People bet on events about which they get worked up. I cannot see people getting worked up about the electronic system which is to be introduced over a very short period. We will not have the weekend of television coverage which is exciting for people. We will lose much of the interest in elections as well as many of the educational opportunities.
Deputy Hoctor is listening to me. She has experience of teaching and, like me, is a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science. Young people learn a great deal from the voting process, especially the proportional representation system which we are fortunate to have in Ireland. When I visit schools to speak to transition year students studying these matters, one has a picture of the transfer of votes and one can explain it by recalling how one has seen it happening where bundles are added to other bundles. That will no longer be the case because we will not have that visual impression of what happens anymore.
At a relatively young age, I became involved in counts and saw other young people getting involved which brought them into the political system. The counts also give parties the opportunity to work together, interact, bring information to whoever has the computer at the count centre and co-operate by shouting back the tally and so on. We will lose all that and, as a result, will lose much of the interest we have in politics. Deputy John Bruton, who spoke before me last night, referred to the acceptance of the result because of the ritual and the different steps within it. He referred to it being similar to a funeral in that it has a "before", an "after" and a time in between in which one gradually learned the outcome and came to accept it.
I am also concerned that this system is being introduced for the elections on 11 June. A number of issues are to be decided in one day by the voters. In some places, where there is a town or city council as well as a county council, four issues will be decided, including the European elections and the referendum on citizenship. In what order will people vote or can they chose in what order they wish to vote? Some people's interest might flag. If a person's main interest is in his or her county or city council, he or she should have the opportunity to vote for that first. I am not sure if this is provided for. It will be confusing for people who are not used to electronic mechanisms to have to vote on four issues at the same time. It may not be difficult for people when they get into the polling booth but it might deter many people turning out because they will be presented with the new system and are not sure they will be able to understand it.
Owing to their fears and concerns and despite the information campaigns, many people with the intention of voting will not have done so by the time the polling booths close. This is especially the case for people with literacy problems. Obviously, such people already have difficulties with voting in what one might call the old-fashioned system, although in some ways it is not old-fashioned, but they will be deterred to a greater extent by the new system. Some people I know with literacy difficulties memorise the image of the candidate for whom they wish to vote. There will be photographs this time, which will help. However, to my knowledge, people will also have to press a button which reads "cast vote" to register their vote, something they would not have had to do before. I do not know if there are plans to make that aspect more straightforward for people with literacy problems because it creates another difficulty for them, and this is a cause of concern for me.
Why are we rushing this legislation through? Why are we spending this valuable Oireachtas time on this issue to have it in place by 11 June when it will already be complicated by the number of different issues people will have to address? We have much urgent legislation with which we have not dealt. For example, I have asked for the House to take Report Stage of the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill since it finished Committee Stage in early February. The Select Committee on Education and Science returned in January during the recess to commence Committee Stage. We did not get through all of it during the recess, continued it in the House and returned to finish it at the beginning of this session. However, the Bill has still not been introduced on Report Stage. When I raised the issue last week, I was told the Bill under discussion was getting priority over that Bill for this week. The Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill is of crucial importance to young people in school who have special learning needs but it has been put on the back burner while we deal with this Bill. In addition, the disability Bill which is linked in to the Education for Persons with Disabilities Bill and is supposed to have been a Government priority for a long time is also affected by this delay.
Deputy Gilmore, the Labour Party spokesperson on this area who has eloquently addressed our concerns about this Bill, has frequently raised a number of Bills under the environment portfolio which are urgent, specifically the Residential Tenancies Bill. However, this Bill and others on the agenda of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have been put on the back burner because this Bill has been given priority. I object to this Bill on those grounds too. We need to prioritise legislation. We have a great deal of business to deal with in this House and some issues are more important than others.
Installing the electronic voting system before June, leaving insufficient time to consider all the questions raised, is not a priority. I would put it far down the priority list. The issue could have been addressed in the autumn, the reservations dealt with and the system improved and made more inclusive. Instead, the measure is being rushed through.
Last night, the interesting question of whether the technology will have to be updated at a later date was raised. I believe it will, if the system is to be made accessible. Will that entail more substantial costs as time goes on? Should we not have examined the issue of accessibility and waited until suitable technology became available? I am not a technocrat and I do not know if this will happen. However, a previous speaker has said that the technology is being updated on a frequent basis. We should have waited for that.
The commission was established only because Opposition Deputies demanded it. It has been told it can do whatever it likes so long as it complies with the Government's plans. There is not enough time or opportunity for the commission to do anything else. I have respect for the members of the commission but I cannot see how they can do more than rubber-stamp what the Government is planning to do.
My colleague, Deputy Gilmore, spoke in detail about the Opposition's constitutional concerns. The legislation allows the Minister to make regulations regarding democracy and the voting system which are not in the primary legislation. This is a real concern. The constitutionality of the legislation may well be challenged in the later stages of the debate on the Bill.
The constitutionality of the Bill may also be challenged on the issue of access. The present system does not have the capacity to address the concerns of the visually impaired. They have no choice but to use the assistance of a sighted person in casting their vote. The electronic system has the capacity to provide for people who are visually impaired. I have been told by someone who is visually impaired that it would cost only €2.50 to provide the voice activation and headphones necessary to facilitate a blind voter casting his or her vote without assistance. That is a small price to pay.
In the 2002 census of population 78,000 people declared themselves to be either visually or hearing impaired. As there are slightly more people visually impaired than hearing impaired, this means there are approximately 40,000 visually impaired people in the country. Most of these are in the older age groups. This sizeable sector of the population could have been accommodated if a small effort had been made. I understand that cases will be taken to the Equality Authority on this ground. Interested parties are also checking the constitutionality of this aspect of the legislation. This new system should be equally available to all our citizens because that is possible.
In answer to a parliamentary question submitted by my colleague, Deputy Moynihan-Cronin, in February last the Minister stated: "The system suppliers have undertaken initial work on developing a prototype facility to allow visually impaired voters to use the machine unaided and the Department will examine their proposals carefully when they have been received." I subsequently pursued the matter but there has been no indication that this will be done. I would welcome the provision of such a facility. It would solve one of my problems.
The option of minimising the random nature of the redistribution of surplus votes was available but was not availed of. The random selection used when distributing a surplus in the Irish system presents a particular challenge. Where two counts are carried out, one electronic and one manual, using two different random selections the result of the counts may well be different. Using the existing software, the randomisation of the count could be repeated many times. The machine itself could minimise the random nature of the distribution of surpluses. This is not being done. The legislation forbids a second count which might give a different random result. I can see why that would be. It was possible to address the inaccuracies of the present system. However, the new system is no better than the old one in this regard.
The issue of trust and the provision of a voter-verified audit trail has been debated in this House and in the media. This could have been done. The people would have had greater trust in the system if they had been provided with a docket which showed them how they had cast their vote, without identifying them. We expect this from our banks. I would not trust my bank if it did not provide me with written verification of a transaction. Why should be expect the public to trust these machines? A previous speaker stated that all software is subject to error and malfunction. Why should this system be different? The technical information is available to show that a paper trail is possible.
The new system will only do what the present one can do. It will not be better. We will lose the exciting ritual attached to elections. We are rushing this measure through and not providing sufficient time to address the concerns of Members of the Oireachtas, the media and the voters. The voters are more important than those of us who stand up and express opinions. Many people who have remained silent during this controversy will remain at home on 11 June because of their concerns about this system.
I am not opposed to technology. I will support the new system if it can be proved to be better in the future, but not on 11 June.