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

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

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is important that so many Members have articulated their views on the legislation. Fear of the unknown has prompted a major debate on this matter.

I am glad to see us move into the technological age, particularly with regard to voting. We are accustomed to using computers in everyday life. They are cost effective and less prone to error than many human systems that have been used in the past. Computers are used in cars, rail travel, aircraft, banking and in many other areas. The effectiveness of technology is shown by the fact that we hear very few complaints about computers. They are doing their job effectively and with very few errors. That is what we have come to know in the last number of years.

Many people, particularly elderly people, are not familiar with computers. This is despite the fact that many homes and schools use computers routinely. Electronic voting presents a new situation with which people must become accustomed. When one is not familiar with something it causes doubt. I welcome the fact that the Minister is carrying out an extensive roadshow to demonstrate the new voting system. When I attended the demonstration in the Mansion House, Deputy Allen and I looked at the system together. It was amazing to see how simple the system is.

We pushed the buttons together.

At a local meeting in my own constituency recently, I got into conversation with an 83 year old man who has been involved in politics for many years. He was someone I would have thought would be sceptical about the new system of voting but I was surprised to hear him say he was looking forward to it. Despite the fact that he has not yet participated in the roadshow, he embraced the new system. Even at his advanced age and despite the fact that he has had no involvement whatsoever in technology — I would say he has probably never touched a computer or even a video recorder — he welcomed the introduction of the system.

If we are to assess the new system properly we must first look at the manual system of voting, which we have all known for many years in our capacities as politicians. If we analyse the manual system, we will see that a large number of errors can and probably do occur. Humans count the votes, which can lead to human error. There is also random sampling in terms of transfers. I will come back to that later because I want to discuss how that will be done under the new electronic voting system. I am not happy that the new system does not do a proper sample and does not distribute the votes fully because that would give the truest result. There are problems with random sampling in that regard. There are also occasions when people spoil their votes deliberately. However, many people accidentally spoil their votes and that represents a huge proportion of the total number of spoiled votes. That will be prevented under the new system.

We have all heard stories about boxes of votes going missing. It is possible from time to time that bundles can be wrongly allocated. The manual system is fraught with human error, but that would not happen under the electronic voting system. Is there an acceptable level of error in the system? We were prepared to accept the level of error in the manual system because it was the only system we had and it served us well over the years.

Those errors could be corrected.

They may be corrected at times, although we are not sure about that. We have had recounts, but the result has been different every time over the years. If one looks at the recounts in terms of random samples, the random sample remains the same. I would like a full sample to be used and a democratic transfer of the vote which can be done with the software for the new system. It is critical that we examine the level of error in the manual system and compare that to the new system which will be introduced.

I have heard many computer experts on both sides of the argument, particularly over recent days, and a number of interesting articles have been written on this subject. However, the experts on both sides have different points of view. It seems incredible that we are happy to use technology every day when doing banking business or when flying on an aeroplane, which places our lives and that of our families at risk. Yet there is a major debate on the use of such technology to count the votes in an election. Are we getting to the core of the problem? Is the problem associated with the technology and the move to an electronic system or is it something else? I suspect it may be something else.

What is the problem?

I am asking these questions. I do not have all the answers, but the solution for everyone and for democracy lies in the electronic system.

There has been some scaremongering in the past weeks and months about the system and whether it can be tampered with. I listened to Deputy Burton's contribution earlier and she mentioned the scam with ATMs. She said that someone had installed a camera and a person's account had been ripped off. That did happen, but there was nothing wrong with the hardware or the software for the machines. What happened was that someone installed a camera and watched someone punch in their numbers and then came back later, punched in the same numbers and cleaned out the person's account. The problem was not with the computer or the programming. That is a completely different argument. We assume and hope that polling stations will be as secure as they have been in the past and that no one will install a camera to monitor how anyone votes in an election. The Deputy's point did not uphold her argument about the software or the hardware for the computer system.

No system can ever be 100% safe. Everyone acknowledges that the manual system is not 100% safe. If there is collusion in a polling centre, it is possible that something might go wrong. Likewise, if the manufacturers of the electronic system and the people who wrote the software became involved in collusion, it is possible that could lead to difficulties. However, that is unlikely to happen. Many people complain that the hardware and the software for the Nedap machine are totally inaccessible. They cannot get information about it or the specifications for the programming because the software is only accessible to the manufacturers. I am sure the reason for that is security. Security must be paramount because we do not want anyone to tamper with the hardware or the software.

The software used in electronic voting is simple. Many first and second year students in universities have done their programming exercises on a voting system. It is simple software to write. I understand it is not as complex as the software in an ATM which most of us use on a weekly basis. The younger generation are more proficient with computers than we are, therefore, it may not be a college student who writes the software. I am sure that many young people who are extremely well educated in computers could do that satisfactorily. It is important to point out that we are not talking about complex programming or software, but about a simple technique to count votes. That might allay people's fears that we are going down a difficult road.

As democrats, we must ask ourselves what system will give us the most accurate result. What system is less prone to error? The electronic system is less prone to error than the human system. Data contained in a recent Department report shows that the electronic system is 12 and a half times less prone to error than the manual system. If that is true, who, in the interests of democracy, would deny us a more democratic, fair and accurate way to count votes?

I know the type of situations which can arise when one considers random sampling. The one complaint I have about the new electronic system is that it will follow the same voting pattern we have in the manual system in that it will still take random samples. That is disappointing because the capacity is there and the software is simple enough to introduce a full counting system where all the votes, not just a random selection, are counted and the exact transfer given, which is what the voter intended. We must ask what the voter intended when he or she cast his or her ballot. No one would argue with the full votes being counted, thereby enabling them to be transferred properly. That would have a significant impact. In a five seat constituency, like my constituency, the determination of the third, fourth and fifth seats could be different if the full sample was counted. That is important. We had cases in the past where people lost seats by one or three votes. It is possible that if the total number of votes were counted and transferred, different Deputies would be sitting in this Chamber. If that is the case and if we want to carry out the wishes of the electorate, how, in the interests of democracy, can we argue against the electronic system?

