The Bill before the House, which was passed by Dáil Éireann yesterday, follows from the undertaking of the amended motion passed by Dáil Éireann on 18 February to establish on a statutory footing the Commission on Electronic Voting which has been asked to report on the secrecy and accuracy of the arrangements proposed for electronic voting; introduce legislation to enable electronic voting to be held at non-Dáil elections; provide for more explicit arrangements regarding abstention from voting; and set out conditions under which tally data may be made available from the electronic voting system to interested parties.
While the recent publication of the interim report by the Commission on Electronic Voting on 30 April has altered the timeframe for the nationwide introduction of electronic voting, the commission stated that electronic voting brings with it many benefits, such as fewer inadvertent voter errors, quicker election results and reduced administrative costs.
The commission, which is independent in the performance of its functions, has taken a precautionary approach to the core issues of secrecy and accuracy. The Government accepts that the commission has been unable to provide sufficient positive assurance, in the time available, in regard to using an electronic voting and counting system at the June elections and, in accordance with its commitment, it has taken the decision to postpone its use at the June polls. In its report, the commission acknowledged that the threshold of proof required to support the recommendation in favour of the system's use is much higher than the level of proof required to recommend against its use.
The commission also emphasised that its conclusions were not based on any finding that the current Nedap-Powervote system will not work, but on the desirability of allowing time for further testing and quality assurance. In addition, the commission confirmed that the selected system can accurately and consistently record the votes cast, as demonstrated by the successful independent tests carried out by its experts.
The commission's key recommendations relate primarily to the strengthening of the election management software and of security procedures and protocols surrounding the running of elections. Testing of the voting machines by its experts confirmed that the system accurately and consistently recorded voter preferences, including in the context of multiple simultaneous elections, and that the system accurately counted the votes recorded at the pilot polls. In light of these conclusions, it is necessary to review the system and put in place any extra procedures to satisfy the commission on any concerns it may have.
The motivation for introducing electronic voting is to improve the efficiency, accuracy and user-friendliness of Irish election procedures and to eliminate the democratic wastage associated with spoilt votes which numbered more than 20,000 at the 2002 general election, over 24,000 at the 1999 local elections and some 46,500 at the last European election. It is estimated that at least 95% of those invalid ballot papers were inadvertently spoiled. Electronic voting is more than just about improving election procedures by the use of modern technology. By modernising and transforming elections in a visible way, we want to create the opportunity for tackling voter apathy and improving the image of elections.
Despite the commission's inability to endorse the system at this time, I reiterate that it has been in use for over ten years throughout the Netherlands, with a population of over 16 million people, for some years in a number of German cities, at pilots in the United Kingdom and at two polls in this country. More recently it has received a general approval from the French Government for use at elections in that country and has been used, successfully, in Brest. The Governments, opposition parties and peoples of these countries do not operate an electoral system which is insecure or unreliable. Their democracies are not damaged or diminished in any way because of the use of electronic voting and counting.
The voting machine hardware and software have been rigorously tested on two separate occasions; first, before the pilot use of the system in 2002 and again last year following some modifications to the voting machine to make it easier for voters to use and the addition of some further security features. The German Institute for Science and Technology, PTB, specifically tested the voting machine to ensure that the votes cast on a ballot paper were stored correctly in the ballot module. It has certified that the system carries out the recording and storage of votes correctly. That has been confirmed by the commission, especially regarding the pilot use of the system in 2002.
As well as enabling electronic voting at Dáil elections, the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 provided for the application of the new system to elections to the European Parliament, the Presidency and local authorities, as well as referendums. The intended method of applying the new system to non-Dáil elections was by extension of the provisions of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 by way of a ministerial order under that Act in accordance with its principles. However, following the Supreme Court decision in the Mulcreevy case relating to Carrickmines Castle, some doubts were raised about the use of such an order and, therefore, the Bill is intended to remove any such doubt.
The Government, out of respect for the significance of the electoral process and for the avoidance of any doubt, has decided to apply the provisions of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 to other elections and referendums by way of primary legislation rather than by the use of ministerial orders as envisaged by section 48 of that Act. That is the essential purpose of Part 2 and Schedules 1 to 4, inclusive, to the Bill. Part 3 provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of the independent Commission on Electronic Voting to prepare a report on the secrecy and accuracy of the Nedap-Powervote system. In view of the urgency of its work, the commission, which was established last March, is operating on a non-statutory basis.
There has been much comment from political parties and Members that the system should provide some information in lieu of that obtained by tally persons. Included in the Bill is a provision for the supply of tally information by returning officers following the holding of a poll. While tallyman information has been provided in past elections, it was largely on an unofficial basis. The introduction of the electronic voting and counting system means that if tallyman-type information is to be made available, it must be provided for in electoral law. The new system also has the capacity to furnish electoral patterns and more detailed information with 100% accuracy. Consequently, we must ensure that, in whatever manner such data is made available, it does not violate or infringe the secrecy of the ballot. That is a fundamental constitutional obligation that must be respected. The precise arrangements for the tallyman information will be set out in appropriate regulations under section 30 after the Minister has concluded his discussions with the Attorney General on the matter.
