Dáil, 2004-04-08

Order of Business

Mr. Kenny:

Yesterday the Tánaiste indicated that she informed the House on 5 February of the necessity not to bring in primary legislation on this matter. In her reply to my question she stated she had spoken before a relevant Supreme Court case. That was not the situation, as she addressed the House on 5 February and the Supreme Court case was held on 27 January. I invite the Tánaiste to correct the record of the House. […]

Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

Ms O'Sullivan:

The Government's priorities this week and in the weeks to come are an abuse of the Dáil, democracy and the people. This arrogant Government is unilaterally unravelling the Good Friday Agreement by rushing through legislation to allow for a change in the Constitution without discussing it with the Northern Ireland parties, which are signatories of the Agreement, or in any proper way with the parties in this House. It will be rushed through unnecessarily so that it can be put to the people electronically in the format we are discussing today.

Electronic voting is of major concern to the people but it is being rushed through in a way that ignores the real concerns of the Opposition. Deputy John Bruton referred to the consensus that normally exists on these matters and that in response there is good will. People feel that the results of our work enjoy the support of the State and the parties in the Dáil. That has not happened in this case.

If electronic voting were to produce good results which were of paramount importance and would justify rushing this Bill through, we might support it in the House today. However, I cannot see any opportunities in the Bill to improve the system. Electronic voting might have produced an improvement in access, accuracy and trust, but the Government is falling down on all those points. If it had taken its time and responded to concerns raised by the Opposition and members of the public, about which I have received e-mails, the Government could have done better.

On the issue of access, I refer particularly to people who are blind or partially-sighted, in respect of whom possibilities are not to be grasped. We have seen information by experts about how the system could have been made more accurate through random selection, but the new system will not be any better than that which we already have. Moreover, it will be worse in that no second or third subsequent counts will be possible to ascertain different random results. In the context of trust, the question of a voter-verified audit trail has been raised from the beginning of this debate and was addressed in detail by the Labour Party in a document before the legislation was published in September 2003, but these concerns have not been responded to. Therefore, in the three important areas in which we could have seen improvements in the system in order that the will of the people was more accurately implemented, we have seen none.

We are gaining nothing and losing a great deal. As many Deputies have said, we are losing the ritual of the count and manual voting by which means voters can see that their votes have been recorded accurately. In losing that ritual, we are losing much of the excitement, fun and sport of elections, which is important because it is one of the factors that makes people interested in politics. We have seen a significant increase in the number of people turned off politics, especially young people. People could follow the count over a few days on radio and television. They could listen to results on local radio stations on which they are reported box by box over time. They can even bet on the outcome of elections, and I had the honour of winning money for people in the bookies on an election.

Mr. O'Dowd:

They will win again because the Government will lose.

Ms O'Sullivan:

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 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.

Ms Hoctor:

Táim an-bhuíoch díot, a Chathaoirligh, as ucht seans a fháil labhairt os comhair an Tí ar an mBille tábhachtach seo. I am delighted to have this brief opportunity to express my opinions and to welcome the electronic voting system. Although the Government is being accused of rushing the Bill through the Dáil, those of us who were elected to local authorities in 1999 were clearly told that would be the last local election to use a paper count. This measure has been in preparation for more than four years and it is to be welcomed. The new system will bring speed, efficiency and accuracy. While the present system is good, it will be improved by the new electronic mechanism which will be in place nationwide on 11 June.

In the general election of May 2002, the votes of more than 20,000 voters were not accepted during the count. While 95% of voters complete their ballot papers with the best of intent some, due to inaccuracy or some distraction, do not state their preference clearly and their votes are questioned by the returning officer and rejected. Electronic voting will provide greater accuracy for the voter. While voters may change their minds before finally casting their vote, it will be accurately recorded. That must be welcomed. We are elected to represent the interests of people who do and do not vote. I hope the accuracy of the electronic system will make it more attractive to voters.

The Nedap-Powervote system has been accepted as the blueprint to follow. It has been successfully used in Holland for more than ten years. The French Government has accepted the same system for its municipal elections and it is also used in Germany. We will be well able to use the electronic system on 11 June.