A number of people asked how the new system will impact on counts and the way elections have been organised in the past. We have all enjoyed elections over the years, probably more so when we have not been candidates. It has been marvellous to be in the count centres and watch the count unfold. Many people thoroughly enjoy that process. It is also exciting television viewing. That will not exist anymore. Elections will be changed forever with the introduction of electronic voting.

We owe it to the people to introduce the voting system that gives the most accurate result. We must have the system which is least likely to err, even if the result is that people are less interested in the count process and they will not enjoy two days of viewing people being elected or losing their seats, as happened on the last occasion. It was fantastic viewing for that couple of days. However, with the introduction of the new system one must ignore that and try to encourage people to become more involved in the process. The biggest shame in this country is the low percentage turn-out of voters. We must encourage more people to vote. Perhaps the electronic system will attract voters. They might see it as a more exciting way of voting with the prospect of getting quicker results.

Electronic voting was first tried in the last general election. The pilot programme showed what problems could arise and gave pointers as to how to do a better job on the next occasion. Most of the voters were satisfied with how the system worked. However, it was not very pleasant for some of the candidates, particularly if one was losing one's seat and was not notified of the result in advance of its announcement on the media. That was not nice. There has been talk that the results will be given count by count. I do not have a difficulty with that but if we are to have electronic voting, it is important to get a quick result. The release of the result should not be phased out over many hours. If it is possible to produce the result in an hour or a little more, let us have it. The candidates should be notified of the result beforehand. It is only common courtesy that they be told the result before it is officially announced.

The principal benefit of electronic voting is that there is a quick result. That is a massive benefit from the candidate's point of view. At the last election I entered the count centre for the first time at 2 o'clock in the morning and was not declared elected until 3 a.m. While that might be awfully exciting for the political pundits, it is not particularly exciting for a candidate. Deputy Ó Snodaigh might not care — to get elected is, at the end of the day, the most important thing.

I went to the count at 9 p.m. and left at 2 a.m.

Would it not be better to get a result within an hour and a half or two hours?

I enjoyed every minute of it.

Things have changed. We live in the technology age. A number of years ago my home town of Castlebar, like many other towns, entered the competition to become the technology town of Ireland. Ennis was fortunate enough to win but Castlebar was in the last five. The people of the town were extremely interested in technology and in advancing the town. This is the way forward. Even if Ireland might be leading the way for many countries in Europe, why knock it and claim it is not good? It is marvellous. Ireland introduced a smoking ban before most other countries. The fact that Ireland is taking a leading role in these matters demonstrates that it is a progressive country which is anxious to conduct its business in an efficient way.

I have no wish to dismiss the worries people have about the system. Questions have been asked and in the course of the debate a serious attempt has been made by the Minister to answer them. When the roadshow goes around the country people will be able to see the system at first hand. I urge everybody to try the system in advance of the election. To be confronted with something new in a polling booth might cause difficulty for some people. However, I believe they will be pleasantly surprised, as I was when I used the system. It is simple to use and I believe people will be satisfied with it.

The most important consideration is to reduce the number of errors and to get the result the electorate wanted when its votes were cast. The big advantage of this system is that people will not accidentally spoil their vote. An argument has been made that people should have the option of spoiling their vote. There is merit in that argument, if people with to spoil their vote deliberately. It is not something I would recommend and I certainly have never done it. However, it is a decision people have taken to protest in a certain way. The vast majority of spoiled votes, and there has been a huge number of them, are accidentally spoiled. That is clear when we have our agents fighting over these votes, particularly in a tight count, to try to get them admitted as valid votes. We are also familiar with situations where ballots have not been stamped properly in polling stations and votes have been declared invalid as a result.

We have become accustomed to human errors over the years. The acceptable level of error which we have accepted as part and parcel of a manual system will be almost eradicated with the electronic system. That is the reason I welcome this legislation. The system worked well when it was tried in the last election and I look forward to elections and referenda being carried out by electronic means in the future. I commend the Bill to the House.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I do so as one of the Members who was elected on 17 May 2002 through the electronic voting system. If we are to assess the merits of the system, we must give serious consideration to what took place during the count and to the voting procedure.

It is true that members of the public were happy with the system. They found it attractive and were happy to use it. In the aftermath, however, a couple of matters should be examined. Perhaps the Minister will take note of the issues that need to be addressed. If he confirms that these issues are being dealt with, I will be relatively happy.

The Government's proposals on electronic voting do nothing to improve voting facilities for the visually impaired. This group of people has been forgotten, despite it being so soon after the end of the European year of people with disabilities. The new electronic voting proposals are supposed to make the democratic process easier and more accessible in an effort to encourage more people to vote. In addition to the concerns of my party and the concerns outlined by the Opposition with regard to this Bill, I wish to raise my concerns about the reliability of the system for visually impaired people. The proposal does nothing to improve conditions for these voters when they cast their vote. The old system is merely maintained. A nominated person presses the button rather than ticks the boxes on a ballot paper on behalf of the visually impaired voter.

Up to €40 million has been spent on e-voting so far. Could some of that funding not have gone towards improving the system for blind people? The Government could have introduced, at low cost, a voice package like those used in libraries which could have been adapted to suit this process. Perhaps the Government will do so yet, but more thought went into considering how to facilitate those who wish to spoil their votes than went into improving conditions for those with disabilities. A person in a wheelchair at one of the count centres told me he encountered difficulties getting in to vote. In the review of the system greater consideration must be given to people with all sorts of disabilities to ensure they are cared for properly, and I ask the Minister to examine this.

The result of the election was announced at 2.30 a.m. on 18 May 2002. One of the problems that night was getting the ballot modules from the Rush and Loughshinny polling stations to the count centre in Citywest as it was a very inclement night. It was an innovative occasion and people wanted to be there, so the count centre was full to capacity and the bar was open. When I got in at 10.30 p.m. people were well inebriated and, at 12.30 a.m., for the first time in my political career, I was physically and verbally attacked by people who were drunk and unhappy with political positions I had taken. There was a person there who was a reputed member of Fine Gael and I got an apology from the Fine Gael constituency office, which dissociated itself completely from that activity. The message is clear: access to a public bar is unacceptable at an election count and should never happen again.

