Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

3:00 pm

Photo of Ciarán LynchCiarán Lynch (Cork South Central, Labour)
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Question 89: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will introduce electronic voting or electronic counting in time for the forthcoming local elections or if he will continue with the paper-based system; the costs to date of the development, roll-out and promotion of the electronic voting system; and the cost to date of storage and other costs. [20942/08]

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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As I have previously indicated to the House, I am at present considering the next steps to be taken in respect of the electronic voting project. In all of this, I am taking into account the work of the commission on electronic voting which has examined the system, relevant experiences and developments internationally and the need to maintain public confidence in the electoral process, as well as the provisions in the programme for Government relating to electoral reform generally.

I am not in a position, therefore, to be definitive regarding the timing of future use of the system. I am conscious of the extensive work inherent in the recommendations of the commission on electronic voting, including the replacement of the election management software, as well as adaptations to the equipment and further end-to-end testing. At the very least, it will be problematic to envisage use of the current e-voting scheme at the local and European elections in 2009.

The total cost incurred to date in the development and roll-out of the electronic voting and counting system is €51.3 million, including some €2.6 million in respect of awareness and education initiatives. In addition, information provided by returning officers to my Department indicates that the total annual storage costs incurred by them in respect of the electronic voting machines and ancillary equipment in 2007 is some €489,000, with figures for 2004, 2005 and 2006 amounting to some €658,000, €696,000, and €706,000, respectively. Costs incurred to date in respect of the movement of the electronic voting equipment to centralised storage arrangements are some €328,000. Further costs will be incurred in respect of the completion of these arrangements, including buy-out costs.

Photo of Ciarán LynchCiarán Lynch (Cork South Central, Labour)
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The pertinent part of the question asked whether electronic voting will be used in next year's local elections. Judging by the Minister's response this afternoon, the answer is "No". His response mentions the commission's 2006 report which contained a number of recommendations and very clear points.

Electronic voting was set up to improve the efficiency of the electoral administration, create minimum maintenance for the pre-election, election and post-election periods and support the positive image in the country of the use of electronic information. On those three fronts, electronic voting has clearly failed.

Has the Minister signed up to this project or not? It has been two years since the commission brought its report before the House and its recommendations are quite clear. If the Minister is not sure about this, I call tell him that last week the Dutch Government, which used the same electronic voting system as us, found that the system it purchased is so faulty that it has now scrapped it and reverted to a pen and paper system. This is the same system which is costing us €500,000 per year, at a subsidised rate I might add. We got the rate reduced to €500,000 per year to store annually. The sum is now approaching almost €16 million in total expenditure to date.

It is unbelievable that the Minister can say that he is looking at it when a report has been on the desk of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government since 2006. I accept that the report has been on the current Minister's desk since last autumn. Will the Minister clarify whether he is seriously looking at the use of these machines for the local elections next year or is he saying that there will be further examination of this matter?

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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The report has been on my desk since 2007. The Deputy said it had been there since 2006.

Photo of Ciarán LynchCiarán Lynch (Cork South Central, Labour)
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The commission's report was put on the then Minister's desk in 2006.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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Let us be very clear on this issue. Due to my involvement in very close election counts over the years, I have advocated the use of electronic voting. The most important thing is that we have public confidence in the system. The Deputy rightly points out that there have been reports from the Dutch Government. It recently issued a statement that it is currently not possible to guarantee that a newly developed electronic voting system would be secure from the emission of radio signals within the stringent threshold set and, therefore, decided to abandon all plans to use electronic voting systems at this time. The statement also refers to the significant investment that would be required to produce the new proposed electronic voting system, which the Dutch Cabinet has decided would add little value compared to voting with pencil and paper. The Dutch electorate will vote using pencil and paper in the foreseeable future.

However, the Deputy needs to be aware that the Nedap voting machines, which are the machines about which we are talking, have recently been recertified in Germany, with the Federal Interior Ministry concluding that the Nedap machines correspond fully with the requirements of German democratic elections. A statement from that Minister late last year found that the recommendations of the Dutch committee to no longer use the Nedap machines was not based on technical uncertainty and were not transferable to Germany. Parliamentary elections in Hessen went ahead with the use of the reapproved Nedap machines on 27 January 2008.

I am weighing up all these issues and the very latest data. I have a predisposition to caution but will weigh up all the options. If I find that the cost is prohibitive and, in particular, that we cannot get public confidence in the system, I will have to look at that very carefully and make a decision on that basis. That is the situation. I hope that when I reach a definitive decision, the Deputy will pat me on the back for doing so.

Photo of Ciarán LynchCiarán Lynch (Cork South Central, Labour)
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We know the Dutch and German position on this but we do not know the Irish position. I ask the Minister to set about establishing an Oireachtas committee with powers of compellability to examine the future of electronic voting in this country so that within six months we will have an answer to the question as to whether we will proceed.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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As much as I would like to empower Members of the Oireachtas, there is no need for that. I am quite capable of making those decisions myself and I will be——

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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When will the Minister make a decision?

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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I will be making those decisions on the basis of all of the evidence available. We only received the Dutch report last week. I must examine all of the data and make a decision but a decision I will make.