yes" or "No" vote.

That brings me to the other issue we have to look at here today — the whole issue of a machine with four systems on it. Many hundreds of thousands of people will be first-time voters this year. They will have to face an EU vote, with a long list of candidates; a county council vote, with an even longer list of candidates; a town council vote, which will have quite a few candidates; and now a referendum is being rushed in to add confusion to the mire. This means there will be four votes on a computer system the first day it is being put in place. Those who are computer literate will make a joke of this and say it is not an issue. It will certainly be a major issue and will mean fewer people will go to vote than heretofore. The European election is not an election that switches people on dramatically, neither does a referendum. In view of the withdrawal of power in recent years from county councils and town councils there may not be that much interest. We should do nothing to block that interest.

There have been guarantees that there will be no problems and that the machines are infallible. It was stated that they are used in banks and so on. If one goes to an ATM machine, one can get a piece of paper if one wants it which is proof of the transaction. If as Members we want to claim our few euro from the airport parking space we have to insert our credit card or cash and press a button to receive a receipt that will allow us to reclaim. A new machine is being installed at the airport in the next few weeks which will give out tickets, without the necessity of going to the desk. We are putting in place the most sophisticated machine possible and yet we cannot have a paper trail. When a credit card is inserted into a machine, one's debt is registered at that moment. One is given a piece of paper to sign and another to take away. It is impossible to understand how the geniuses who put this system together cannot provide a paper trail.

The Foxes and the Coveneys have been mentioned. I have a little experience of this as the Ceann Comhairle is well aware. It certainly was not late in the evening when my count was finished, it was early the next day. Even at that, a recount was called so it was the middle of the next week before I knew where I stood. I have every reason to be positive towards electronic voting but I am pointing out my anxieties and those of my party.

Machines are not infallible. I am aware of a person whose computer collapsed in November 2002. All the experts were asked to ensure it was resurrected and the information reproduced. Fortunately, most of it was on disc and had to be refilled. That is an example of how computer systems break down.

On the occasion of a private briefing on broadband in the House the system did not work. Recently I was involved in a conference at which EU officials were present. We had been given a guarantee by the hotel management that everything was correct but it took 45 minutes to get a new system in place and to make it workable.

We need guarantees and a paper trail to ensure the system works. Even in his speech, the Minister refers to the difficulties in having a paper trail. He said:

The paper trail notion is premised on the uninterrupted and proper functioning of a printer throughout the 14 or 15 hours continuous period of polling. The risk of printer interruption, including that of poor or unreadable print quality, is a real one and certainly higher than that of malfunction of an electronic storage system.

If this printer cannot be brought up to a standard where the print is clear, there is a cause for concern. I am not a whiz kid on this issue but young people are worried about it and mail I have received points to that as well. The concerns do not relate to the machine but who controls it and the quality of the personnel who organise the system.

One only has to think of an example from the USA. I am not referring to a voting system but to AIB. That bank left one individual to look after some of its money and we all know of the significant amount which was siphoned out of the bank's system. Can the Minister guarantee that some whiz kid with political affiliations or a belief in destroying democracy could not act in a similarly malicious way to ensure the system did not operate correctly? It happened to AIB in the US and its shareholders are aware more than most that electronic systems can be used and abused. I ask the Minister to bear this in mind.

I realise, as Deputy Haughey said, that all Members the Government parties are persuaded this is the proper way to go. However, it would be best to consider the e-mails which Deputy Haughey and others have received from the young who will run this country in the future but who are worried about this change. The Minister does not have to listen to me or to the elderly but he should listen to some of the young people who have raised questions.

It is galling to see such money being spent on this measure at a time when an independent adviser appointed by the Minister for Health and Children stated clearly that there was a need to spend €14 million on Monaghan General Hospital in one year. Despite that, all that could be got from the Minister was €2.75 million. How can I advise my voters that money is not available for life and death issues when it is being spent on something for which there is no demand? The Minister should consider this.

The Minister referred to voter apathy. He stated: "By modernising and transforming elections in a visible way, we seek to create an opportunity to tackle voter apathy and improve the image of elections." However, this is not the way to achieve this. It should be carried out through consultation with all, starting in the schools with the encouragement of 18 year olds to vote for the first time and to better understand what democracy is all about.

The Minister also stated, "The electronic voting system is secure, reliable and can be trusted by the people." If this is so, why did the Taoiseach say in this House only weeks ago that there was no need for the Bill? That type of statement creates apathy not trust. I urge the Minister, at this late stage, to reconsider the situation and to at least build up trust between the main parties in this House. He could then put this before the people and tell them it is a foolproof scheme for modernisation, with a back-up system. I also want to modernise the system but to do so with faith, trust and belief.

I thank Deputy Haughey, a constituent of mine, for the electoral support he referred to earlier, although he did not say which number vote he gave me.

I am delighted to support the Bill. I do so as one of the few Members of this House elected electronically, as it were, although I am not sure that is a badge of distinction or whether it confers special honour. Nonetheless, it confers particular experience very relevant to this debate. I have used the system as a member of the electorate and as a candidate. I am familiar with it and with the reaction of voters in the constituency who availed of it. I was also present on that fateful night which gave the archives one of the great photographs of the electoral system — the now famous photograph of former Deputy Nora Owen.

As a voter, I found the system absolutely clean and efficient, and the experience would not in any way undermine confidence in it. Undue deference has been given in this debate to the role of candidates. The reality is they put themselves forward to serve the electorate and the people. Whatever is the best system for the people must be adopted and the preferences of candidates are very much secondary. As a candidate, despite some hiccups and delays, I found the count was very efficiently handled and the system leant itself to that. The major source of delay on the night of the count was in the transporting of the materials containing the votes to the count centre, although this was in one of the smaller constituencies geographically. Despite this, the result was announced within a couple of hours of the delivery of the votes.

With reference to the famous photograph of Mrs. Owen, while I sympathise with her, that situation was not the flaw in the system which people thought it was. I note my constituency colleague, Deputy Sargent, is in the House.

I remember the night well.

We will all remember it for a long time.

For different reasons.

The suddenness and apparent abruptness with which the result was announced, which gave rise to the scenes which received so much publicity in the immediate aftermath of the election and over the past few weeks, has been used as an opportunity to question the proposed system.

On that evening the candidates were offered the option of retiring to an ante-room, if I may describe it so, to have the result indicated to us in private. That offer was not availed of. In fairness to the county registrar, the returning officer on the night, it is important to make his offer known. I and one of my constituency colleagues clearly recall the offer being made. We were given the option of hearing the result in private before the public announcement. I have no doubt that a reasonable allocation of time would have been available to us to deal with the result in whatever way we wished and the unfortunate situation that subsequently arose would have been avoided. The decision was made by the candidates as a group. Hindsight is a wonderful gift and I have no doubt we would all deal with the situation differently if we could reconsider. I do not believe we as candidates would take the same course again but equally it has been a lesson to everyone else. I do not believe that situation will recur.

Deputy Haughey referred in his contribution to his lack of expertise in information technology and I would be the first to join him in a similar acknowledgement. I too have received a significant number of representations from different people on this issue. It is interesting that all these representations were sent by e-mail. It is difficult in those circumstances to ascertain the age cohort of the writers. Deputy Haughey referred to it as being a young age group. I do not know what the age profile of the writers is.

It is not vital to the debate that we as Members of the Oireachtas are experts in computers and information technology generally. I do not have to be an expert to trust the Internet or my e-mail. I do not have to be an expert to trust Internet banking and the attendant facilities. I do not have to be a computer expert to have a peaceful flight in an aircraft or as a resident of north County Dublin, to live near Dublin Airport and pass it on a daily basis in order to have total faith in the computer systems available to air traffic controllers.

In a previous existence, I worked for one of the major banks during the time when bank branches were being computerised. I was involved in the changeover from the old hand-written ledgers — which makes me sound like a dinosaur — to the modern computerised system. It gave me a good insight into the thoroughness of such a changeover. I have no reason to doubt the experts who are supporting the system.

The banks have a paper trail.

It was stated that the system is being introduced with some haste and I regard that as a facile suggestion. The Government's intentions have been signalled for at least five years. The system was used on a pilot basis in three constituencies in the 2002 general election. I am assured the proposed system is 99% the same system as was used in 2002. There was no argument on that occasion with themodus operandi. Approximately 45 to 50 candidates subjected themselves to the system. There was no refusal to participate because of any fears of the system being untrustworthy. There were no court challenges before the general election. Despite all the alleged hard, critical information and negative criticism, that has featured in the debate, no defeated candidate has seen fit to challenge the outcome of the pilot polls. That is a very telling statistic.