We must also remember that there are many constituencies and that the total number of voters who used the system at the last election was 400,000. The people in this House were successfully elected by people who used the electronic system. Any error which may have occurred at that election can be rectified. It was the launching pad for the electronic system to be used nationwide. The Department's customer survey in the constituencies which were involved at the last election proved that 87% of voters were happy with the system. That is a significant figure which gives the green light to the system and which assures us of its accuracy and efficiency.

The current system has been successful. As Deputy O'Sullivan said, the fun of election day was memorable for most people for the right reasons. As regards the accuracy and confidentiality of the current system, we know that could be breached if we did not have trust in the polling clerks and presiding officers. If the presiding officer or polling clerk memorised the number on the ballot paper of a person who cast his or her vote, for example, he or she would know for whom that person had voted when counting the papers. I am not saying that happened under the manual system, but they were in the privileged position of being able to do that if they so wished. At least the electronic system means the person will get time to reflect on his or her vote and then to press the red button. It will then be randomly turned within the system so that it cannot be traced, as is the case at present under the paper system. I welcome the confidentiality of the ballot which will be more secret under this system.

It is important that people are well informed. I do not know if the roadshow travelled around the country extensively. I had the opportunity at one of our local county council meetings to study the machine and I was impressed with it. I understand that people who had the opportunity to use it throughout the country were happy with it. Elderly people have welcomed it. Their fears were allayed when they saw the machine and realised the photographs of the candidates would be displayed. That means the system is user-friendly. I am sure people will be able to vote on four different ballot papers on the same day for county councils, town councils, etc. It will be great to see all the candidates and ballot papers displayed on the screen.

The Minister must ensure that the roadshow continues around the country. People's greatest fear is of the unknown. If they become familiar with the system before election day, they will not have any fears. I welcome the new voting system and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to briefly address the House. I support the Minister and the Bill. We use electronic voting in Leinster House all the time now. It has always been accurate and we have not questioned it.

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Cullen):

I thank the Deputies who took part in this wide-ranging debate on the Bill and particularly my two Ministers of State who have given an inordinate amount of time to be in the House for the debate.

I observed a number of patterns running through the Opposition's contributions. The first is what appears to be negativity towards making improvements in our electoral procedures. Does the Opposition not want to improve our electoral procedures? It wants to use modern technology in this House and elsewhere, but it does not want the public to use it. The public is way ahead of us in this matter and, as was demonstrated at the pilot programmes, more than 90% approved the use of the voting machines. The public will not have any problems with the use of the voting machines next June.

Another point I observed was the single-mindedness of the references by the Opposition to the US. One would think we were discussing the US election procedures. I noted that some contributions read like some of the e-mails I and other Members of the House received from the US. The Opposition frequently say, quite incorrectly, that some Members on this side of the House prefer the Boston to the Berlin model. Having listened to many of the Opposition's contributions, it appears it does not know that there are many countries, other than the US, which use electronic voting successfully.

The deputy leader of the Labour Party spoke about how she discussed electronic voting with a professor in the US to get his views. However, she did not say whether she discussed the differences between the systems used in the US and the system proposed for us here, which would be more pertinent. I understand her party is a member of the second largest group in the European Parliament. Why did she not ask her colleague who is a member of the Parliament to consult with his colleagues from the Netherlands, Germany and now France, some of whom were elected in the past using the system which will be used here and who will be elected again on that system in June. Is there any doubt or illegality attaching to their election? I do not think so.

Mr. Durkan:

What about Florida?

Mr. Cullen:

Why does the Opposition concentrate solely on the US experience? Why does it not ask our EU neighbours who used the Nedap system for their views? Why does it not look at India or Brazil where millions of voters use electronic voting and counting? Why can we with only 3 million voters not use the system when such diverse countries ranging from the developed countries of Europe to the less-developed countries of India and Brazil use electronic voting and counting?

Another thread running through the debate was the lack of trust in technology. Much of that probably comes from the e-mails the Opposition received from people, many of whom claim to be IT experts. These people do not have a problem using IT, but they do not want other people to use it.