There will always be photographs taken at such occasions and in one I was seen consoling the former Deputy Nora Owen. I had no difficulty with doing so given what happened on the night. The returning officer asked us at the very last minute, in the centre of the hall, if we wanted him to tell us who had won. For whatever reason, however, we felt that we were so close to the decision that we told him to announce the result, but we will not make that mistake again.

What made the situation worse was that I was looking over the shoulder of the returning officer and, as some of the other candidates were very tall, they were doing the same. From my vantage point I could see the names Sargent, Ryan, Glennon and Wright had been recorded, while from another angle someone saw the name Owen. When the returning officer went up to make the announcement, I put my hand on Nora Owen's arm and said that I did not think the information would be good for her. She said she had been informed that the four outgoing Deputies had been re-elected. It was therefore a complete surprise when she heard the announcement. We must all learn from that experience and the Minister has made suggestions to rectify that.

In my experience the system seemed to work well and was attractive to the public but, since hearing of the proposal to use electronic voting across the country, more and more people have contacted us. They are both in favour of and opposed to the system. The simple question is whether we can trust the system. The old system was verifiable. One could see the votes and, while there might have been a small percentage of errors, one could always have a recount. However, concerns have been expressed that the Government is pushing to replace the paper-based system with one which relies on software as an intermediary in all stages of the voting process.

One person said to me that we all know how the current system works and we can see it functioning and it can be audited if we so require. However, how many of us know the ins and outs of any software product? Do we simply trust the software to do what we are told it does? How many of us would trust our banks to manage our accounts without receipts or statements — a verifiable paper trail — to audit our accounts? After all, banks use software in addition to security measures to protect the integrity of their systems. Why then do we still receive bank receipts and statements? If we followed the Government's argument, we would be modern enough to do away with such a paper trail.

The Labour Party carried out a thorough investigation of this system. We had renowned people from the software industry, with experience in this field, examine the system and they said clearly that there is no accountability. Looking at this electronic system, we must acknowledge that, from the latter half of the 1990s, electoral authorities throughout the world have sought to use computer technology to improve the electoral process and the same basic module has been used in many countries. A voting machine is used at the polling station by the voter to select preferences and the votes are then transferred to a centralised counting system.

Concerns have been mounting worldwide about the integrity of electronic voting. These concerns originated largely in the academic world but have spread to political activists, commentators and concerned citizens. More people are expressing concerns for and against electronic voting. I welcome this debate. At a time when we are endeavouring to get more people involved in the political process I am concerned to bring about consensus in regard to what should be done in the context of electronic voting. We have a Government which is prepared to push ahead without consent.

That is right.

That is the bottom line. It is not as if we are opposed to the system. I said at the outset I am not opposed to the system. We are trying to get a consensus.

Hear, hear.

What is the rush?

There is no rush.

Most of us as Deputies and those who are involved in the system can identify problems and cracks in the system which need to be modified and improved. I hold the view that somebody in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, at the behest of the Minister or an official, went out and purchased all the machines. The Minister came along and said he had the machines and, irrespective of the concerns, would introduce them. That is not the way to encourage people to get involved in the process, nor is it the way to bring about confidence in the political process. I am concerned that, on the basis of this debate, people could be put off going out to vote which would be a retrograde step.

Concerns have been mounting worldwide about the integrity of electronic voting. These concerns have been underlined by a number of worrying incidents which highlighted the potential for abuse of an electronic system. This has been set out in the Labour Party document — Electronic Voting in Ireland — A Threat to Democracy? I wish to highlight three elements of the document as follows: Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska was discovered to have failed to declare his part-ownership in ES& S, the company which manufactured the voting machines which counted 85% of the votes in his 1996 and 2002 Senate elections; in Louisiana in 1999, an $8 million bribery scheme involving the purchase of Sequoia voting machines was uncovered and netted convictions against state elections commissioner Jerry Fowler and Sequoia's exclusive agent David Philpot; and in Sheffield, UK, in May 2003, many polling stations were without an Internet connection on polling day. As a result, voters could vote at a polling station while still being able to vote again on-line from home.

Some Ministers have claimed that nothing untoward can happen. Of course, something can happen. The Minister set up an independent commission to look after the introduction of electronic voting. Are we trying to con the people? Is the Minister saying the independent commission is not completely happy with the system and that certain elements of it need to be revised in the interests of the integrity of the voter? Will the Minister disregard the proposal for electronic voting and revert to the old established system? Many people want to know if the Minister is trying to cod them again. I am concerned that the Minister is trying to make the system acceptable.

That the Government should purchase 7,000 Nedap voting machines at a total cost of approximately €40 million before the Bill was introduced and debated is an utter scandal. It is as if there was no shortage of money, yet the Government is castigating and pulling back on people who could do with an extra €5 or €7 per week, which would mean so much to them.

Hear, hear.

What the Minister is proposing to implement in the context of the Bill is not in the interests of democracy, fairness and accountability. As one who has been through the system and has witnessed its many benefits, I am dissatisfied with the performance of the Minister and the Government in trying to push the system through.

I support the Electoral (Amendment) Bill which paves the way for electronic voting at the local and European elections on 11 June. This is a tried and tested system used in some of the constituencies at the last general election without any problem. It is a sure and safe system where every vote will be valid. No longer will decisions have to be made by the returning officer on the validity of some ballot papers which were not marked correctly. There was always a large amount of such ballot papers, some of which may not have been stamped by the returning officer. Returning officers were always fair in their decisions and agreement was nearly always reached with the candidates.

The best part of the electronic voting system is that the results will be known quickly. Candidates will no longer have to wait days for the result. Up to now this put much pressure on candidates and was often a cause of hassle between members of the same party.

I do not think that caused any hassle.