Deputy Crawford quoted from the Minister's contribution when he moved the Second Stage of the Bill. The Minister stated that the fundamental purpose of electronic voting is to improve the efficiency, accuracy and user-friendliness of Irish election procedures. I have no doubt that the system will do that and I am confident that when we have all recovered from the travails of the hustings in the middle of June, the majority of Members will agree.

Deputy Crawford referred to that sentence from the Minister's speech to suggest that there were other ways to improve the user-friendliness of Irish election procedures. He referred specifically to the facilities and location of polling stations in his constituency. I have not been a Member of the House for long but I do not think it is a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to deal with the location and facilities of local polling stations. That is a matter for the local representatives, the returning officer, the county registrar and whoever provides the facilities. What Deputy Crawford separated from that sentence was the more important statement in that paragraph of the speech which stated that at the very core is the objective of guaranteeing every voter that his or her vote will not be rejected because of inadvertent errors. The democratic wastage associated with spoiled votes numbered more than 20,000 at the 2002 general election; more than 24,000 at the 1999 local elections and some 46,500 at the last European elections. It is estimated that at least 95% of those invalid ballot papers were inadvertently spoiled.

There is no proof of that, either good, bad or indifferent.

It is a figure I am happy to accept. I am fully aware that there is no proof but equally I suggest that if one examines the statistics——

The Nice treaty proved that. The people did not want to vote.

——which show 46,500 spoiled votes at the last European elections. That is out of kilter with the pattern in the two other elections. The number of deliberately spoiled ballot papers in that election was probably somewhat high and the figures of 20,000 to 25,000 spoiled votes, of which 95% were inadvertently spoiled, appear reasonable.

There are numerous examples of the inadvertent spoiling of votes in which human error plays a significant role. I have been present, for example, when the names of people who have voted were not crossed off the register. At the previous local elections, when I went to vote with my wife and son, my name was the only one of our names crossed off the register after we voted. That is a minor example of a personal experience but, from speaking to colleagues, I am aware that this type of human error is part and parcel of the system.

The new system will not change that.

It will change it because it will virtually eliminate human error. I agree with Deputy Crawford's comment on the lack of facilities in some polling stations. Fortunately, Dublin North is reasonably well served in that regard. However, when one considers the large number of election staff who must work for a minimum of 12 hours in rooms that often lack facilities, it is not surprising that human error has crept into the system.

I wish to elaborate on the statistics to which I referred and about which Deputy Crawford has some misgivings. The estimate that the number of votes spoiled at a local or general election is between 20,000 and 25,000, 95% of which inadvertently, appears reasonable. To translate these figures into a more readily understandable form, I calculate that they amount to approximately 500 inadvertently spoiled votes per constituency and approximately 1,000 to 2,000 deliberately spoiled votes nationally. Is anyone seriously arguing that the current system should be maintained to facilitate such a small minority of people who want to deliberately spoil their vote, to the detriment of the vast majority of the electorate, particularly the significant number of voters who spoil their vote through ignorance or simple error?

One of the great outcomes of electronic voting in Dublin North was that no spoiled votes were recorded. I am interested in Deputy Sargent's view in that regard. The new system will give everybody an opportunity to effectively and efficiently execute their franchise. Even those who in the past had difficulty comprehending the voting system have been facilitated.

As regards Deputy Crawford's point on the user friendliness of the procedures, the statistic on spoiled votes in Dublin North is telling. The system cannot be any more friendly than facilitating those who in the past innocently encountered difficulties in asserting their franchise. The number of inadvertently spoiled votes is significant. As anybody familiar with the workings of the Boundary Commission will be aware, 20,000 to 25,000 votes is equivalent to or in excess of the number of people in a constituency.

While the debate on electronic voting has calmed down somewhat recently, it has been marked by much unjustified hype and hysteria. At its height, a comment was made in the Chamber which amounted to nothing less than a casual slander of an eminent member of the Judiciary. It was subsequently, and correctly, withdrawn.

The hype we have experienced has done nothing for the electoral system. When electronic voting is introduced and, I hope, used by a high percentage of the electorate in June, we will see the similarities between the current debate and the Y2K scare, when computer failure was supposed to bring the world down around our ears, and the trepidation with which we anticipated the euro changeover. As somebody told me earlier, it will be similar to the change in the Fine Gael Party leadership when there was a great deal of hype beforehand, but little change afterwards. The entire debate has been opportunistically and cynically manipulated in an unrealistic and unjustified manner and the democratic process has suffered as a result.

Those are dangerous words.

I am glad reality has set in and we are discussing the issue in a rational and mature manner. I have no hesitation in supporting the Bill.

Deputy Glennon should acknowledge that the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats parties have only themselves to blame for what has occurred in the debate on electronic voting. We have a Government that appears at times to be drunk on power and indifferent to the many concerns of individual voters and groups in society. Some members of the Government and its constituent political parties must believe they will be in power forever and that the current Administration is a little like the 1,000 year Reich. They think, therefore, that it falls to them to do anything they wish and that by raising questions or challenging the actions of a Minister, the Opposition is at fault for failing to roll over and have our tummies tickled by members of the Government when they pat our heads and tell us to go home and not worry about such matters.

I listened with interest to Deputy Glennon's description of the count in the Citywest Hotel for two of the three trial constituencies for electronic voting during the previous election. I wonder if he and I attended the same event. While it had few equals in election history in terms of excitement and political terror, it also had a number of unusual features and I hope the Minister will take steps to ensure they are not repeated.

One such feature was the unusual decision to hold the count in a hotel rather than a public building. Although I understand this was done to facilitate broadcasters, it meant there was a large, well-stocked bar in the count centre. The count ran several hours late due to the weather and the fact that this was the first time that electronic voting had been used. Understandably, the organisers appeared nervous and were very careful with the process.

The principle of having alcohol available in the room where count results are analysed and made available is wrong. The Government should make sure that that never happens again. Candidates' nerves are bad enough at a count, and those who feel in need of alcoholic support in the course of a count would be better off leaving the count centre in the RDS or in Lucan, or in the Kennel club in north County Dublin, and walking to the nearest pub and back again. As Deputy Glennon recalled the count that night, I was recalling it myself. That struck me as an unusual feature, although I may be wrong and it could be the practice in rural areas.

No it is not.

I have never seen it and I have participated in counts all over Dublin for a long time.

The weather delayed the arrival of a number of boxes from Rush as the road was flooded. Despite high level technology, the Army or Garda vehicles which were carrying the boxes containing the modules could not get past the flooded roads to the count. The count was therefore delayed by several hours. The bar was open with all sorts of personalities there, among them candidates and their agents, as well as famous people such as participants in the tribunals. One, or both, of the Bailey brothers was present. Political feelings ran extremely high. Deputy Glennon stated that candidates for Dublin North were given the courtesy of being invited to a private disclosure of the results, as was the case in Meath, so that people could compose themselves when they discovered whether they had won or lost. I am not aware, as one of the candidates in Dublin West, that that was the situation there. I received no such invitation and my recollection is that the count centre was jammed. There were many people drinking and nerves were running high as the results were delayed. It was well past midnight and the room was steaming, the weather outside was steaming, it was like a monsoon.

When the Dublin West count was announced, as it was three or four times on the basis of false rumours, there were so many in the room that it was like the old days at a football match or a railway station. On hearing the rumour, there were surges to the desk of the returning officer, who was behind barriers. I am tall but there were so many big men that I was left behind in the surges. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who is very tall, claimed to have been able to see sideways and felt that he was heading the poll. There was crazy stuff going on. When the correct result for Dublin West was declared, the whole crowd surged forward like in a football match before seating was introduced to the terraces. I was not as tall as some of the other candidates and I was suffering from candidate's nerves at that stage, so I was not at my most robust. I was left behind and got no indication of the results. I had to beat my way to the front of the crowd, tap people on the shoulders, tell them I was a candidate and ask them if I could pass.

