Thursday, 4 March 2004

Questions (1, 2)

Bernard Allen

Question:

1 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the position regarding the introduction of electronic voting; the reason he will not include a verifiable paper audit trail in the system; the further reason he will not acquire the source code from the Dutch software company; and the way in which voting and counting units were acquired by his Department before the signing of the contract to purchase and before obtaining sanction from Dáil Éireann. [7294/04]

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Eamon Gilmore

Question:

2 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the expenditure, including VAT, incurred to date on equipment, software and training for electronic voting; the estimated cost including VAT of the proposed system; the estimated cost including VAT of the proposed computerised electronic counting system; the estimated costs including VAT of the publicity campaign to promote electronic voting; his views on whether this expenditure represents value for money; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7292/04]

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Oral answers (90 contributions) (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

Detailed planning and preparations for the countrywide use of electronic voting and counting at the European and local elections are proceeding. To date, 5,190 voting machines have been delivered to returning officers, software has been subjected to continuous testing, training of returning officers and their staff is continuing, and a public education and awareness campaign on the new system is under way. In addition, the Government this week appointed an electronic voting and counting commission to make reports to the Ceann Comhairle, the first to be received not later than 1 May 2004, on the secrecy and accuracy of the Nedap-Powervote system.

My Department and independent local returning officers have exercised responsibility under successive administrations for the safe, accurate and efficient conduct of elections in Ireland. The Nedap-Powervote electronic voting and counting system has been designed, tested and proven in practice to meet these requirements. Systems embodying a so-called voter verifiable paper audit trail have not.

Only a small minority of electronic voting systems in use worldwide incorporate this function. In Brazil, one of the countries which has most extensively adopted this approach, the Superior Electoral Court has now determined that the use of a paper trail should be phased out and reliance should be placed on electronic storage of votes only. Those advocating use of a parallel paper trail in Ireland have offered no evidence or practical experience of how voters interact with this system in the real election situation. In contrast, my Department has piloted the Nedap-Powervote system on two occasions and commissioned surveys demonstrating high voter satisfaction with it.

The accuracy of the electronic voting and counting processes envisaged for Ireland has been extensively tested and verified. Tests involving a comparison of paper ballots and electronic votes have also been carried out and may be repeated as required to provide reassurance on the accuracy of the system. Use of a parallel paper system would involve a dual system in which constant confusion would arise as to whether the electronic data or the paper ballot would represent validly cast votes. In addition, the need to use printers throughout polling day would increase the likelihood of system malfunction, as occurred in a Belgian pilot scheme in 2003, following which the printer function has been abandoned.

With regard to the making available of the election management source code, I have indicated that this matter will be examined later in the year when the system, including a profile to cover presidential elections, will have been fully completed.

Election administration expenses have always been met from the Central Fund rather than voted by the Dáil. Section 37 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 applied this arrangement to the costs of acquiring electronic voting and counting systems. Following a Government decision of 30 October 2002, a letter of intent to purchase the voting machines, subject to certain conditions, issued on 28 January 2003. The commitment to purchase the voting machines was essentially conditional on the conditions in the letter of 28 January 2003 being met. The final contract was signed on 19 December 2003. Some €31.65 million has been spent to date on system hardware. The estimated cost of the system software is €467,000. Training is ongoing and cost details are not yet available. The total estimated cost of the project, excluding training costs, is €44 million, including VAT.

The voter education and awareness campaign is estimated to cost €5 million of which €1 million is VAT. This programme will include approximately €1 million to promote awareness of the polls in June and encourage the electorate to vote. The campaign will also include a mail shot to every household in the country. The cost of the awareness campaign at the general election pilot for electronic voting was €263,000, and not €80,000 as has been wrongly quoted. This is consistent with the cost of the current campaign which is for the whole country and also incorporates the voter awareness campaign and the national mail shot.

The introduction of electronic voting and counting is a desirable modernisation of the electoral system. It will improve the efficiency, speed, accuracy and user-friendliness of elections. It will also eliminate the democratic wastage associated with spoilt votes.