If one was competing for a seat and there was only a vote or two between candidates it created significant pressure. Electronic voting is the way forward and the way to go. Ireland is very much involved in IT and it is right that we should lead the way with electronic voting. I am pleased we have electronic voting in the House, even though we are sometimes asked to vote manually for the sake of publicity. It is a tried and tested system and I look forward to it. I look forward to future elections when results will be known quickly. We will no longer have to wait and see whether a particular vote is valid. That is the system that will be operated in the future and I support it.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Ó Snodaigh, by agreement.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Minister is hell-bent on driving through the Government's proposed electronic voting legislation which will result in the electorate's obligation to cast their votes through computerised technology. The Minister has shown little regard for the democratic rights of voters in this country and without any real consultation is attempting to railroad this system through. The question that needs to be asked is why. Why the rush, from where was the demand coming and why now?

Hear, hear.

I have heard no satisfactory explanation from the Minister or any other speaker during this debate. A small fortune is being spent on a system and machinery that no-one aside from the Minister and those marketing the products seems to want. Does this not strike anyone as peculiar?

If the Minister wanted to change the system, and he clearly does although we do not know why, he could, for instance, have investigated the opportunity of introducing a more acceptable version of e-voting technology such as the Mercuri method which requires that the voting system prints a paper ballot. This argument has already been well documented by my colleagues in Sinn Féin and I will not dwell on it except to say that public confidence would have been greatly increased through such a choice.

The right to vote in a secure way is among our most important entitlements and the e-voting method proposed by the Minister has not earned public confidence. While the broad concept behind electronic voting is to be welcomed, the currently proposed system is inadequate as there is no easily accessible paper trail of votes cast. My understanding from simply talking to people on the doorsteps is that they are clearly uncomfortable about the proposed changes. Is the Minister aware of these concerns or do they matter to him?

I could, like other speakers, mention different groups and individuals like the elderly, the disabled, the dyslexic or anyone who has a difficulty with literacy of any sort who may find a computerised facility intimidating and difficult to use. This is not to label anyone and I am sure most from those different groups will have no problem with the systems. There are provisions in the Bill for some of the difficulties that may arise but those provisions may compromise the individual's right to privacy. Not everyone is happy to disclose personal difficulties with literacy, for instance.

All parties are keen to see the maximum possible turnout for elections, or so they say. This new system looks likely to lessen the turnout for the obvious reasons I have outlined. Another complication around the process arises from the fact that there will be many areas where people will be voting for four sectors — the county council elections, urban or town councils, the EU election and the proposed referendum. The voter will in many cases have four votes. The main worry is that the novice e-voter will press the "Cast Vote" button too soon and not get to register all his or her voting options. The fact that there are four separate votes will undoubtedly increase the difficulty and pressure on hesitant voters and may result in an even lower voter turn-out.

I am not one of the ill-informed experts whom the Minister and his colleagues are quick to denigrate. I know, however, that computers are only friendly to those who know them. How many of us can truly say we are professional in the field of computerised technology? If Members are remotely accustomed to such machines, they will know that the most impressive technology sometimes lets us down. Machines, no more than people, are not perfect.

When the electorate goes out to vote in June, will there be some provision for those who will need a little more time to go through the electronic processing experience for the first time? Will the opening hours of polling stations be extended or made more voter friendly to reflect the increasingly busy lifestyles of the electorate?

The core of the issue is the matter of accountability as there is no hard-copy version of the vote. The proposed voting process simply lacks transparency. Would the Minister ask us to put money into deposit boxes that failed to register the lodgement? I do not think so. Does the Minister expect the voter to cast a vote into oblivion and rely on a computerised mechanism where the source code is not even available to the Government? The proposed system of electoral voting will not be transparent at the outset as there is no paper back-up and uncertain assurances are provided with regard to security and privacy.

Sinn Féin is submitting amendments to the Bill to ensure that a paper copy of the vote is accessible to the voter and calls for the source code to be made available for inspection by the public. My party has also made a submission to the commission on electronic voting. Unfortunately, the commission was only established after much of the work on the new system was complete. Nevertheless, it is important the Minister acts on the recommendations of the commission, even if that means not implementing the new system.

The commission does not contain in its terms of reference provision for making background checks on the company providing the technology to be used. In other countries, voting company employees have been implicated in bribery involving elections. Again, people are not all perfect. The Government has failed to recognise the importance of ensuring public confidence in the voting process, and the fact that there has not been all-party support for this rushed through system reduces voter confidence even further.

The Government will not be seen to back down and the democratic process will be further undermined just to save the blushes of the Minister. The Minister is committed to a course that will mean more time and more money being spent on this new technology in direct opposition to the public unease and fear of a potentially flawed system. We have not been told by the Minister why it is necessary, with all our social problems, to spend millions on this new voting system. The electorate is uncomfortable with this fundamental change in voting practices and we must understand that discomfort.

If one considers the unsettling history of Irish politics over the past decade, one would understand how the voter would be less than satisfied with the Minister's assurances that those monitoring the voting procedures are impeccable in their performance. We have had a fairly serious history of tribunal controversy, for instance. The Minister talked in his speech of the high calibre and integrity of those over-seeing voting procedures on election day. I do not expect this kind of blind faith from voters given the record of some senior officials such as George Redmond.

The Minister must acknowledge there are many pitfalls to this proposed change in voting arrangements. He must ensure confidentiality of voting and that the voting procedure is open and transparent, and explain why he is intent on railroading this potentially flawed procedure through.

I am not opposed to electronic votingper se but I would lament the ending of the excitement of the count centres, with the tallymen and tallywomen and the intrigue and local knowledge they brought to the long drawn-out counts — I will not say wisdom as that was not always present but, to be fair, their predictions at the early stages of counts often came true. This institution of Irish political life will be no more but if that must be, so be it.

It does not have to be.

While I am not opposed to the advent of electronic voting, I am opposed to the introduction of any measure which lessens the confidence of the electorate in the democratic process. This includes the re-running of referenda until the Government's desired results are achieved, as with the second Nice treaty referendum.