Many people, including some of my supporters, were celebrating. Some of them were aware that I had won but I was not. Eventually, the Progressive Democrats election organiser, whom I know for some time, gave a thumbs up sign to my election agent, my husband. Finally, I saw an official whom I knew from the old county council and I asked him did he know the situation. He told me I had been elected. In my case the result was positive. It is a bit like having a baby. The moment the baby is born, everything else is forgotten. When a candidate wins an election, he or she forgets the preceding hours of intellectual hard labour. When I heard Deputy Glennon stating that the candidates of Dublin North were facilitated with a private room, I was delighted for him, but it did not happen to candidates in Dublin West. The only parallel situations to which I can compare it were Ireland's World Cup penalty shoot-outs. In one moment a candidate was in or out. Candidates need a very strong heart to withstand this process.

The Government may be about to slow down the process artificially. In the information given on electronic voting results, there were about 25,000 lines of analysis in Dublin West. For example, there is an analysis of the disposition of every vote cast for each candidate and whether their preferences are utilised. In other words, it is possible to figure out exactly the percentage transfer from one party candidate to a different party candidate. What is notable from the Government's point of view, which the Minister has addressed in the Bill, is that the tally information on a geographical basis is not there. I cannot speak about other areas, but in Dublin West Fianna Fáil feels that it missed that information. The geographical basis of the information is particularly useful. Fianna Fáil has itself to blame.

This debate takes place at a time when there are extraordinary cutbacks in social welfare, costing up to €50 million, including €5 million from widows. In Blanchardstown, €104 million has been spent on a new hospital wing, only half a floor of which has so far been commissioned. We have a state-of-the-art accident and emergency unit with padlocks on the door although the nurses and doctors are working in 20 to 30 year old prefabs in an accident and emergency unit that would not look out of place in some very poor countries in Africa. This is because the Government does not have the revenue to deal with a deficit of €5 million that has accumulated in the hospital. The area in question has experienced unprecedented economic growth. In spite of the Government not being able to reduce the deficit, it can afford to set aside approximately €42 million for the new electronic voting system, perhaps more if one takes into account the storage costs of the machinery, which I understand could amount to €1 million per year.

The Government has been able to make a decision against widows, against opening the new wing in Blanchardstown hospital and against introducing the disability Bill to prioritise the issue of electronic voting. It has done so in an extraordinarily partisan way. When the original Bill was introduced during the term of the previous Dáil — I was not a Member but I read some of the debate — much of that debate focused on a proposal to ban opinion polls. However, some Members, including my colleague, Deputy Gilmore, who is spokesperson on the environment, expressed some reservations that electronic voting might be proceeded with too quickly. We were reassured by the then Minister, Bobby Molloy, that this would be done on a consultative basis and with due caution and care. I know this proposal originated with the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who is given to flights of imagination and to flying kites.

To put it mildly.

However, a €42 million kite is a very pricey one at a time when many other areas are crying out for public funding and redress. Many areas are crying out for legislation which has been promised time and again by the Government. One must ask why there is such unseemly haste. I am concerned that it will destroy people's confidence in the democratic process. The end result of what the Government has done will be to make people more uncertain about the Government comprised of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. They are in power for a long time and are confident that their writ runs without too much opposition or too many checks.

During his contribution to the debate, the Minister for Finance asked the amusing question whether people think there will be little green men from Fianna Fáil inside the voting machines who will crank out Fianna Fáil votes. There will not be but some people have grown increasingly alienated and suspicious of the Government, as has happened in the United States. The consequence of this is that fewer people vote. We will have record lows in voter turnout at the European and local elections next June. Already in parts of my constituency and that of Deputy Curran, the voting rate has fallen below 30%. This is a tragedy because the lowest voter turnout is often in the least well-off areas which have the least capacity to make strong representation for Government action on tasks that need to be done. Unfortunately, the way in which Fianna Fáil has introduced this Bill has been deeply damaging to democracy. I found it depressing to be a witness to the debate.

What would have given the public confidence in the process without the Minister losing face and perhaps even with his gaining face? People want some independent scrutiny of the voting process. All the parties in the House should have been involved in a non-partisan way so each would have had an input and agreement would have been reached on the basis of a collective agreement to go forward. Also required was critical redress of the question of the audit trail. Speaking as a former auditor, I note that, in any modern system of accounting and auditing, the creation of an audit trail is of critical importance. If something goes wrong or if people simply want to check something, it allows them to check the validity of what has been done and ascertain that the way in which the process was managed was reasonable and that all reasonable steps were taken.

We know that no system, whether it be paper-based or computer-based, is free from the possibility of error or collapse. Deputy Glennon spoke about how those who are not especially computer-friendly happily book airline tickets on the Internet and use electronic banking. Of course they do. People are happy to use any type of electronic service that makes for faster transactions, but they are aware that electronic banking systems can be tampered with. There were several such cases last week. I was talking to somebody whose account was cleaned out from eastern Europe because somebody had stuck a hidden camera to the top of an ATM, thus allowing that person to obtain the PIN for the account.

The Government has not addressed the issues associated with electronic voting. I am sorry that the end result of this debacle and arrogance on the part of the Government will be that fewer people will vote in the local and European elections in June.

I will make some specific comments on Deputy Burton's contribution. I listened to her especially as she recalled the count in the trial electronic voting constituencies. I suppose she is one of the few Members in the House who has gone through the process and I listened to her with great interest. I did not watch the count on television. I did not have the nerve that night and my campaign team went out for a few drinks. It had been a horrendously wet day and nobody knew what to do with himself, but I heard subsequently that the count was less than satisfactory for those involved.

I agree specifically that a count venue, whether or not it has a licence to sell alcohol, should not sell or serve it for a variety of reasons, especially if it is the evening of a general election when emotions run high after a long campaign. During campaigns, posters are often moved, people campaign in the wrong place, etc. All candidates from all parties are involved. There is inter-party rivalry across the board. Fuelling this with alcohol is inappropriate and this issue needs to be addressed.

It is worth bearing in mind that the Deputy was a guinea pig in this instance. There is no use running a pilot scheme or a test case without learning from it. That is a real lesson to learn.

I also listened to how Deputies Burton and Glennon recalled the different ways in which they were treated. The common perception was that the candidates did not have an appropriate opportunity to compose themselves. General election results come at the end of a long gruelling period of three or four weeks and several months in advance of that. A system should be in place whereby candidates are given an opportunity to compose and prepare themselves. Everybody puts in much work and time. Nobody goes out to lose; everybody expects to win. Getting a result in a public forum delivered so quickly with no opportunity to compose oneself is not appropriate. The Minister is talking about the possibility of giving the results in a round by round series. I do not necessarily know whether that is the most appropriate way but candidates who have participated in a general election need the opportunity to compose themselves.

I speak as a backbencher and quite frequently comment is made that backbenchers do not get adequate opportunity to participate, and I welcome this opportunity. I wish to take up a comment Deputy Haughey made. He referred to the fact that an exceptional amount of time is being made available for this Bill and that it might be better used on other issues. Often much time is wasted in this House and is not used on the issues many people would like to address. Frequently, as a backbencher, I am frustrated that I get limited or no time to speak on issues of concern to me.

The purpose of the Bill is to provide in primary legislation rather than by way of ministerial order, as originally envisaged, for the conduct of European Parliament, local and presidential elections and referenda using electronic voting machines. The reason I state that is that it arose this morning by way of a question from the leader of Fine Gael to the Tánaiste. I do not wish to quote him incorrectly but I believe he said that a question to the Tánaiste on 5 February on whether primary legislation would be required for electronic voting received a negative answer. She said it was not known at that point that the only reason primary legislation was necessary was as a result of a subsequent court case. Sometime later after the Tánaiste had left, the Fine Gael leader, Deputy Kenny, returned to the issue and stated that the court case referred to by her was around the end of January.

I am not here to defend the Tánaiste at her request or that of anyone else, but I heard the comment and found it interesting. I would have thought there would have been a time delay in that the implications of a court case at the end of January would not necessarily have been known as quickly as 5 February, barely a week later. The answer given by the Tánaiste on 5 February should be viewed in that light. I do not think by any stretch of the imagination that the Tánaiste would deliberately try to mislead. A court decision would take some time to digest and legal people would need to look at the implications of it for a range of issues. I believe that is what happened.