We would also have regard to the cautions which the Commission on Electronic Voting has expressed about too much disclosure of the information generated by the electronic voting system. I would like to refer to secrecy and voting procedures. Just as with the paper ballot system, the electronic voting process is designed to facilitate the voter in casting his or her vote in a secret and completely secure manner. Polling staff who operate the voting machine control unit are not permitted to approach the voting machine to activate or deactivate it. They can perform their functions remotely using the control unit. When the poll clerk activates the voting machine for a voter, the voter can record preferences for those polls in which he or she is eligible to vote. Once the voter has checked the preferences displayed on the panel of the voting machine, the voter can press the "cast vote" button, whereupon the voting machine display and control unit will confirm that the vote has been stored properly and the machine will be deactivated by the polling staff.
If a person decides to go to a polling station but not to vote, that person may have his or her name marked off the register of electors and be authorised to use the voting machine. Where the person leaves the voting machine without pressing the "cast vote" button, the polling station staff will deactivate the voting machine before the next prospective voter uses it. That is done by use of a key on the control unit, with no need to communicate with the person who has left without voting or to approach the voting panel itself. The abstentionist voter is neither advised nor required to communicate in any manner with the poll clerk if he or she does not wish to press the "cast vote" button. The voting machine records the number of such failures to press the "cast vote" button and that would be published as part of the election statistics.
The provisions of the Bill and of accompanying guidelines which would be issued make those arrangements clear so that reasonable provision is made to ensure the privacy of all persons using electronic voting, including those who come to the voting machine but do not exercise their vote. Having said that, I believe, as I am sure do all Members of this House, that voting at free elections should ideally be seen as both a right and a duty of Irish citizens.
I now turn to some of the detailed provisions of the Bill. Part 1 contains several general provisions. Section 2 provides for offences regarding unlawful interference or damage to voting machines and other related equipment, including software used for the voting system equipment, while section 3 provides for the repeal of section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, which will be replaced by Part 2 of the Bill and Schedules 1 to 4, inclusive.
Part 2 and Schedules 1 to 4, inclusive, to the Bill enable the use of voting machines and electronic vote counting at statutory elections to the European Parliament, local authorities, the Presidency and referendums. The text is generally the same as that provided for in Part 3 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, which deals with Dáil elections but is adapted as necessary for the other three types of elections and referendums. Sections 6 and 7 provide for the modification of certain provisions of the Presidential Elections Act 1993, Referendum Act 1994, European Parliament Elections Act 1997 and the Local Elections Regulations 1995 to enable voting on voting machines and electronic vote counting at the elections and referendum concerned.
Part 3 provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of the Commission on Electronic Voting to consider the secrecy and accuracy of use of the system and to make recommendations in that regard, including the application or not of the system. As we now know, the commission issued its interim report and, as a result, the Government followed its commitment that the system would not be used at the June polls if the commission was not entirely satisfied with it. Section 17 provides for the continuation of the independent Commission on Electronic Voting constituted by the Government before the Bill and for the continuation in office of its chairman and other members. Section 18 provides specifically that the commission be independent in the performance of its functions under the Bill. The terms of reference given to the commission are set out in sections 21 and 22 and Schedule 5. Those envisage a first report from the commission to the Ceann Comhairle by 1 May 2004 together with a subsequent report or reports.
Section 19 sets out the membership of the commission. The members comprise a judge of the High Court, who is the chairperson, the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad and two other persons with knowledge or experience in the field of information technology. Sections 20 to 28, inclusive, provide for the usual different functional aspects of the commission relating to such matters as expenses, staffing, submissions and vacancies. Under section 22, the commission will present its reports to the Ceann Comhairle, who will have them laid before both Houses.
Part 4 has six sections providing for some miscellaneous matters. Section 30 provides that the Minister may regulate for the provision by the returning officer of election or referendum information after the conclusion of a count, provided such information shall not endanger the secrecy of the ballot. That is the provision designed to authorise release of data analogous to the former tallyman system. Section 31 provides for an amendment to allow the name of the election and constituency name to be printed in large capitals on the top of the ballot paper for use on the voting machine. Section 32 makes consequential changes to Part 3 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, following provisions in Part 2 of the Bill. Section 33 provides for the repeal, consequent to the Supreme Court decision in the Kelly case, of part of paragraph 2(a) of the Schedule to the Electoral Act 1997, which dealt with the use of property, services or facilities paid for out of public funds at a presidential election which were exempt election expenses.
Section 34 provides for an amendment to section 161 of the Local Government Act 2001, to enable an order to be made to allow the continuing in force of arrangements whereby certain local authority staff may become councillors and are not rendered ineligible for local elections next June.
Section 35 provides that it will be an offence to make improper use of a polling information card at elections. The report of the Commission on Electronic Voting envisages that electronic voting should be progressed for all forms of elections in Ireland, subject to a further testing programme. The commission in its recommendations has provided a clear route map to enable this to be achieved. It has not concluded its work at this time and my Department will co-operate with the commission in implementing its recommendations regarding the further tests of the Nedap-Powervote system.
The use of electronic voting continues to gain in strength around the globe, from sophisticated and developed European countries such as the Netherlands to developing states such as India with its enormous population and diverse circumstances. I am confident, working with the commission and its recommendations, that the benefits of electronic voting will soon be made available to the Irish electorate. In years to come, the investment which we have made in the system will be seen to be a wise one. I commend the Bill to the House.