I am opposed to any measure which serves as a detriment to people, including the elderly and illiterate, casting their votes. The rapid introduction of new technology could serve to discourage those who are not computer literate. It is not good enough to say that it is as easy as using an ATM machine. Many in our society, particularly the elderly, cannot use ATM machines or have no call to do so because they do not have bank accounts. If this legislation were passed, there would not be enough time to roll out the voter education programme prior to the local and EU elections, and thousands of voters could be disenfranchised.

This process is based on trust and confidence, which barely exists in the public mind in regard to politics and politicians, yet the Government is setting out to further undermine that confidence. The public is not stupid. It followed the Jeb Bush-run election count in the US and heard the questions raised at the time concerning the possibility of interference with electronic voting.

The Government has done nothing to dispel the fears that a repeat of the Florida problem could occur here. It has not ensured that the question raised about the debacle of democracy in Florida will be satisfactorily addressed by the system of electronic voting introduced here. There is no guarantee of independent monitoring and testing of the equipment or that multinational control of the programming or the evaluation of such programming will not occur.

Many of the concerns raised in the House by my colleagues and by other Deputies were raised in November 2001, when the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government mounted an exhibition of the machines and the technology in the Custom House. I attended the exhibition on behalf of Sinn Féin and raised many of the issues debated in the House, many of which have still not been satisfactorily answered.

The right to spoil a vote was one of the questions raised as were the questions of power cuts, of the malfunction of voting machines, accessibility of the machines for those with a disability and the question of the Irish language. Clear and unambiguous answers are required to all these questions.

For example, a power cut would close down the polling station, thus disenfranchising the electorate of an area, whereas in the past, candles would have sufficed to ensure that it remained open in a winter election.

I am concerned about the powers of the returning officer in section 10(4). The returning officer could decide to de-activate the machine. That would be an interference with the poll. These machines should be similar to a ballot box; they should remain open and switched on for as long as the polling station is legally open.

Section 11 does not mention a back-up disk or a cartridge containing the exact copy of the primary disk. This is necessary because computer disks and such equipment are fragile and vulnerable to magnetic and other interference both when in the machine and when being transported. Both the original and the copy should be transported separately to the count centre and should be kept under guard in the same manner as ballot boxes at present. When the demonstration models were being shown in the Custom House, we were informed that there would be such a facility. Only in the event of a verifiable paper trail should such a back-up system be dispensed with. A verifiable paper trail can be introduced into this system at a very low cost and would go some way towards creating public confidence in the system. For instance, the lotto machines in use at present, show how easily it could be done. Instead of receiving a print-out of numbers, the information would be fed straight into the ballot box at the back of the machine. That is how simple it is. I urge the Minister to consider making the required changes.

Public trust in the voting system is essential. The consequences of Government interference in the electoral process can be serious. This was demonstrated by the continuous changes made to the electoral process in the Six Counties by the British, especially since the election of the hunger striker, Bobby Sands, in 1981. The goalposts were moved in every subsequent election, all in the hope of trying to undermine the growth of Sinn Féin. They failed in that.

If this Bill is enacted in the double quick time that is required before the commission reports on 1 May, will there be enough time to train the polling station staff to adequately and properly deal with the eventualities of polling day? I do not believe so. Will the polling centres be properly equipped? Many polling centres are in run-down schools, which have not had the benefit of investment. Have these schools the electrical capacity to cope? I have been in classrooms being used as polling stations which only had one or two electrical sockets. These electronic machines require uninterrupted power supplies. Some polling stations are not wheelchair accessible or disabled person friendly. We are asked to believe that all the facilities, including the electronic voting machines, will be ready for 11 June. I believe there is no hope of that.

Some Government Deputies are of the view that there is no need for an audit trail because one cannot be sure if the vote is recorded properly. There is a need for a proper, verifiable paper trail, an audit trail, to give the electorate confidence in the integrity of the system. The paper system could be a back-up for the electronic system and could act as a verification of the vote in the event of a challenge.

It has been suggested that a challenge is being contemplated. A challenge whether in the Irish courts or in the European courts could prove successful because the concerns raised in this House are not being addressed by the Minister. Ireland would be the laughing stock of Europe in the year of the Irish Presidency if no MEPs were elected because the voting system was challenged.

I do not understand the logic of section 16. It refers to a computer recount. If the electronic computer system was working, the recount should give the same result exactly. If it gives a different result, there is obviously a problem with the software. Allowing a recount is perhaps one method of proving a point.

Many questions have been raised about the system. It should be open to any candidate or member of the public to question the system as currently proposed. Last year was the European Year of People with Disabilities. Significant progress was made in making our institutions accessible to our citizens but there is much more to be done. Those who have been discriminated against because of disability will be further discriminated against when it comes to voting. Will there be provision of a Braille screen for those who are visually impaired? Will the screens be low enough for wheelchair users?

I lamented the disappearance of the institution of the tallymen and the spoiled vote will also disappear. An elector should have the right to spoil a vote and I raised the matter in the Custom House with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. People have a right to record their objection to politics or to the set of politicians in front of them. In other jurisdictions there is a facility to choose "none of the above". That could be a mechanism to allow voters to spoil a vote by making a protest.

In the early 1990s, Dustin the turkey scored more than 10% of the vote in some constituencies. That was a protest vote against the candidates and against political corruption which was beginning to emerge. That facility is not available at present and that is a pity.

There is no facility in this House to abstain on votes. A Member either sits in his chair or does not bother to be present. There is no button available to state that a Member is not taking a position otherwise a Member is recorded as absent or not interested. Members of this House should be able to record their abstentions. When a virus attacked the system in this House there were mistakes in the vote. On one occasion, a Deputy pressed the button and could not reverse the decision because there is no facility to change one's mind.

The Government did not do its homework on this issue and is rushing to adopt the wrong electronic system. As I stated, we need to build up trust in the democratic process, and opportunities presented to Deputies should be embraced and used to build confidence among the electorate. The Government has an opportunity to delay this measure until the best possible system is found. Cost should not be an issue because the integrity of the electoral system is at stake. I urge the Minister to withdraw the system he proposes.