Many people asked if and why we need electronic voting and whether the system we have had for a long time is sufficient and has served us well. It has served us well but I wish to go back to an issue which was the subject of discussion by Deputies Glennon and Crawford. They looked at the local and European Parliament elections of 1999 when Deputy Gogarty and I were elected for the first time. They referred to the fact that, in the local elections, approximately 24,000 people had their votes disallowed. This appeared to be overwhelmingly as a result of inadvertent errors. When they looked at the European Parliament election, more than 46,000 voters had their votes disallowed, again largely because they had inadvertently made errors. That amounts to more than 70,000 invalid election papers on one given day.

Deputy Glennon went on to make the point that he was of the opinion that at least 95% were as a result of inadvertent error but Deputy Crawford said there was no evidence to substantiate or back that up. He is right to a point but, if one looks, as most of us would have, at the spoiled votes, it is quite obvious what constitutes a spoiled vote because deliberately spoiled votes will have various things written on them about Deputy Gogarty, myself or others.

It is more likely to be the Tánaiste.

I will not comment on the Tánaiste in her absence. Deliberately spoiled votes are quite easy to identify. If one looks at the pattern of errors, there were 24,000 spoiled votes in the local elections and 46,000 in the European Parliament election, but it is interesting to note that many of the spoiled ballot papers in the European Parliament election had the same error, which was that people continued the voting sequence from the local elections ballot paper to the European Parliament election ballot paper. They entered their first, second and third preferences on the local election ballot paper and their fourth, fifth and sixth preferences on the European Parliament election ballot paper. If one looks at the various papers, it is obvious that a large number of disallowed votes are errors and not spoiled votes. While I cannot stand here with the same degree of confidence as Deputy Glennon and say 95% were inadvertent errors, I am confident that the majority of the 70,000 disallowed votes were inadvertent. It is important to note that.

There is nothing more important than making sure our voting system allows the people's voice to be heard. If the people are going to take the time to vote, it is up to us to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. The system being introduced accurately records and counts each vote. The present manual system resulted in 70,000 invalid papers in the combined election in 1999. It might be asked whether spoiled votes are a sufficiently large problem to go to all this trouble. Some 70,000 spoiled votes is a serious number, especially when divided across constituencies in European Parliament, local and general elections. It is interesting to note the number of constituencies where margins are small, but it is more interesting to note the number of constituencies, especially in the local elections, where the number of spoiled votes was greater than the margin between the last person elected and the first person who was not. The number of spoiled votes may not be important for whoever gets the first or second seat, but the spoiled vote, or what is more correctly called the disallowed vote, is important for the last seat.

When we talk about electronic voting, the US presidential election and these hanging chads are often referred to. The system being proposed is nothing along those lines and is completely different. It is inappropriate to draw comparisons between what happened in Florida a few years ago and the type of system being proposed here.

People referred to the user and whether the system was easy to use. Deputy Burton referred to the fact it would be disruptive to people's confidence in the democratic process. I do not see that happening. We used electronic voting in the June 2002 general election in three constituencies and I do not think the statement she made is the case. Electronic voting was subsequently used in the Nice treaty referendum. There is talk and a myth that, as it is computer-based, elderly people may find it difficult to use and might be concerned and self-conscious and so on.

I am sure the Minister will talk about the publicity and so on, which I will not dispute. I would say to people who may not attend one of the roadshows or read the pamphlet that they should still vote. When one approaches the machines and reads the simple instructions, it is straightforward. There are no journalists present so I feel safe saying that my mother, who is well into her 70s, had never seen a computer and would barely know how to turn on or off a VCR, was a bit concerned going to vote electronically in the Nice referendum. Having voted, she asked what was all the fuss about because it was very straightforward. People who voted electronically to whom I spoke said the operation of the system was straightforward and easy to use. I understand the Minister is running a roadshow and there is an extensive education campaign taking place on the issue. Even if people do not attend the roadshow, they should vote because the instructions are fairly self-explanatory.

Deputy Burton referred to ATM scams and so on. It is worth noting that this equipment is stand-alone and not on-line. In other words, it is not hooked up to anything else. The references to outside interference by hackers and so on is not possible. The machine stands on a table on its own, hooked to nothing except a main supply. Considerable research has gone into ensuring the machine's reliability and functionality. People ask what will happen if the power dies? These issues are addressed by way of uninterruptable power supply and so on. People speak about power surges. In parts of Ireland, a power surge is the last thing the Minister will have to worry about. Low voltage and other issues will be much more common. These practical issues, about which people have expressed concern, have been addressed. People say that computers are dodgy and that they crash. Most of the issues that arise in the context of the computers we use are different from what this machine is about.

I recall years ago working in Dublin Corporation. At the time an elderly man there had an old-fashioned adding machine. First, one pushed in numbers, which moved a series of cogs, and then turned a handle which added to the previous series. That gentleman would not use an electronic calculator or adding machine because he could not understand how it worked. He could understand how the manual machine worked because he could see the cogs moving. My view of the electronic voting machine is that it is little more than an adding machine. It is well protected from an electronic and storage point of view. I understand that the information which comes into the machine is stored on not one but multiple chips so that if there is failure, the information processed to a given point can subsequently be retrieved, which is important.

People are comfortable using this type of technology. Nowadays people go to their banks and withdraw cash without even waiting for receipts because they feel comfortable that the technology is in everyday use and reliable. Scams occur, but they are deliberately perpetrated, nothing more. Scams that occur through electronic means can be carried out by way of paper or whatever.

There are also bank errors.

I am not disputing that. It is interesting to note that in various jurisdictions around the world new democracies have emerged where various observers were sent to monitor elections and so on. They subsequently make a finding on whether they deem the elections fair. To my knowledge, in elections that were deemed undemocratic, unjust or unfair paper ballots were used. When people ask is it a fair system, it is not the paper or voting machine that is the issue, it is the personnel engaged in running the system such as the civil servants and returning officers. These are the people who run elections in a fair manner. They have been doing the job in this country for a long time and no one in this Chamber has ever questioned the manner in which they do it. Whether they operate the system by way of paper or electronic means, it is the individuals who make the system fair and reasonable.

The voting machine is reliable. I will not go back over the various independent tests that have been carried out. Various international institutes have checked the machine and verified its reliability and functionality. The technology works because it is not that complicated. The technology being used here is very straightforward. It is stand-alone and it is not open to corruption by way of the Internet or outside access, and it must be viewed as such. I have heard people say that they do not oppose electronic voting but there should have been more consultation. Like Deputy Gogarty, I have been in this House for less than two years, and I understand this issue was first mooted in 1998 or 1999. It was subsequently used in 2002 during the European elections and it was used again on a pilot basis during the Nice referendum. I am sure at that time people knew the purpose of the pilot scheme was to roll it out on a national basis. The detail of the debate we are now having should probably have taken place immediately after the 2002 elections when people like Deputy Burton and Deputy Glennon could have narrated their stories rather than doing so a year and a half or so later.

Everyone knew this system would be rolled out. I do not accept the argument that this is a rushed job given that there were pilot schemes two years ago. As I said in regard to Deputy Burton's experiences, it is important that we have learned from these pilot schemes.

Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt le mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta Gogarty. Ní fheadair an bhfuilimid ag cur ama amú? I understand the independent commission is due to report on 1 May. After all that has been said and done here, it appears that if the independent commission states otherwise and decides the system will not go ahead, we may have to ditch the debate, which would be a very interesting turn of events. It may be a lesson for the Government not to put the cart before the horse once again. I understand the voting machines were due for delivery at the end of March, therefore, one wonders whether the independent commission is wasting its time as it is deliberating on whether to go ahead also. However, many people who have made a lot of money out of the system will be happy regardless of what happens.

My colleague, Deputy Glennon, is now taking the Chair so he will be able to listen to the debate on the basis of his earlier contribution. He said that no defeated candidate challenged the 2002 results due to electronic voting so the facts stand. I wonder if the result had been closer in the case of defeated candidates, as happened in the manual system, whether he could say the same. Perhaps it was due to the usual luck Fianna Fáil sometimes enjoys that the results were relatively straightforward, although it was a shock in the case of Nora Owen, as Deputy Glennon said.

There are lessons to be learned from that night. I note what Deputy Burton said about drink being available at the count, which was completely out of order and pointed up the unwise decision to have the count in a hotel. There was a lack of space, it was difficult to retain a sense of expectation because of the delay and there was no time between counts. If there had been a narrow result with electronic voting there was no way to call a recount. Neither was there a facility to speak afterwards. This was a momentous and traumatic event for winners and losers — my heart went out to Nora Owen on that night — but it was not possible to thank supporters and staff.

