Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Questions (10)

Bernard Allen

Question:

140 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the position regarding the introduction of electronic voting for the European and local elections. [2846/04]

View answer

Oral answers (79 contributions) (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Detailed planning and preparations for the use of countrywide electronic voting and counting at the European and local elections are proceeding. To date, 4,840 voting machines and ancillary hardware have been delivered to returning officers; software testing will be completed shortly; training of returning officers and their staff is continuing and I will be launching a major public education and awareness campaign in relation to the new system tomorrow.

The delivery of electronic voting and counting presents many challenges for my Department and its partners, but I am determined to make the benefits of the electronic system available as early as possible. Electronic voting and counting will improve the efficiency, speed, accuracy and user friendliness of elections. It will also eliminate the democratic wastage associated with spoilt votes. It is a desirable modernisation of the electoral system and I look forward to its successful implementation at the June 2004 polls.

How can the Minister contemplate introducing this system without agreement from all parties in the House? How can he introduce a system that is changing fundamentally the way we run our democracy, by not introducing it through an electoral commission? How can the Minister contemplate introducing this system without key questions about the security of the system, including whether it is tamper-proof, having been answered? Why has his Department not answered the 40 major questions that have been raised regarding the system? Why has the Minister forced the motion to accept the electronic voting system through the Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, by weight of Fianna Fáil numbers? Will the Minister give details of the contract entered into by his Department with a firm involving buddies of Fianna Fáil?

I would ask the Deputy to withdraw any such implication.

I am asking the Minister——

It is an outrageous remark and impugns people who are not in the House to defend themselves.

If being called "buddies of Fianna Fáil" is accusing them, well and good.

I am asking Deputy Allen to withdraw the point he has made.

I am asking a question. Will the Minister make available——

It impugns people who are not in the House to answer for themselves. It is an outrageous allegation.

I will not withdraw it.

It is completely unfounded.

I am asking the Minister to make available the details of the contracts entered into between the PR company and his Department. Why has he not answered the questions regarding the verifiable paper audit trail and the source code of the system? Why are the questions unanswered and why is the Minister so headstrong in pushing forward this system? Will he suspend its introduction until there is all-party agreement as would happen in any decent democracy?

I regret the manner in which Fine Gael is behaving on this issue. The Deputy's party——

Are we to roll over under the jackboot tactics?

Allow the Minister to reply without interruption.

The position of the Fine Gael Party leader is that we should all vote on the Internet from our homes, but at the same time——

With proper safeguards. I am asking about safeguards.

——his Front Bench spokesperson is asking spurious questions which have been answeredad infinitum before committee.

They have not been answered. Fourteen questions remain unanswered on this.

Am I to be allowed reply to the question?

Order. Allow the Minister to reply. He is in possession.

He is telling lies.

The Deputy's bluster on this issue will not——

The Minister is not answering the question.

Order, please. This is a priority question.

We have already tested this system in a general election and a referendum. Fine Gael raised no questions after either occasion about the system, and neither did the Labour Party at the time.

We did. That is incorrect. That is not true.

Would the Deputy like to know what Fine Gael said about it?

I know what it said.

Would he like me to quote back to him what his party said at the time?

Another history lesson.

Deputy Hayes said that the current system was imperfect, Deputy Clune said that she welcomed the introduction of the new system——

What about today? What about the future?

Deputy Dukes said the electronic counting of votes would greatly facilitate——

The Minister should quit the waffle and answer the question.

The question has been more than answered. This system——

The Minister should answer it.

The Minister is not a fit person to answer the question. He has a vested interest.

In what? What is the Deputy's point now?

Order, please. Time is running out on this question.

The Minister asked what my point was. I will explain it to him.

The Deputy is full of it.

The Minister is the political head of the Department introducing the system, but it should have been introduced by an independent electoral commission established with the consent of all parties in the Dáil——

The Dáil and the Oireachtas decided on this, not I.

——as would happen in any democracy.

It was also fully supported by the Fine Gael Party.

That is not true. The Minister forced it through.

Order, the Minister is still in possession.

The Deputy knows well that these machines have been tested internationally in Germany——

In Florida.

——the Netherlands and other places by independent institutes of international renown——

That is not true.

The Deputy knows this. I am puzzled by Fine Gael's approach to this matter. Perhaps the Deputy will be interested to note that, in the previous local elections, 21,000 votes were declared spoiled. At the same time more than 40 seats——

What has that got to do with it?

——were decided by fewer than 50 votes. My point is that more than 90% of spoiled votes are inadvertently spoiled. We will be able to eliminate this from the new system, thereby giving a far more accurate result and providing what people want.

Will the Minister answer the question asked?

About what?

About a verifiable audit trail and the code source.

I assure the Deputy again that there is a full, verifiable audit trail.

There is not.

Will there be a paper audit trail?

There is none.

Does the Deputy want the information?

We should have had it by now.

Is he interested in listening to the sound of his own voice or does he want information? There is a full audit trail. In the event of any of these results being challenged in the High Court, a full ballot paper, vote by vote, can be produced. We are covered by all angles and possibilities. This is one of the best systems available. I can only go on the best national and international advice about the veracity of the system. It is time we put this argument behind us. I have listened to the criticism and have appeared before a committee of the Houses on a number of occasions and answered questions, as have the experts and my officials.

We have reached a point where we either question the credibility of the entire computer systems in use in the world or we put our confidence in them. It is ironic that we are proud to portray Ireland as a leading software exporter but Deputies demonstrate no faith in a system which is part and parcel of demonstrating to the world that e-commerce, e-Government and technology mean something here. Deputies cannot have it both ways.

Deputy Allen may ask a brief supplementary question.

Will the Minister introduce a verifiable paper audit trail so that a person who punches a preference on a machine can be satisfied that his or her express wish is translated into the registering of a vote within the machine? Also, has the Minister managed to negotiate the acquisition of the source code from the Dutch or Belgian company which produces the machines or does control of the system still rest in the foreign private sector?

Under the old system, a person put a paper vote in a box and did not get a receipt. A voter will not get a receipt this time either. That has never been part of our electoral system.

Nobody is asking for a receipt.

There is an audit trail. The Deputy knows the system has a paper audit trail. People can see on the machine that their vote is cast. The Deputy is well aware there are internal systems in the machine. The machine even has the capacity, if it is not working properly, to rectify itself.

Will there be a printout?

There will not be a printout. We will not put people walking out of a polling station under duress to produce to the Deputy, Sinn Féin or anybody else evidence of how they voted. Is the Deputy serious?

I am serious.

Order, please. The Chair calls the next question.