I am delighted to speak on this important Bill.

Is the Deputy sharing time?

I am here to listen to my colleague which does not often happen.

That is a compliment. The Government lost an opportunity to achieve consensus on the inevitable introduction of electronic voting. It stated the local and European elections in 2004 would provide greatly enlarged scope for advancing and redefining the techniques acquired in the election of 2002. It remains to be seen whether the Government will provide geographical information additional to the individual preference provided in the general election of 2002.

The introduction of electronic voting was an opportunity to address the deficit in the political system but the major debate on the issue has served to undermine confidence. Coming from a business background, I believe in providing verification and reassurance. Technological changes embraced by the business sector and the retail trade, including, for example, the development of scanning and on-line shopping, have benefited customers. These types of facility generate an extraordinary amount of data.

It is extraordinary that a contract worth in excess of €40 million, with each voting machine costing €60,000, has been signed with the provider without provision being made for an audit trail. In light of the concerns raised during this debate, I am astonished that agreement could not have been reached to include an audit trail to reassure all political parties. As with several other speakers, I question the need for the new system and ask who sought it.

There is a widespread lack of knowledge about how the proportional representation system works. The best educator in this regard has been the manual voting system. From visiting colleges and schools, I am aware that even people with honours mathematics are mystified by the workings of the PR system, as are Deputies and Senators and members of local authorities.

Voter turnout in the previous general election was low. We are spending a considerable amount of money on an electronic voting system when much of it could have been spent on an encouraging people to exercise their right to vote. The level of apathy among the aged 18 to 30 years age group indicates a failure on the part of the political system. Many young people believe their vote does not count, but every vote counts.

Supporters of the electronic voting system state they want early election results. Most people, regardless of whether they were on the winning or losing side, enjoyed the count, with its tallymen, media build-up, suspense and atmosphere. We need to reassure voters and create confidence in the political system, which this debate has failed to do. Instead, it has further damaged the system.

No follow-up study took place after the pilot scheme for electronic voting in 2002. I have not seen a major document or paper which clearly identified the shortcomings of the system, although the speed with which the results were announced was criticised. I find it difficult to believe that the returning officer will be able to delay the result by one or two hours to go through the individual counts, as was indicated to the House today. Once the cartridge is inserted in the machine and the returning officer hits the button, he or she will know the result because it will be automatically generated. When the die is cast, the returning officer will come under pressure to reveal the outcome.

The Government has undermined confidence in the system. Its decision to spend €42 million on the introduction of electronic voting contrasts with its failure almost a year ago to grasp an opportunity to make savings in the economy of up to €420 million. A report commissioned by the Department of the Taoiseach was published last April. Its purpose was to identify and quantify the level of potential savings to the economy which could be achieved by adopting an electronic payment method to replace the old paper-based system of cheques and cash.

Accenture was engaged by the Department, acting on behalf of the Information Society Commission, to help develop recommendations to the Government on the formulation of a national e-payments strategy. The Accenture report highlighted the national competitive advantage, cost saving and social inclusiveness of a move towards electronic payments. It specifically recommended a national e-payment strategy which could generate savings of between €230 million and €420 million per annum. Crucially, the report identified a window of opportunity of six months by which a national e-payments strategy could be adopted to make these savings. To date, no action has been taken on foot of the report.

The introduction of the electronic voting system will cost the taxpayer at least €40 million, with the final figure likely to be considerably more. It is also possible that the machines will become obsolete. At the time the previous national census was taken, I inquired in the Committee of Public Accounts about a contract for equipment, which cost €9 million at the time and required extensive accommodation for storage. I was informed that a maintenance contract was not necessary as the machines would not be used again and would be replaced by new machines for the next census. I am certain that the electronic voting machines now in use will be obsolete when the next general election is held and the same company will receive a renewed contract.

Will the Minister of State assure the House that this will not be the case?

The Government will respond to Deputies' questions in due course. Deputy John Bruton should not assume he has privileges over and above those of other Members.

Will the Minister of State answer the question to assist the debate and the House?

Deputy Perry is capable of making his own contribution to the debate.

It is an important point.

The machines will be with us for many years.

That is an answer. The Minister of State is on the record.

Deputy Bruton does not have priority in the House.

I am reassured by the Minister of State's reply. I am concerned about taxpayers' money and I am delighted to learn that the €42 million investment will be safeguarded beyond the 2007 elections.

As we have seen, Deputy Perry is capable of making his own contribution to the debate.

I appreciate Deputy Bruton's assistance and welcome the clarification provided by the Minister of State.

Deputy Bruton stated electronic voting was as easy as one, two and three. This is not the first time he has done a U-turn.

The Deputy is very annoyed. This is terrible. He must have been falling asleep and has just woken up.

I am not annoyed at all. I have a good enough record of attendance here.

The Deputy cannot make up his mind which parliament he wants to attend.

I did make up my mind.

It is good to get assurances on this issue because there is a significant level of investment by the taxpayer. We do not want the Comptroller and Auditor General producing a special report on this, which is the case on many other issues. We have a dismal record on IT acquisition by the State. We have systems that are not compatible in all the Departments and there are nine different systems in the 11 health boards. It was not possible to even find the medical cards in the system. Therefore, it is welcome that this system is compatible as there is an absence of an audit trail. What contract has been signed with the company regarding maintenance of the 7,000 machines? Is there a 12-month contract? Who will store the equipment when the elections are over? It is difficult to store, maintain and re-use these machines. Technology is changing as we speak. What is new today will be obsolete in three years.

The purpose of this Bill was to provide temporary funding for the commission but the funding has not yet been secured. The hope was that the Minister would use the contingency fund, which has only been used four times in the last 30 years, in 1980, 1987, 1995 and 1997. This fund is used by agreement and is precluded when the Dáil is sitting or for new services of a controversial nature. This would certainly fall under that definition and this contingency fund should not be used.

Hear, hear.