How can the Minister reconcile his bluster regarding the technological strength of the system with the statement released yesterday by the Irish Computer Society — which is the policy committee — and its chief executive for software engineering who said that any electronic voting system must include a paper-based voter verified audit trail because it is the only way to prove or disprove the accuracy of the electronic count? How does the Minister match that statement from the Irish Computer Society with the Brazilian experience?

If the Minister is so strong in his belief in the technological strength of the system, will he tell me how the software will address the petitions function and how it will be applied in the case of a court challenge to an electoral decision? Will he give me a straight answer to that question? The Minister should put aside his bluster about the strength of the system because he is on shaky technological ground. He is creating a crisis of confidence in the electoral system which can only be put right by the Government admitting that some major outstanding questions have not yet been answered.

If Deputy Allen wants to align himself with the group that held the press conference yesterday, that is fine.

My questions have nothing to do with the group.

The Deputy specifically asked me about the group.

The Minister should not misrepresent me. I said the Irish Computer Society.

I disagree with the group. It is talking about two completely different systems. It is not commenting on this one. Let us be clear — this is also a matter for the Fine Gael and Labour parties. The group is opposed to all forms of electronic voting.

I asked the Minister a question; I did not ask about the group.

I am answering it. If the Deputy wants the information, I will give it to him but he should, please, allow me to answer.

Will the Minister answer the question I asked?

The Deputy did this the last day also. If he wants me to respond, I will.

To the question I asked.

These are the points I want to make. The group is not dealing with the system about which we are talking. If it wants to deal with a paper trail system, of which there is none anywhere in the world — the Deputy referred to Brazil, on which I commented directly——

The Minister referred to Brazil.

The superior electoral court in Brazil has now determined that the use of a paper trail should be phased out and that reliance should be placed entirely on the electronic storage of votes.

What about the petitions function?

A paper trail scheme was piloted in Belgium but it has also been discounted in favour of a purely electronic system, for the obvious reasons.

I am glad the Deputy gave me an opportunity to raise the issue of a petition to the High Court because, as I repeated on a number of occasions, if a High Court judge adjudicating on any case wishes to see a paper ballot of all ballots cast in an election, it can be produced.

It is as simple as that. Every vote cast may be seen from number one to whatever number of preferences. The system has the capacity to do this, as I have outlined umpteen times. Equally, before polling begins on election day, the returning officer will get the findings of a paper audit of the system confirming that no votes are stored. There will also be confirmation in print-out format there was no interference with the ballot paper. This will have to be signed by the returning officer. It will be open to any representative of a candidate to also sign off on that issue with the returning officer. Equally, at the end of the process, the paper record will form part of the election process, as catered for in law. The system will sign-off on the number of votes cast and so on, which can be married with the number which has been ticked off on the register as having voted.

I reject the inference that I have created doubts about this system. I agree that there has been a serious attempt to undermine it. I am delighted we did not opt for the system which operates in America. I would not trust that system either and it has rightly been questioned. They are PC-based and open to other systems but this one has been in use for many years and tested.

Is the Minister saying that the counting machine is not PC-based?

No, it is not. Reference was made by the society to the touch screen system in use in America.

Nobody raised that.

I am not sure what the group calls itself but it appears to be moving the goalposts. It is beginning to come to the conclusion that its outcry about a verifiable paper audit trail no longer provides a valid central thesis on the issue.

It certainly is mine.

The Taoiseach indicated on the Order of Business yesterday that the commission would be entitled to recommend that electronic voting not be used in the forthcoming local and European elections. Will the Minister confirm that this option is open to it? In the event of such a recommendation being made and accepted by Government, does he have a contingency plan for the use of the traditional system of voting in the forthcoming elections?

Given that the legislation required to allow electronic voting to be used in the European and local elections has not yet been published or introduced, much less enacted by the Oireachtas, will the Minister justify the expenditure of €50 million of taxpayer's money on his favourite toy? Could the Department not find something more useful on which to spend this sum such as the provision of bathroom extensions for people with disabilities who have been waiting for three years, or the provision of heating in houses which lack such basic facilities? Where is the promised legislation to allow the system to be used in the forthcoming elections?

