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.