This service is controversial and should be excluded from the contingency fund. Section 25 of the Bill deals with the expenses of the commission, including travelling and other expenses of the members, which shall be subject to such conditions as determined by the Minister for Finance. A motion should have been put to allow the Members to vote on the fund for the commission. The Minister should clarify why that has not taken place and inform the House of the source of the funds. Someone must be signing the cheques for the PR campaign, promotion in the Dáil and the payment of consultants. It is disappointing that the Minister did not see fit to link the fund to the commission, which has to report to the Ceann Comhairle before 1 May. The expenses of the commission are to be charged to the Central Fund and the legislation to establish the commission will be formally brought before the Oireachtas. The secretary of the commission has been in contact with the Department to meet the ongoing expenses of the commission. It is important to deal with that.

Public confidence in the reliability of the voting system is the bedrock of our democracy. Anything that damages trust or contributes to the alienation of the electorate must be avoided. While we have yet to use the system in a formal competition, Deputy Cullen has shown a clear intention to proceed with it in the forthcoming local and European elections. It is a pity there was no cross-party agreement on the verification of the vote. Much of this could have been avoided if the Whips of the political parties had met and if there had been more debate on the follow on from the pilot scheme in the 2002 general election. The Government is clearly intoxicated with power and feels it can push ahead with whatever it likes. A debate would have created confidence across the political system and it is regrettable this did not occur.

There has been much local government reform and a high level of concern expressed. There have been public meetings with county councillors throughout the country. I am not opposed to electronic voting in principle as we are in the 21st century and we must embrace change. However, the method in which this was handled by the Government has been deplorable. It signed a contract for the equipment without any consultation. It felt that legislation could be rushed through the House and that everyone would agree to the system. A simple modification in the contract would have reassured the electorate and satisfied a number of political parties in the House. We should also bear in mind the number of people who do not vote. The Government would be better off spending money on bridging the democratic deficit and encouraging young people to vote. That opportunity has been lost and voter turnout is now at 60% nationally and even lower in referenda.

Some parties have had some difficulty with the non-partisan approach to the system. Given that we can arrive at a consensus on many issues, it is regrettable there was little debate on this Bill.

The explanatory memorandum to the Bill states:

The purpose of the Bill is to provide in primary legislation (rather than by way of Ministerial Orders as envisaged under section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001) for the conduct of European Parliament, local and presidential elections and referendums using voting machines and electronic vote counting. The Bill also provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of the independent Commission ...

It is regrettable that the question of the commission had to be dragged through the House before the Government agreed to set it up. It should have been set up at the beginning, but it came as a last thought. In the aftermath of the election of 2002, an independent commission should have been set up and the people should have been listened to. Consultation with the electorate and political parties did not take place.

Given the need for investment in many areas throughout the country, including in child care facilities, the money the Government is spending on a voting system, which is well in excess of €40 million, could have been well spent elsewhere. That this did not happen is regrettable. It is still not too late for the Government to call a halt and return to the manual system. In doing so, it would give the electorate an opportunity to evaluate the system, which I believe will not work. The lack of confidence in the system created by the Government will certainly manifest itself on 11 June.

I am contributing to this debate because I feel an unfortunate precedent is being set. Certain issues have generally been dealt with on the basis of all-party agreement. When I was Leader of the House in the 1980s and very impatient to introduce Dáil reform, I found it extremely frustrating dealing with the Whips because there was a tradition in the Government Whip's office that there had to be agreement with the Opposition parties on the way business was being done. This was annoying because I was keen to introduce various reforms. Although I eventually succeeded in introducing them, it took a lot longer because of the tradition of consensus.

This tradition of consensus has served a very useful purpose in the House. In respect of certain fundamental issues there was a sort of respect for the Opposition expressed by the Government of the day. This can be a bit annoying for an enthusiastic Minister who wants to get things done. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, who I have no doubt is very intelligent, has suddenly taken the view that he is correct and that the views of the other parties do not matter. He has decided to use the large Government majority to plough ahead regardless of consensus. Perhaps he has technical arguments on his side but it is arguable that he has none of significant validity. One must understand that he is breaking an unwritten understanding regarding matters that go to the fundamentals of the process.

Change is made either by agreement of the overwhelming majority of parties or by a referendum. The Government is making a fundamental change without fulfilling either of these requirements. There is no referendum although it would be entirely possible to have one on the introduction of electronic voting. That it is not a constitutional issue does not prevent us from having a referendum because there is power to hold one on any legislation by decision of the House. The Government is not taking that course, nor is it taking the alternative course of seeking consensus.

Anyone who believes Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party are, by their nature, oppositionist, exploiting this issue and playing to the fears of the electorate in an unreasonable way clearly does not understand Irish politics. That is not the temper of politics today. When I entered the House in 1969, there was a much more partisan atmosphere. I remember Kevin Boland and Neil Blaney sitting where the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, is today and the atmosphere across the floor was not of the benign character that reflects my feelings for the Minister of State, Deputy O'Malley, and most of his colleagues on the Government benches. Given these feelings, it is strange that the Government has so little respect for the Opposition.

Even if the Opposition is wrong the Government should have respect for it and state that it believes that it, the Government, is correct but that it will take its time and give the Opposition time to acquire the same ownership, in the psychological sense, of the new system that it has. It should give the Opposition the time and respect to buy into it. However, it is saying it does not care about the Opposition, that it will proceed regardless and that it does not really matter whether the Opposition buys into the new system. I suggest to the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, who is representing the Government today, that this is not the way the Government should approach this issue.

I was struck by one point Deputy Perry made in his contribution. Many do not understand proportional representation and the business of surpluses, transfers or elimination. There is a seminar offered every five years on proportional representation — this seminar is a count that sometimes proceeds for two or three days. People in the media explain surpluses and what will happen next, and they do so to an attentive public. The public is attentive because something hangs on the result of the process. It is not a boring lecture but a demonstration of the way the system works. By virtue of the old, boring, manual, delayed, slow system so disliked by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, the people are reintroduced to proportional representation every four or five years in the form of a sort of seminar, as Deputy Perry hinted in his contribution. This form of public education will be entirely lost if the Government persists with the introduction of electronic voting because the election will be over in a flash. Is this supposed to be a virtue? It is not. The virtue is in the present system which, in all its painfulness and slowness, allows the way it works to be demonstrated to the people. It does so not on the basis of precept but on the basis of example, which is the best way to teach, as anybody who has taught will tell one.