I publicly stated last week that if the commission, having examined the system, was unhappy or had a fundamental problem and recommended that we should not proceed with it, the Government would not proceed with it. It would be wrong——

Is the commission entitled to do so under the terms of reference set for it?

Yes, it is.

That is not clear from the terms of reference.

It is totally open to it to do so. The terms of reference were written precisely to accommodate any option which it may come up with.

It can recommend that the system not be used.

I said that publicly and the Taoiseach has repeated it in the House. There is no argument between us. That is only right.

We are in the hands of the commission.

Which is what many people want to provide independent verification. I am happy, as I have said all along, to have it verified. On the question of a contingency plan, if there were to be such a scenario, the answer is yes. We would have time to return to the previous system of a paper ballot. We made sure to consider this and will have the capacity to do it. The sum is €44 million, not €50 million, as the Deputy suggested.

If one adds 44 and five, the total is 49.

The point is that the sum of €44 million did not come from my Department's Vote, as the Deputy knows. The moneys——

It is public money.

The Deputy suggested that I could have spent it on bathrooms and so on but it is not part of my Department's Vote.

It is taxpayer's money.

We can argue that point.

The Minister cannot argue it; it is.

For the sake of clarity, they are not moneys that I could have used for something else.

It was taxpayer's money.

It comes from the Central Fund, as it always has in elections. It was always the case that there would be a cost attached. That was clear when it was mooted two or three years ago. There were indicative figures at the time of the actual cost. There is an upfront capital cost but also a strong payback in the context of the overall cost of elections. It was never presented as a money saving venture——

——no more than the installation of an electronic voting system in the House. The same applies to any other business that has embraced the world of technology in which we live. The same is true of the couple of million people who have bought mobile phones because they are more efficient, quicker and easier to use. The Oireachtas made that choice. There was not a dispute in the Houses of the Oireachtas between the parties about the move to electronic voting.

There was.

I looked at the Official Report.

So did I.

Certain questions were raised but I can quote colleagues of Deputies Gilmore and Allen who spoke during the debate. However, I do not wish to waste their time.

I spoke in the debate.

I am aware that the Deputy did. I do not dispute that.

We opposed its introduction.

There is no question that this system was fully supported by the Oireachtas. The confusion has not been caused by the Government.

What about the Minister's U-turn?

We are well over the time allowed for this question.

There was no U-turn by me on the issue.

When the Minister was abroad, the Government said there would be a facility. The Minister is going around in circles.

As the Deputy well knows, my officials and those in the Office of the Attorney General are working day and night on the legislation to get it right. We must remember the principal reason for it; it is due to a decision on the Carrickmines case which questioned the validity of secondary legislation.

Which I pointed out.

We must proceed to the next question.

We could take the view that we believe the legislation in place is sufficient but from the point of view of safety, as a belt and braces measure, we have decided to introduce primary legislation to make absolutely sure we can move in this direction. It is not overly complex.

When will we see the legislation?

I hope to have it as quickly as possible.

Next week?

Will the Minister make the heads of the Bill available?

I have to bring it to the Cabinet first.

The heads have not yet been drawn up.

We must proceed to Question No. 3.

The Taoiseach said on the Order of Business yesterday that the Bill was being drafted. How could this be the case if it has not been approved?

The general outline of the Bill and the issues to be dealt within it have been approved by Government, as normal. It is being drafted. Therefore, the Taoiseach is correct.

If it is being drafted, the heads are available.

We are way over the time limit.

Have the heads been agreed?

The general principles have been agreed. The final heads of the Bill will be referred to the Government.

Have the heads been agreed?

They have not been agreed.

The Deputy knows——

They have not been agreed.

I am not the person drafting the Bill.

We will proceed to Question No. 3. We are way over the time limit on these questions.

All I want to know is——

The Office of the Attorney General and the Department are drafting the Bill as quickly as possible. I will get it to the House as quickly as possible.

Will it be this side of St. Patrick's Day or Easter?

It will be brought to the House as soon as is humanly possibly with the co-operation of the Whips of the Labour and Fine Gael parties at a Whips' meeting.

Have the heads been agreed?

I ask the Minister to deal with Question No. 3.

With all speed but with great care the Bill will be brought to the House.

The heads have not been agreed.