Mr. Durkan:

That is a lot of rubbish. The Minister cannot prove his case.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Carey):

Deputy Durkan should allow the Minister to reply.

Mr. Durkan:

That is utter nonsense.

Mr. Cullen:

They are not representative of the entire IT industry and community and they are not all experts.

Mr. Durkan:

The Minister is not an expert.

Mr. Cullen:

Opposition Deputies keep referring to the experts. Have they stopped for one minute to ask these people where their expertise comes from, especially in electoral matters? We can all claim to be experts, but the Opposition should be more circumspect in believing everything it hears or receives in e-mails.

Mr. Durkan:

The Minister rubbishes experts if they do not agree with him. He only accepts them if they agree with him.

Mr. Cullen:

I arranged for people who worked with technology in the electoral area for decades to address the joint committee, but little, if any, heed was given to their evidence by the Opposition. Instead it chose to dwell on evidence given by opponents to the system, some of whom have no experience of elections and little proven expertise in IT.

Another piece of misinformation aired again during the debate is that the Government is trying to change the electoral system. That is utterly untrue as the new system provides only a method of voting, recording and vote counting.

Mr. Durkan:

Why does the Minister not run a dual system to prove his case and see if he gets the same result?

Mr. Cullen:

The same PRSTV system still applies in full. Changes to the count rules, not the electoral system, will be considered after June 2004.

I will now deal with some of the specific points raised. Before addressing them, I must state that I and the Department have considered all reports and observations made to us and we have spent a considerable amount of time and resources in responding to them.

Mr. Durkan:

Without any authorisation.

Mr. Cullen:

As the Opposition and the experts do not like or agree with our replies, we are accused of arrogance and of putting our heads in the sand.

Mr. Kehoe:

Dictatorship.

Mr. Cullen:

One would think the so-called experts know everything, but there are clearly established systems in operation, not all in the US, which rebut their arguments. We have responded extensively. In the Oireachtas, both Houses and the joint committee have spent almost 20 hours discussing this topic since last November. Not surprisingly, the debate is generally repetitive.

Mr. Durkan:

And inconclusive.

Mr. Cullen:

Deputy Gilmore asked why we are spending time on the Bill instead of on other legislation. Perhaps he should answer that himself. Despite spending approximately 20 hours debating this topic since November, the Opposition would like to have more time.

Mr. Durkan:

A total of €60 million down the drain.

Mr. Cullen:

The Bill derives mostly from the judgment in the courts about ministerial orders. We would argue about this matter but the Deputies will know that when Members of the Opposition were in Government they used the same orders, especially in the electoral area. They did not appear to have any trouble with their use. Section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 was drafted having regard to the Supreme Court judgment in the Cityview Press case.

Mr. Durkan:

The Minister's colleagues on the backbenches should hear the Minister's speech.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

Mr. Cullen:

Apart from a few Deputies, all the parties are in favour of electronic voting. One would scarcely believe that fact from all the misinformation and doubts created by the Opposition in recent months.

The issue of trust arose many times in the debate. If there is a lack of trust, it arises from the Opposition's stance and pronouncements in the media. It should be clear from this debate that all the Opposition parties are in favour of electronic voting. However, it is a little dubious to profess support for electronic voting in the House and then give the impression to the media and the public that they oppose it. I accept there are some matters on which there is concern but these concerns are being met in a reasonable manner. Unfortunately, however, neither the Opposition nor some sections of the media wishes to listen or take on board the responses given or to deal with them in a reasonable manner.

The three matters which have been raised most frequently are the facility called the voter verifiable paper audit trail or VVPAT, making the source code available and the testing of the system. I and the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, have dealt with these matters on a number of occasions in the House, at the joint committee and in the Seanad. I will deal with them once more in the time available. The VVPAT is a subject which is exercising concern, mostly in the US, over the use of PC based systems. Whether the facility should be provided is the subject of debate. It is not a proven or statutory requirement. There are arguments on both sides but we must live in the real world, not the academic world. In California, where it is proposed that the new equipment purchased in 2005 must have a VVPAT, there are no such machines available.

Mr. Durkan:

That is why it should be abandoned.