Deputy Glennon referred to spoiled votes. It will be straightforward enough. The people who may be displeased about the candidates presented will just not vote. That might seem like a simple solution to people who do not like spoiled votes, but it will give a very unclear reading about what is actually happening. When people do not vote, one does not know why they do not vote but people who would normally spoil their votes in protest now cannot do this.

I want to be positive about this, but there are questions to answer about the codes that operate the voting machines and the readers. They are commercially secret and will not be released to anyone. It means that the Irish voting system will be a commercial secret owned by a Dutch company. We have to live with that but it is a strange fact of life.

Few people in this House or the Cabinet understand the workings of the electronic voting system. We understood the paper system so we are taking a leap of faith. People who know more than anyone here have stated that it is possible to introduce malicious codes into the electronic system in an untraceable way that could lie hidden during tests and become active on voting day, a key argument for a verifiable audit trail. It would not decimate a rain forest, as the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has suggested. It would be no more than a till receipt and could be easily composted afterwards as part of an ecological audit trail. It is not a big deal to have a verifiable voter audit trail even though the Government refuses to provide for one.

This is not a pilot scheme. I sympathise with the former Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Mr. Bobby Molloy, because he promised there would be full consultation with the Opposition parties on the detail of the system before it was introduced. We will now find out as we go along and that is not the right way to do things.

It is, however, an expensive way to do things, with a cost of €50 million. The Minister said the money will not come from his Department but from a central fund. The cost, excluding training, will be €44 million, including VAT, and a voter education and awareness campaign will cost an estimated €5 million, of which €1 million will be VAT. In comparison, in the last budget €57 million in welfare cuts were made. We have not yet been told the storage costs, although I was told the cost in the Minister's constituency in Waterford will be €50,000 per annum. I would like to see the storage costs for the rest of the State.

Interestingly, the Minister awarded the €4.5 million publicity campaign contract for the new electronic voting system to a consortium which includes a Fianna Fáil connected company, Q4. The contract was put out to the public procurement process, 18 firms applied and it was awarded to Q4, which is part owned by a former general secretary of Fianna Fáil, Mr. Martin Macken, and Mr. Jackie Gallagher, who is also well known in Fianna Fáil circles. It is estimated that the company will make €1 million on the deal even though it was only established in May 2003. This points up not just issues about electronic voting but the need for legislation on lobbying and public relations. The Minister has promised such legislation but has not hurried to provide it.

There is no facility for those with a visual impairment. A visually impaired person will have to bring a garda or the returning officer into the polling booth, making meaningless the secrecy we all say is so sacrosanct.

The technology exists to register all voters electronically, something that would be much more worthwhile than electronic voting. The ludicrous situation still exists where a person must fill in a form — even though he is over 18, has a PPS number and we know who he is — saying where he lives and his date of birth. All people over 18 can and should be registered automatically. Also, the postal vote will be militated against by electronic voting unless there is a facility to scan the postal vote into the system.

Ultimately this is a costly ego trip. I hope it bears the scrutiny it faces because the integrity of the electoral system is important and this is not the best way to go about this.

Deputy Sargent mentioned to me the possibility that there could be more candidates on the ballot than the electronic voting equipment could accept.

It appears that 18 is the limit to the number of candidates in an election. In Clonmel in 1999, there were 23 candidates for election to the borough council. The Minister is effectively limiting the franchise and curtailing the ability of people to stand for election if 18 is the maximum number of names that the electronic voting equipment can accept.

That is an important point on which the Minister should offer reassurance. Deputies have been reasonable during the course of the debate. In this House there are very few Luddites or Members who oppose the principle of electronic voting. It is a good and far-reaching idea but it must be implemented properly and, of equal importance, instil public confidence. I was one of the first elected representatives to send a news bulletin by e-mail and have received a great deal of feedback from my constituents also by e-mail. Of those who contacted me by e-mail the most up in arms were those working in the software industry but they are not Luddites. Neither are they afraid of technology; rather, they work with and have embraced technology at the highest levels and are raising valid concerns. This is the reason it is important to point out in the strongest possible terms the potential flaws in the electronic voting system and what is causing this lack of faith among the public. As Deputy Sargent stated, we eagerly await the report of the independent commission. There was concern that it would be a lap-dog commission but we hope it is truly independent and that the legitimate concerns about the technical aspects and transparency will be reflected.

There are numerous examples of what has gone wrong with electronic voting in the United States. A number of leading American experts have warned that this year's US presidential election could be thrown into jeopardy because of the electronic voting system and that the new systems could actually be less reliable than those used four years ago. A number of professors contributed to a debate in Seattle recently, one of whom was Professor David Dill of Stanford University who told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the problem with electronic voting was that votes disappeared into the electronic machine and there was no independent way of checking that they were valid. He stated he would not have a great deal of confidence in the vote totals reported by the machines unless there was independent polling which was totally consistent with it.

Professor Dill's colleague, Professor Ted Selker of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the conference that the machines in operation were not sufficiently secure because there were no safeguards to prevent anyone tampering with the computer code before or after voting, as Deputy Sargent pointed out. Nonetheless, I am more concerned about errors than tampering, given the integrity of those who work in the electoral process, although it is a possibility.

In the past month there have been problems in Orange County, California. The problems were particularly acute in 21 precincts because more votes were recorded as cast than there were actual registered voters. The error was only noticed because more were recorded as having voted than had actually voted. One can only imagine a scenario in which fewer votes are recorded than are cast and one has no way of figuring out what the exact tally is. The problem in this case is that the result cannot be validated.

At polling stations where the problem was most apparent because of the turnout exceeding 100%, an estimated 1,500 voters cast the wrong ballot papers according to a local newspaper's analysis of the county data. Tallies showed that some 55 polling stations recorded more than double the county average turnout of 37% which suggested that 5,500 voters had their ballot papers tabulated for the wrong areas. It does not take a rocket scientist to note that in the Irish electoral system, particularly in the context of local elections, 50 votes could mean the difference between a candidate being elected or losing his or her seat. This differential could occur in the absence of a proper tabulation of the count.

This is the reason the Green Party, among others, has proposed the sensible solution of a paper printout in the form of a receipt which could be checked afterwards if there were suspicious results. The results may be suspicious from the Government's point of view if Fianna Fáil gets a thrashing in this year's local elections. The party may well have a couple of candidates — although I hope not Deputy Curran's successor — who will create a fuss because the vote shows the party being wiped out. Nonetheless, we should be able to verify that Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, please God, are wiped out in the local elections. We want to have confidence in the democratic process.

Dr. Rebecca Mercuri is a professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania and president of a software consulting firm, Notable Software — one of the foremost experts in the United States in voting machine technology and security. She wants to see voting machines work but has serious concerns because for an electronic voting system to have integrity, five components are required, namely, a voter, a ballot paper, a computerised voting machine, a printer and an optical scanner through which paper is scanned. She has proposed a number of points which the Government would be advised to consider. Fully electronic systems do not provide for any way in which the voter can properly verify that the vote cast has been recorded, transmitted and tabulated. Without individual printouts, there is no independent audit trail. She states all voting systems, especially electronic systems, are prone to error and that the ability to also perform a manual hand count of votes is essential. Furthermore, she claims no electronic voting system has been certified to even the lowest level of international computer standards such as the ISO Common Criteria or its predecessor — the TCSEC/ITSEC — nor has any such voting system been required to comply. Therefore, none of them is certified as secure. Encryption does not ensure the privacy or accuracy of the votes cast. All of this put together makes a compelling case for a system which provides for a paper trail.

If Deputy Curran and the Minister are listening to this debate, I want to make it clear that the Green Party is seeking a paper trail. We fully support the idea of electronic voting and embrace new technology. However, given the number of experts and lay people who have expressed concerns and want to have confidence in the system, we believe this year's local and European elections should not proceed with electronic voting until there is such confidence and until an independent verification backup system such as a paper printout is put in place. In this case, we would have the best of both worlds — we would be able to back up our votes but just as important we would have a rapid electronic system which would provide results instantaneously.

Despite the tallyman's hatred of the system — I personally like the long counts — we will be seen as modern and progressive with such a verifiable system. That is what my colleagues and I want to see and I cannot understand the reason the Minister cannot take the time to get a machine which provides for electronic efficiency with paper verification.

