Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Ceisteanna (29)

Shane Cassells


29. Deputy Shane Cassells asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if his Department has examined the possibility of using online voting for elections; his views on whether it could encourage greater voter participation in the democratic process if it were utilised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26869/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (23 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

Will the Minister of State outline the possibilities for using online voting for our elections? Will he examine whether this would encourage greater voter participation in our democracy? I met with Albert Royo-Mariné and Gov2U promoting e-democracy across Europe last month. I know the Minister met with him afterwards. Even trialling online voting would be an acceptance of how our younger generations engage and participate in all facets of their lives. Considering bad weather and people going on holidays can depress voter turnout, could technology remove some of these barriers to democratic involvement?

There are no proposals to introduce measures to support online voting or to re-introduce e-voting. In February 2000, the then Government decided to introduce a new system of direct vote recording and electronic vote counting at elections. In 2008, a commission reported that e-voting should not continue.

I have an open mind on the subject of online voting which is completely different than the e-voting system we had previously. The priorities in the Department are modification and updating of the electoral register, as well as the provision of a facility for online voter registration with a single identifier. It is hoped that work will commence in October 2018. It may take two to three years to complete but it will allow a facility for people to register for voting online. There are 23 different forms which are applicable for a voter registration, such as dealing with change of address, joining the supplementary register of electors and different types of postal votes.

I am in constant contact with the eight staff in the franchise section in the Custom House. They are the people who effectively run every election and referendum. Their resources are limited, however. The priorities are the provision of online voter registration and the establishment of an electoral commission. The broader question the Deputy raised on online voting is one that could be legitimately raised if we get to a position of having our electoral register in better order than it is currently.

It was online voting to which I was referring, which is a completely different scenario. If we are talking about updating the register, for all who practise politics, we should be concerned about our democracy and that our system needs modernisation and is secure. There is undoubtedly abuse of our system as it is based on the issuing of voting cards. These can go to addresses where people no longer reside and, in some cases, multiple cards go to one address. An examination of the voter register, especially in the areas of townhouses and apartments, points to this. Tightening this up to eliminate the potential for voter fraud should be uppermost in our minds.

I am amazed we can use online activities for every other facet of our lives. The Revenue Commissioners have secure portals for LPT payments, for example. Why can it not be used for this? Up to 14 countries have some form of online voting. Estonia, a small Baltic nation, was the first to introduce permanent national Internet voting. It has gone from 1.9% of votes cast through online voting to nearly 30% in its recent parliamentary elections. Interestingly, it also keeps the simple pencil and paper system.

If we are looking at voter registration, there is the potential to look at online voting.

There is not the potential in terms of the facility that the franchise section has as there are only eight officials working in it.

Other Members and other practising politicians consistently raise with me the fact that electoral registers are not as accurate as they could or should be. It has been a political priority for me for the past 12 months to get modernisation of the register moving.

Preparation of the scoping document on improvements to the register and proposals for online registration is now well under way and at an advanced stage of drafting. The Government will make a decision on this, hopefully, before the summer break or immediately after the return in the autumn. The proposal is to commence that work nationally before the end of this year.

I do not want to dampen the Deputy's enthusiasm and I acknowledge that online voting is different from the electronic voting we had previously. However, we should all remember the public backlash against the e-voting system that was introduced. The strong view of general public was that the principle of using a pencil and paper at the ballot box was still valued. That is not to say that as technology improves, we cannot look at online voting. Online registration and improving the register must remain the priority.

We can all agree that voting on paper is technically simple. A person goes to a polling station and writes a number. I hope it would be a No. 1 beside Shane Cassells and that would be that.

Who would be No. 2?

Online voting would make the process of voting for Shane Cassells or anybody else in Meath West even simpler. It would also be a recognition of the reality of the world in which we live. It would help younger people to engage with the democratic process. Young people are accessing information on online portals and there is an opportunity to use the same medium to allow them to vote. If we consistently resist online voting and use experiences from past elections that did not embrace technology in the best way, we will never make progress. The Minister of State said there is an opportunity to improve the electoral register. We should use that opportunity to introduce online voting. As I said, if Estonia, a small Baltic nation with a small population, can embrace this process, as it has since 2005, surely Ireland also has an opportunity to do so. There will be a series of elections next year and we could potentially trial this process in a number of constituencies.

As a vehement opponent of electronic voting in the past, I ask the Minister of State to bear in mind that voting is a democratic principle that requires a certain amount of ceremony, attention and care. We should, as a consequence, take it very seriously. The Minister of State should take on board the concept of updating the electoral register. An Post is the most appropriate body to do this as it has daily access to every doorstep in the country. It should be given the responsibility.

It is a disgrace that the Deputy is using the opportunity presented by my parliamentary question to claim online voting would not be implemented with great care. It is disgraceful that he is trying to thwart and pervert this discussion.

Deputy Cassells, I ask you to control yourself.

I am in control.

You are not. I ask you to listen to me.

If anybody in the House on any side is to accuse me of implementing or not implementing rules, I refer them to Standing Orders-----

I have no problem with you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I refer to Deputy Durkan's remarks.

I refer you to Standing Orders. What Deputy Durkan says is a matter for him.

I appreciate that.

The Ceann Comhairle, Leas-Cheann Comhairle or the occupant of this Chair has the opportunity, outside of priority questions, to give any Deputy a chance to ask a short question.

It is still shocking.

I will finish my supplementary question and I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for protecting a Member of the House.

He needs protection.

Will the Minister of State bear in mind that despite considerable scientific investment being made on the previous occasion electronic voting was proposed, the model was found to be totally inappropriate for the Irish system? Adopting such a process would leave voting in this country open to manipulation, as has happened in other, bigger jurisdictions. Will the Minister of State bear in mind the necessity to ensure voting is treated as a serious matter with pencil and paper? Due consideration is needed and the citizen should have the last word.

I point out to Deputy Durkan, my great colleague, that I indicated I had no proposals to examine the introduction of online voting. There will be a public consultation on the need for online registration in the autumn and everybody will have the opportunity to advance a view on how people could improve the standard of the electoral register online in a safe and secure way with a single identifier. My priorities and those of the franchise section continue to be the provision for improving the register and an electoral commission. The public consultation will be an opportunity for people to express their view on forms of voting in future.