Mr. Cullen:

There is also a court challenge that such a system will disadvantage disabled and other groups. Assisting those groups is one of the main arguments for using electronic voting. Does the Opposition not wish to facilitate people with physical or visual disabilities? Several Deputies in their contributions sought a facility to enable visually impaired voters to vote independently.

The only country that was using a VVPAT type system is now discontinuing it. Our European neighbours are not using it. Are they all wrong or are the so-called experts the only people who are correct about this?

Mr. Durkan:

Nobody else has our voting system. The Minister did not mention that.

Mr. Cullen:

Are people who credible have campaigned for the facility and who have admitted on the radio that they have not seen the voting machine? That is their argument against electronic voting. Is Deputy Connolly's argument credible when he admits that he has never seen or used the voting machine? The debate has been marked by statements from people who have never used or seen the voting machine and consequently know little about it.

Mr. Allen:

All one sees is a frame.

Mr. Cullen:

A major point in the debate was the admission by a leading party spokesperson that the proposed system is not the same as the US system complained of. At least that is some recognition of reality.

If one compares the various steps in the advocated VVPAT to what the Nedap voting machine does, there is little or no difference. The major argument is that the voter will see an image of his or her vote before pressing the cast vote button. This claim shows the lack of information about the proposed system and the invalid comparisons made with a PC based system. In the latter, one votes by touching the screen against the image of a ballot paper and when one finishes one presses another button or prompt. A second image appears so one can confirm it is the same as the original.

Mr. Durkan:

Sixty million is a great deal to spend on a theory.

Mr. Cullen:

Opponents fail to recognise or perhaps do not want to admit that on the Nedap machine the voter sees the ballot paper on the voting machine screen. It is the actual ballot paper, not an image of it.

Another myth is about verification. The voter can verify on the machine that the preference recorded when pressing the vote for candidate is for that candidate, as the details are displayed on the voting machine display screen. The machine, therefore, permits a voter to verify his or her preference before pressing the cast vote button. With regard to printing a ballot paper at the time of voting, this is unnecessary and would create constitutional and practical difficulties. The Opposition knows that.

Mr. Durkan:

Suddenly the Constitution comes into focus. I hope the Minister does not believe all that rubbish.

Mr. Cullen:

What I have learned from this debate is the reason Fine Gael is going through the floor in terms of voter popularity. The party does not have a bull's notion of what is going on.

Mr. Durkan:

If the Minister's former leader was here, he would not stand there telling us that.

Mr. Cullen:

The Deputy does not have a bull's notion. First, if such ballot papers are printed, no matter who stores them a link is created between the voter and the vote. This is not permitted under the Constitution, as the Deputy probably knows but does not want to admit. The practical difficulties with printers are well known and there is no need for me to go into detail about them. The Labour Party report, which was mentioned in the debate, recognised that with our count rules the availability of such printed ballot papers could not be relied upon to give the same result as an electronic count due to the different mix of ballot papers. If the printer broke down or the poll had to be suspended if one ballot paper is missing, the argument for a VVPAT manual check would be negated. The system will produce printed ballot papers if ordered by the courts. There is little difference here and the Opposition is being mischievous in its comments.

Mr. Durkan:

Absolutely. We are not the ones spending €60 million of taxpayers' money on this.

Mr. McCormack:

The people do not trust the Government.

Mr. Allen:

The Minister is like a boy with a new toy.

Mr. Cullen:

No justified concerns have arisen in the debate. The Opposition recycles the same points raised in the past few months, which seem intended to confuse the electorate, particularly as all the parties opposite agree with electronic voting and counting. There is no point in complaining about lack of trust, as the parties opposite say. They agree with electronic voting and counting in the House and say the opposite outside. It is time to move on and embrace the future. Unfortunately, Fine Gael is rooted in the past.

Question put.

The Dáil divided: Tá, 63; Níl, 53.

Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004: Referral to Select Committee

Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Cullen):

I move:

That the Bill be referred to the Select Committee on Environment and Local Government, in accordance with Standing Order 120(1) and paragraph 1(a)(i) of the Orders of Reference of that committee.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at 1.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 April 2004.

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