Tá lúcháir orm deis a bheith agam cupla focal a rá ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Ó bheith ag éisteacht leis an Teachta Sargent, sílim go mb'fhéidir go bhfuilimid ag cur ár gcuid ama amú. Tá na socraithe uilig déanta, tá na hinnill ceannaithe agus tá siad dultha ar fud na tíre i láthair na huaire agus taispeántais á gcur ar fáil dos na daoine. Cén mhaith dúinne a bheith ag caint anseo? Cad é an toradh a chuirfimid ar rudaí? An bhfuil cumhacht againn ar an dtaobh seo den Teach rud ar bith a athrú? Táimid ag brath ar an Rialtas. Ón méid a chuala mé ag teacht ó thaobh an Rialtais le cupla seachtain anuas, is cinnte nach bhfuil fonn air aon rud a athrú. Is é an t-aon dóchas atá againn go dtiocfaidh athrú de chineál ar bith ar an gceist ná go dtabharfaidh an coimisiún tarrtháil orainn. Níl a fhios agam cad é an seans atá ann go ndéanfadh sé é sin.

Thagair an Teachta Curran do phointe nár chuimhnigh mé féin air. Tá lúcháir agam go bhfuil an tAire Stáit anseo chun éisteacht leis seo. Is cosúil go bhfuil sé tábhachtach go mbeadh sraith cumhachta ar fáil i gcónaí leis na hinnill seo a choinneáil ar siúl. Mar atá a fios ag an Aire Stáit, is minic a bhíonn briseadh cumhachta againne ins an áit a bhfuilimid inár gcónaí. Ta fáthanna áirithe leis sin. Má theipeann ar an chumhacht lá na vótála cad a tharlóidh dos na vótaí? An mbeidh an toghchán ar siúl lá eile nó an bhfuil socrú ar bith déanta maidir le fadhb mar sin? D'fhéadfadh sé tarlú. Le mí anuas theip ar an chumhacht trí huaire ins in teach a bhfuil mé féin i mo chónaí ann. Bhí sé i lár an lae cuid den am agus uair amháin tharla sé ins an oíche agus bhí orainn lampa a thabhairt amach. Má tharlaíonn sé sin lá na vótála cad é atá ag dul a tharlú? An bhfuil scrúdú déanta air sin?

The ballot paper has been supreme and sacrosanct in Ireland. We all accept the result that becomes available when the ballot papers are counted. We have had an excellent democratic system since before the foundation of the State. We mark our ballot papers, whether for an urban or county council, Dáil Éireann, the European Parliament, the presidency or a referendum, and when the votes are counted before our eyes we are all willing to accept the result. In a general election the parties accept the result, whether they are in government or opposition. There has never been a quibble. The system has survived over the years and there is tremendous respect for it and belief in it. We are now tampering with that system.

We have a good democratic system which is almost unique. I admire proportional representation. The Irish people admire and value it. Two attempts to abolish the system were rejected overwhelmingly by the people. The people believe in our electoral system. It is a fair system. There is a close correlation between the percentage of votes cast for a party and the number of seats the party wins in the Dáil. The United Kingdom has the first-past-the-post system of voting. A number of years ago the Tories received approximately 13 million votes in a general election and won more than 300 seats in the House of Commons. The Labour Party received 10 or 11 million votes and won approximately 250 seats. The Liberal Party received 7 million votes and won 14 seats. That is the effect of the straight vote electoral system which is used in the United Kingdom. Our system is fair and the people have expressed their confidence in it time and time again. When the majority of the electorate speaks it must be accepted. The vehicle for deciding that is the ballot paper. In Ireland the ballot paper is supreme.

Before we tamper with our system and change from the ballot paper to an electronic system, the people should have a say. They had their say when we tried to change the electoral system from PR to the straight vote and they rejected the change, for very good reasons. On this occasion, before we make a fundamental change to our electoral system, which we have had for more than 80 years since we won our own institutions, the people should have an opportunity of passing judgment. They should listen to all the arguments and make their decision instead of having a system foisted on them by one party or another. The two parties in Government have decided, for whatever reason, that they want to go electronic and they are foisting the new system on the country. This side of the House is united in its opposition to this new electronic system and in its belief that this is not the right time to introduce electronic voting. So many questions about the new system have not been answered. A commission or an all-party committee should have been established to examine the matter in great detail and the new system introduced by an impartial body. It should not have been foisted on the people by the Government parties.

The House has debated electronic voting yesterday and today, and will probably do so tomorrow. A commission is to report on the issue by the end of this month. Unless the commission comes to our assistance I believe we are dealing with afait accompli.

The measure is being introduced at a most inappropriate time. Should it not be introduced for a single national election? Could it not be tried out in a referendum when voters would have to deal with only one question? On 11 June next some voters will be voting for their urban district councils or town commissioners, for their local authority and for the European Parliament. We now know that a referendum is also being foisted on the voters. Many of us will vote on four different issues on that day. Can anyone justify introducing a new electoral system on a day when people will be casting four separate votes? There will be pandemonium. Those of us who are used to elections know what happens at polling stations. Ballot papers are stamped and hurriedly distributed and the voter goes into one of the polling booths, marks the ballot paper and places it in the ballot box. On 11 June, there will be one machine in the polling station. Voters will queue up to register and then go to the machine. They will spend approximately five minutes at the machine, if they are lucky, dealing with a total of four elections while queues form behind them. What arrangements are being made to deal with this confusion? With three elections for every voter and four for many, there will be pressure on staff and on the machine itself. Long queues will form and the scene will resemble the first democratic election in South Africa. Many people may miss the opportunity to vote if polling stations are only open for the standard number of hours. The process will be slowed because of the unfamiliarity of the new system. For these reasons, this is an inappropriate time to introduce a new system.

I am not against electronic voting in principle. I know very little about electronics. I can use the television zapper and the ATM machine. I suppose we will also get used to electronic voting machines. A roadshow is currently travelling throughout the country to demonstrate the new system. Bhí an tAire Stáit i dTír Chonaill leis. Níl a fhios agam cé mhéad duine a chonaic é nó cad é chomh mór is a chuaigh sé i bhfeidhm orthu. Níl aon eolas agam air agus ní shílim go bhfuil mórán eolais ag daoine i mo cheantar, taobh amuigh des na daoine a bhí i gcomhluadar an Aire Stáit sa teach óstá an lá sin. Chonaic muid pictiúir de ar an pháipéar agus ar an teilifís. Is rud éile é dul isteach agus an gléas úr a fheiceáil don chéad uair. Tá daoine go leor agus tá sé deacair orthu dul isteach agus vóta a dhéanamh. Cothóidh sé deacrachtaí móra má tá ar dhaoine dul isteach, an t-inneall seo os a gcomhair agus ceithre vóta a thógáil. Níl sé tráthúil an córas nua a thabhairt isteach ag an am seo. Tá súil agam go dtabharfaidh an coimisiún atá ag déanamh scrúdú ar an gceist seo i láthair na huaire aird air seo agus go gcinnfidh siad gurb fhearr é a chur siar.

Why can we not have the referendum on citizenship, which was promised yesterday, at a later date? September or October would be more suitable. The new electronic system could be tried out on that occasion.

Reference was made to the last election in the three constituencies in which the system was used. I know Deputies English and Glennon have direct experience of that system. I remember watching the result on the television that night after a long day on the campaign trail. I have had longer days waiting for my count to finish, whether in Glenties or Donegal town. It was either a long lingering death or a quick chop. If that happened to me, I would be happier with a quick chop than a long lingering death by 1,000 cuts. It is a great tradition for people involved in politics and for spectators to spend the day at the count. Those who do not go to the count centres watch it on television. Everyone in the country is glued to their televisions on that day. That helps to keep people interested in politics and it puts life into the political system. If that is abolished, as it will be if this system is introduced, we will lose an important tradition and political aspect. People feel they participate by watching the television, studying the swings and percentages and listening to the commentators. This system will abolish that.

The last election was traumatic for us on this side of the House as we lost more than 20 colleagues. If electronic voting had been used in the last general election and the result had been the same, would people have had confidence in the result? Who would have believed the result? We had confidence in the result because we could see the ballot papers. They were counted and rechecked at various recounts. When the process ended, everyone was happy that the result reflected the will of the people, as expressed on the ballot paper. If it had happened under the electronic system, I do not know if we on this side of the House would have been happy that it was right and that everything was above board. We must have confidence in the electoral system for democracy to work. That has underpinned democracy in this country for a long time.