Another point that needs to be reflected upon and which some might not accept is that there is a value to ritual in public life. People accept the result of elections through ritual. One may say the business of trooping down to the polling station, marking one's paper, collecting the papers and counting the votes is all boring, old hat and not needed in modern society but, apart from the excitement it affords to party workers — I have respect for this — it is a democratic ritual that helps people accept the result at the end of the day. The people see the count take place. Like Saint Thomas, they have the opportunity to put their hand into the wound and verify it. In many cases the wound is the loss of one's seat or the fact that one did not receive as many votes as one had hoped for.

A certain process engenders acceptance. When a difficult event happens in our lives, such as a death in the family, we go through the ritual of the funeral. One could say it is entirely irrational — the soul goes to heaven if one believes in the next life but the body is just a bag of bones to be put in the ground if one does not — and burial should take place in a flash. We do not bury people in a flash but go through the funeral process so we can, through the ritual, come to accept what has happened. We accept the death and this transition. An election is a transition from one order to another, from one set of public representatives to another and from one Government perhaps to another. It is appropriate that it should be a drawn-out process. It is not appropriate that it should be done in a flash on a computer.

Deputy O'Sullivan is probably more cognisant of artistic matters than I but this is the activity of a brutalist, modernist Government. It believes that, because something is modernist, one does it. We are living in a post-modernist world where advances in science and mathematics, for example, have discovered this notion of chaos theory that suggests all these certainties which existed before are not so certain after all. Here is a Government ploughing ahead with a system based on old categories of thought. It is taking insufficient note of the psychological need for a process of a ritual change.

I was very taken by some points made by a number of Deputies in this debate. I am very much in agreement with the criticism made by Deputy Gilmore. He said, and I am sure a number of others made this point as well, that the Minister was arrogating to himself certain rights to do by order things which should be settled in this House. The Minister is taking immense powers to himself to do things by order. I am sure the Ceann Comhairle is aware of Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan's judgment in the recent case concerning the immigrants. She decided an order was invalid because it had been made in a form of delegated legislation rather than by primary legislation. I do not know whether this process will be successfully challenged as being unconstitutional. Surely it would have been safer to have done all this by primary legislation, even if it took more time. As far as elections are concerned, we have time.

The only argument advanced by the Minister in favour of this which seemed to have any substance was that the fundamental purpose of electronic voting is to improve the efficiency, accuracy and user-friendliness of Irish election procedures. I am sure it will be more efficient.

It will be quicker and slicker.

What is so important about efficiency? There is a question mark over accuracy. Serious points have been made by a number of people in this debate about viruses entering computer systems. I have no reason to believe this system will be any more immune to viral infection than any other computer system, but the difficulty is that, if there is an error in the computer system, it will be a major error. There are errors in the manual system but they are all minor errors because they concern at most one box of votes or at least a few votes. If there is an error in the computer system, it will be a major one. What is the rush? What is the need to make this change?

As Deputy Cuffe or Deputy Gilmore pointed out, the Association of Computer Machinery, the primary global professional body for information technology, stated that computers are inherently subject to programming error, equipment malfunction and malicious tampering. We want to hand over our most precious right, our right to change or re-elect our Government, to a system that is prone to programming error, equipment malfunction and malicious tampering. I am not suggesting malice on the part of anybody involved in this process. I have the greatest confidence in the public service. One of the great inheritances of the founding Government of this State is an apolitical Civil Service thanks to the work of Kevin O'Higgins, in particular, and I trust it. It does not really matter who is in Government. Politicians are no better or worse than anyone else, but I trust the civil servants and do not think they would wilfully or willingly allow anything to go wrong. However, they are human, these are machines, machines move much faster than humans and error can occur through inadvertence.

The Government says that it has more urgent legislation. There are many things that could be done with the parliamentary time which will be absorbed by this issue, and much parliamentary time will be absorbed by it. If the Government attempts to use the guillotine to push this Bill through, it will face problems it will not forget. This is a very quiescent House which is more under the control of the Government than almost any other parliamentary assembly with which I am familiar in Europe. However, that Government control is based on a certain modicum of consent by the Opposition to allow that to happen. If the Government pushes the Opposition far enough by simply proceeding as if it did not count, it will find things it took for granted in terms of co-operation will not be capable of being taken for granted to that degree in future.

The Taoiseach takes a hands-off approach to these matters. He lets his Ministers proceed and do things, and I commend that as somebody who held his position. It is the right way to go in general. However, there are certain issues of overall political direction and, in particular, relations with Opposition parties in respect of which the Taoiseach of the day should be the final arbiter and not individual Ministers. I hope the Taoiseach will examine what this mad rush to push this legislation through is doing to confidence between Government and Opposition and in our electoral system, and to the perception of the Government as being one that has certain obsessions which are not those of the public.

Introducing electronic voting is not a priority for the public. Any Government that is prepared to expend this much political capital on something that is not a priority for the people is a Government showing itself not to be in touch with the real concerns of the public. While I am delighted about electronic voting from the point of view that it improves the prospects of Deputy O'Sullivan's party, my party and our colleagues entering Government, if I were the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, I would not be so keen. I offer this free advice. If the Government wishes to remain in office, it should cool down on this issue. It should not be in a hurry to introduce it for all the reasons I have given. I hope for the sake of the Minister of State, his party and the Government, it will think again.

I wish to refer to the previous contribution. I thought I was to speak before Deputy John Bruton but am glad I was not because it was interesting to hear his contribution and the way he argued so cogently for the primacy of Parliament, in particular, and the value of consensus in such matters. The fact that the Government has rammed this through without consensus has consequences in terms of other legislation besides this Bill. That is a valuable point which the former Taoiseach made.

Debate adjourned.