Reference was made to the cost of this exercise and various figures were mentioned, such as €40 million and €50 million. When a Department or a State institution estimates the cost of something, whether it is Luas, the port tunnel, the renovation of a building or electronic voting, one would not be surprised if it costs double the amount before it is finished. Electronic voting will cost a significant amount of money, such as €40 million or €50 million. Many problems could be addressed if such money was provided.

During Private Members' time the week before last we discussed the severe and unfair cut in the benefits of 2,000 or 3,000 widows. Perhaps that is only a temporary measure. I hope something will be done before the election. It will cost approximately €6 million but the Government is not able to give that to widows. However, it is able to get €40 million or €50 million for electronic voting. A number of schools need to be upgraded. I am sure the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is aware of the fact that my parish is looking for a community hall. It will cost €1 million or €2 million, but we cannot get any funding, although the school has been built for 25 years.

I am sure the same is true in every constituency regarding essential repairs grants, disabled person's grants and housing aids for the elderly. Hundreds, if not thousands of elderly and disabled people have applied for these worthwhile grants which helped them in the past but only a handful will benefit. I and other public representatives got a letter from Donegal County Council last week which stated that out of hundreds of applications only three had been approved in the Donegal electoral area, three or four had been approved in the Glenties electoral area and two or three had been approved in the Finn Valley electoral area. We have not got the money to give these people, who have been waiting for a year or two and who could paper their walls with the letters they have received about the availability of funding, a reasonable opportunity. However, we can spend €40 million or €50 million on electronic voting machines.

Letterkenny General Hospital and many other hospitals badly need increased and improved facilities, particularly in accident and emergency departments which are chock-a-block. Medical people are working in impossible conditions. The same is true for the orthodontic service. There is a litany of things on which we could spend such money. However, the Government seems to be bent on introducing electronic voting at this inopportune time.

I was not here when Deputy Glennon spoke but I think he mentioned the public reaction in his area. There is much confusion among the public in my constituency. People want to know why the Government is introducing electronic voting at this time and if the system we have is good enough. They also question priorities. The Government said it wants to do it but it has not justified it. We are reasonable people on this side of the House. We want a proper electronic system in which people have confidence.

I am told this system has been introduced in other parts of Europe. Do the countries in which it operates have a single transferable vote system or proportional representation? It is one thing to introduce electronic voting for the first past the post system but we have proportional representation. As Deputy Sargent said, there could be 23 candidates on the ballot paper, yet there are only 18 spaces. Will any machine be able to deal with such a complicated ballot? It is not good enough to say that other countries use this system. We all know about the American experience and the difficulties which arose there.

We have an excellent system in which we all have confidence. Even those Members who sit on my left always said they had great confidence in the ballot paper, although I will not say what they had in the other hand. However, at least they mentioned the ballot paper, not the electronic machine. It has served us well. We did not quibble with the result because we could see it. I agree with those who said the paper trail is essential. When one uses an ATM, for example, one wants to get a bank statement because one wants proof of the transaction. We are doing away with a system we had before and that we have had since the foundation of the State for no good reason other than to speed things up. A little delay of 12 or 24 hours is a small price to pay for our democracy, for the way it has served us and for our faith and confidence in it. I am speaking to thin air on the other side of the House, although the Minister of State and his officials are present. However, I know they will not change their minds. It is bad that it is being done without the consensus that is necessary when changing the voting system.

Our faith must lie with the commission. I hope it will examine these issues and decide to postpone its implementation to a more opportune time when there is full confidence in it and when it has the backing of all sides of the House. It must not be seen as a political system but as a democratic system of voting which can be supported by all and whose results will be accepted without quibble, as was the case with the paper ballots.

It is a pity the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, tends to be in the House when I am speaking. He will think I am a negative man and that I am always giving out about something.

He will be understanding. He was as good at giving out when he was on this side of the House.

I have mixed feelings about electronic voting. I was one of the people who promoted electronic voting because, without fully investigating it, I thought it was great. It did me big favours and I was delighted with it. I compliment Deputy John Bruton, who admitted recently that he wrote to the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, about his concerns on this issue but did not publicise that fact. If he had made his feelings known, it might have caused great debate at the time and had an effect on the election. I am glad he kept his concerns at the time quiet and that we had the pilot scheme. The fact that I was elected was an extra bonus. It was no harm to have a pilot scheme for electronic voting. Now we can discuss it properly and talk about its good and bad points.

When it was introduced, I do not remember anybody questioning it. There probably was debate and questions about it in the House but the main concerns of the voter were how it would operate and whether it would be hard or easy to use. People had grave concerns but, oddly enough, there were no problems on election day. People of all ages were delighted with it. Deputy Glennon is correct that there was a great reaction to it. It was easy to use, efficient, clean and a simple machine. Normally at an election there might be four or five different boxes and ballot papers of different colours but the machine was simple. It is the way forward and I have no problem with electronic votingper se. It is how we implement it and how much faith we can put in it that give rise to questions. These questions can be resolved. Electronic voting cannot be banished forever. The issue is how we implement it.

Meath was the third constituency to announce the election result in the last general election. That night I wondered why there was a rush to get the count concluded. Everybody was running around, anxious to make headlines and be the first to get the results out. I was a little disappointed because I was in no rush that night. I wanted to let the night stretch on and enjoy it, as did most of my colleagues. It was my first election and we wanted to see what would happen. It was a pity there was no first count result and results for subsequent counts so we could see things as they happened and watch the figures change. It is nice to watch the process proceeding slowly, especially if one is winning. I am glad it is proposed to give the results of each count. There will only be a few minutes between each result but it is a better system. I commend that provision in the Bill.

It is also better for a sitting Member who is in danger of losing their seat. Unlike Nora Owen who got hit with one shot, one will get a couple of bullets and it will be easier to take. One will be able to see the trend developing over the counts and see that it is going badly. That will give the person a chance to compose themselves. He or she might go to a quiet corner or talk to somebody but he or she will be prepared. I welcome it for that reason also. I agree with Deputy Glennon that there was a choice to go into a quiet room and be given the results. Nobody can be blamed for what happened in Dublin North; it probably had not been properly thought through. It looked on television as if it had happened on the spur of the moment. We have sympathy for poor Nora Owen and how it happened but we cannot blame anybody for it.

In County Meath, we were brought into a quiet room. It was the changing room in Simonstown GAA centre in Navan. It was strange because all parties were brought into the same changing room. At the time I tried to lighten the tense atmosphere by joking that the dressing rooms are usually built for one team, not ten or 15. All parties were there, including independent candidates and so forth. It was crowded. We were given the result there, which gave people a chance to deal with it. Some took it as badly as Nora Owen but they dealt with it in private. It was our choice to do that and it was the right choice. It is a pity the same decision was not made in Dublin North.

There is no problem with the operation of the system. People adapted to it and liked it. They had no problem with it. I have spent my time since then telling people that electronic voting is good. I still think there is no harm in it but we must get people to trust it and it must have cross party support. As I said earlier, I could not figure out what the rush was on the night of the count. I also cannot figure out why this legislation is being rushed. Why is there this mad panic to have electronic voting in June? Is it because somebody jumped the gun and bought the machines? Why not discuss it fully and bring everybody on board? I have always tended to rush around and, as a politician, I still do so. However, a wise person once said to me that there is nothing wrong with going slowly because one could be moving in the wrong direction. Sometimes it is not wrong but unless it is urgent, there is no necessity to rush. I am not sure it is necessary to rush ahead with this.

I would love to be able to support this Bill and to be able to stand with my colleagues on all sides of the House and recommend electronic voting to the voters. I was doing that. I was promoting electronic voting for a few months until a 14 year old in a classroom asked me if I could guarantee the result.

I was elected anyway.

That was my reaction. I was happy with it and had been elected so I was not going to complain. However, he asked if I could guarantee the result. I told him the machine counts the votes, the results are produced and that is it. He said: "No, can you guarantee that the result is there?" I had to admit that I could not. I did not know what the answer was but I could not guarantee it. I am not a computer expert and I could not guarantee that vote. I had to stop promoting electronic voting until I checked it out and found some way of guaranteeing it.

I spoke about it to many people and consulted a number of experts. They told me the only way to guarantee it was by having a paper audit trail as well. In my ignorance, I thought that meant everybody would have to vote on the paper ballot as well as on the machine. In other words, there would be two votes, one electronic and one on paper ballots. However, that is not the case. It is quite simple, although it is probably not simple to do it when the machines have already been bought. Perhaps that is the problem. It is simple, however, to provide it on a machine. It is available on the ATMs, whereby one simply asks for a receipt when withdrawing the money. The receipt states one's balance if one is lucky enough to have any money left. If not, it will show that one is overdrawn. Either way, one gets a paper receipt.

Likewise, with electronic voting there is no reason for not being able to cast one's vote by pressing the various buttons, pressing the cast vote button and pressing a receipt button to get a paper confirmation to show that one's vote has been properly cast. That can then be put in the box. I am not suggesting that these votes should be counted. However, after an election the parties can pick four or five places from around the constituency out of a hat and check the paper ballots in those. Picking them out of a hat makes it random. Only first preference votes should be counted and matched with the result of the first preference vote count on the machine. That will provide the proof and it will be impossible to argue with it. We do not have that at present, however, so I cannot go into classrooms and recommend this system wholeheartedly. I cannot guarantee it without that paper audit trail. It is a pity it will not be available.

Nobody has told me why it cannot be available. It is in other countries. Investigators in the UK have recommended that it be done. Is the only reason for not doing this the fact that the machines have been ordered? If there is another good reason, I will accept it. Otherwise, I cannot accept that it cannot be done. Why not do it? We should if it keeps people happy. It will not cost a huge amount more to put another little button on a machine that already has plenty of them.

However, we are left with this system and that is a pity. It cannot be guaranteed. When the former Minister, former Deputy Bobby Molloy, spoke about this he said there would be cross party support for the system. There is no cross party support. Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats are, in a way, being hung out to dry on this because they are the only parties supporting it. There will never be full confidence in this system. There will be debates about it for the next 20 years because it will emerge from this House without all-party support. It is a shame that this will happen for the sake of a few months to cancel an order and to order a better machine. The words "what if" will constantly be heard. That is a pity because it could have been avoided. It would have been a joy if all Members could have recommended this system of voting.

This system of voting is for the people, not the politicians. There are only 166 Members of the House so how we cast our votes will not make much difference. Voters want a system in which they can believe. If we poll ten people and five say they are happy while five are not, we do not need that. We want maximum trust in the system people will use to elect politicians. I hate bringing it up, but there were doubts about some of the results in the American presidential election. Some say the former vice-president should have been elected, and if he had, would we have had a war in Iraq in which thousands died? Would we have had the tragedy in Spain? That is how serious voting is and it is a pity we cannot have a system that is 100% guaranteed because elections matter. Those in power make a big difference in people's lives and we have missed an opportunity here. We have not quite missed it yet but it looks as if we will unless someone stands up and says: "I was wrong. We will try electronic voting at another stage and we will introduce it properly." I hope that happens.

I can admit I was wrong. I promoted electronic voting but I was wrong on two counts. I originally thought electronic voting gave an exact result which was absolute and final under the PR system, but then I discovered the system does not give an exact PR result and that if one ran the process again there might be a different result. That was the major problem with the paper process, which is why I said an audit system would only deal with first preference votes. Under the PR system there is a different result every time there is a count, which was one reason I thought electronic voting would be better; it was supposed to end the doubt as to whether there would be a different result tomorrow to the result today. Now I have discovered that electronic voting does not resolve that problem. It does a better job but it is still not 100% accurate.

I am not a computer whiz-kid, but why is this not 100% accurate? Perhaps someone can explain why, even though computer systems can now do everything, we will have a system which is not guaranteed to be 100% accurate. That is not the end of the world. The old system was not 100% accurate either, but if we are spending €50 million on a new system it should be 100% accurate and it will not be.

The message I am getting from people is — if it is not broken, why fix it? The paper system is in place. It is not the most modern system and it costs money, but it creates a buzz, everyone sees their local school once a year and there is also some excitement about the count. There is nothing really wrong with the system. A previous speaker said other countries were laughing at us because the counts were so slow but we are all grown men and women and we can take that. So what if someone in Japan laughs at us because it takes two days to count our vote? If it is the right result it is worth waiting for. That is real democracy. It is a pity we are afraid someone will laugh at us.

I am in favour of electronic voting in its own right but what is the rush? There would be nothing wrong with paper voting in June. We would still get the result. Deputy McGinley asked if the machines would be able to take the queues; the machines work fast but towards the end of polling there will be queues. I am sure that happened in north Dublin and whether paper or electronic voting is used it will take time. However, there could be more than 15 candidates in a local election, with more than 15 candidates for a county council election. That means one must press 30 buttons. Does a different ballot paper come up with the same set of buttons for each? If one casts one's vote for the urban district council, does the county council ballot come up then on the same counter? That will take time and there will be queues. Will the machines be able to handle all the information coming in? People say technology and electronics are the way forward, and I take the experts' word on that. The experts in electronics are in NASA, but the last two space shuttle crashes were blamed on technology and electronics, so things can go wrong. We must remember that as there is no point in being arrogant and saying nothing can go wrong.

A previous speaker pointed out that this is a stand-alone machine, so nobody can change its programme. I accept that, as it is the same as our system in the Dáil. Nobody can access our system because it is a stand-alone network, but if that is the case, why will the Minister not allow a person of our choosing tamper with a machine? I have a friend who would love to work on one of these machines for a couple of hours because he is convinced he can rig it and get a different result. I do not believe him and I hope he cannot, but can we give him that opportunity? If I lay down that challenge can he be allowed to try? We can then prove to ourselves that the machines cannot be tampered with.

The commission is investigating the system, and maybe it will bring in experts to examine the machines, but the Bill does not provide that the Minister must act on the commission's findings. If the commission says on 1 May that it does not recommend electronic voting and recommends other changes, will the Minister be red-faced and pull back? I am not so sure. The Bill does not state anywhere that he must pull back, which is a pity. I like the Minister because he is a strong man and will stand up for himself, but he may not be willing to back down if he is wrong, which is a concern.

We need not go into what has come out in today's tribunal but the tribunals have proven that there is a percentage of people, not just members of a particular party, who will avail of any opportunity to gain something, be it money or votes. We must accept that, as it has been proven and is the case in every country. We cannot assume that nothing will go wrong or that everyone will be nice. Life does not work that way. People must have complete faith and trust in a system of democracy.

Democracy should not be based on whether the Minister is willing to back down. He said the computer experts who have written a paper on electronic voting are not accredited anywhere and are not experts in their field. I hate asking the question, but what are the environmental credentials of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? Where is he accredited as Minister? If he is not accredited to some world organisation, should I not believe him as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? The Minister may not like that, but what will he say about it?

Previous speakers said results would be shown box by box and that this would be a welcome development. I am not so sure if it is welcome, as I am not sure who makes the choice. Not every box will be used if it is deemed that it could affect people's secrecy by revealing who has voted and for whom. Who will make that choice — the Minister or someone else? Whoever decides will probably have access to the information, so one person may have information and another will not, which is wrong. This should be all or nothing, and perhaps it should be nothing. The old system of doing tallies entailed looking over someone's shoulders, so in effect it was illegal. The law stated that one could not give out tallies for each box but we did it anyway. The information was useful if one was in politics but constitutionally one could not give out the information. Now we are saying we will give out box results as percentage votes for each party, and I am not sure that that is the way forward unless it is the standard across the entire country.

Deputy Haughey said we were wasting Dáil time by spending 20 hours debating this when other issues could be discussed. He asked why the Opposition was picking on this, which galls me. I have always maintained we waste time in the Dáil and I agree that 20 hours is too long to debate electronic voting, but the real reason we are spending so much time on this is due to the arrogance of the Government. Arrogance at committee level and elsewhere meant the Government would not sit down and engage in proper, cross-party discussion of this issue. It would have been great to spend 20 hours discussing something else, but I remind Deputy Haughey that the Opposition does not pick the topics to be discussed in the House. We get one and a half hours every week in which to bring forward an issue for discussion. We would like to discuss issues like health and traffic, but, in case Deputy Haughey does not realise it, we cannot choose them. His Chief Whip chooses the issues. I hope Deputy Haughey is listening because I am very annoyed we do not have more choice in what we debate. Many issues are not debated — I have been here two years and we still have not had a proper debate on health, though we could do with 20 hours or more to discuss it.

Debate adjourned.