Seanad debates

Friday, 7 May 2004

Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2004: Second Stage.


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

11:00 am

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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The Bill before the House, which was passed by Dáil Éireann yesterday, follows from the undertaking of the amended motion passed by Dáil Éireann on 18 February to establish on a statutory footing the Commission on Electronic Voting which has been asked to report on the secrecy and accuracy of the arrangements proposed for electronic voting; introduce legislation to enable electronic voting to be held at non-Dáil elections; provide for more explicit arrangements regarding abstention from voting; and set out conditions under which tally data may be made available from the electronic voting system to interested parties.

While the recent publication of the interim report by the Commission on Electronic Voting on 30 April has altered the timeframe for the nationwide introduction of electronic voting, the commission stated that electronic voting brings with it many benefits, such as fewer inadvertent voter errors, quicker election results and reduced administrative costs.

The commission, which is independent in the performance of its functions, has taken a precautionary approach to the core issues of secrecy and accuracy. The Government accepts that the commission has been unable to provide sufficient positive assurance, in the time available, in regard to using an electronic voting and counting system at the June elections and, in accordance with its commitment, it has taken the decision to postpone its use at the June polls. In its report, the commission acknowledged that the threshold of proof required to support the recommendation in favour of the system's use is much higher than the level of proof required to recommend against its use.

The commission also emphasised that its conclusions were not based on any finding that the current Nedap-Powervote system will not work, but on the desirability of allowing time for further testing and quality assurance. In addition, the commission confirmed that the selected system can accurately and consistently record the votes cast, as demonstrated by the successful independent tests carried out by its experts.

The commission's key recommendations relate primarily to the strengthening of the election management software and of security procedures and protocols surrounding the running of elections. Testing of the voting machines by its experts confirmed that the system accurately and consistently recorded voter preferences, including in the context of multiple simultaneous elections, and that the system accurately counted the votes recorded at the pilot polls. In light of these conclusions, it is necessary to review the system and put in place any extra procedures to satisfy the commission on any concerns it may have.

The motivation for introducing electronic voting is to improve the efficiency, accuracy and user-friendliness of Irish election procedures and to eliminate the democratic wastage associated with spoilt votes which numbered more than 20,000 at the 2002 general election, over 24,000 at the 1999 local elections and some 46,500 at the last European election. It is estimated that at least 95% of those invalid ballot papers were inadvertently spoiled. Electronic voting is more than just about improving election procedures by the use of modern technology. By modernising and transforming elections in a visible way, we want to create the opportunity for tackling voter apathy and improving the image of elections.

Despite the commission's inability to endorse the system at this time, I reiterate that it has been in use for over ten years throughout the Netherlands, with a population of over 16 million people, for some years in a number of German cities, at pilots in the United Kingdom and at two polls in this country. More recently it has received a general approval from the French Government for use at elections in that country and has been used, successfully, in Brest. The Governments, opposition parties and peoples of these countries do not operate an electoral system which is insecure or unreliable. Their democracies are not damaged or diminished in any way because of the use of electronic voting and counting.

The voting machine hardware and software have been rigorously tested on two separate occasions; first, before the pilot use of the system in 2002 and again last year following some modifications to the voting machine to make it easier for voters to use and the addition of some further security features. The German Institute for Science and Technology, PTB, specifically tested the voting machine to ensure that the votes cast on a ballot paper were stored correctly in the ballot module. It has certified that the system carries out the recording and storage of votes correctly. That has been confirmed by the commission, especially regarding the pilot use of the system in 2002.

As well as enabling electronic voting at Dáil elections, the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 provided for the application of the new system to elections to the European Parliament, the Presidency and local authorities, as well as referendums. The intended method of applying the new system to non-Dáil elections was by extension of the provisions of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 by way of a ministerial order under that Act in accordance with its principles. However, following the Supreme Court decision in the Mulcreevy case relating to Carrickmines Castle, some doubts were raised about the use of such an order and, therefore, the Bill is intended to remove any such doubt.

The Government, out of respect for the significance of the electoral process and for the avoidance of any doubt, has decided to apply the provisions of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001 to other elections and referendums by way of primary legislation rather than by the use of ministerial orders as envisaged by section 48 of that Act. That is the essential purpose of Part 2 and Schedules 1 to 4, inclusive, to the Bill. Part 3 provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of the independent Commission on Electronic Voting to prepare a report on the secrecy and accuracy of the Nedap-Powervote system. In view of the urgency of its work, the commission, which was established last March, is operating on a non-statutory basis.

There has been much comment from political parties and Members that the system should provide some information in lieu of that obtained by tally persons. Included in the Bill is a provision for the supply of tally information by returning officers following the holding of a poll. While tallyman information has been provided in past elections, it was largely on an unofficial basis. The introduction of the electronic voting and counting system means that if tallyman-type information is to be made available, it must be provided for in electoral law. The new system also has the capacity to furnish electoral patterns and more detailed information with 100% accuracy. Consequently, we must ensure that, in whatever manner such data is made available, it does not violate or infringe the secrecy of the ballot. That is a fundamental constitutional obligation that must be respected. The precise arrangements for the tallyman information will be set out in appropriate regulations under section 30 after the Minister has concluded his discussions with the Attorney General on the matter.

We would also have regard to the cautions which the Commission on Electronic Voting has expressed about too much disclosure of the information generated by the electronic voting system. I would like to refer to secrecy and voting procedures. Just as with the paper ballot system, the electronic voting process is designed to facilitate the voter in casting his or her vote in a secret and completely secure manner. Polling staff who operate the voting machine control unit are not permitted to approach the voting machine to activate or deactivate it. They can perform their functions remotely using the control unit. When the poll clerk activates the voting machine for a voter, the voter can record preferences for those polls in which he or she is eligible to vote. Once the voter has checked the preferences displayed on the panel of the voting machine, the voter can press the "cast vote" button, whereupon the voting machine display and control unit will confirm that the vote has been stored properly and the machine will be deactivated by the polling staff.

If a person decides to go to a polling station but not to vote, that person may have his or her name marked off the register of electors and be authorised to use the voting machine. Where the person leaves the voting machine without pressing the "cast vote" button, the polling station staff will deactivate the voting machine before the next prospective voter uses it. That is done by use of a key on the control unit, with no need to communicate with the person who has left without voting or to approach the voting panel itself. The abstentionist voter is neither advised nor required to communicate in any manner with the poll clerk if he or she does not wish to press the "cast vote" button. The voting machine records the number of such failures to press the "cast vote" button and that would be published as part of the election statistics.

The provisions of the Bill and of accompanying guidelines which would be issued make those arrangements clear so that reasonable provision is made to ensure the privacy of all persons using electronic voting, including those who come to the voting machine but do not exercise their vote. Having said that, I believe, as I am sure do all Members of this House, that voting at free elections should ideally be seen as both a right and a duty of Irish citizens.

I now turn to some of the detailed provisions of the Bill. Part 1 contains several general provisions. Section 2 provides for offences regarding unlawful interference or damage to voting machines and other related equipment, including software used for the voting system equipment, while section 3 provides for the repeal of section 48 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, which will be replaced by Part 2 of the Bill and Schedules 1 to 4, inclusive.

Part 2 and Schedules 1 to 4, inclusive, to the Bill enable the use of voting machines and electronic vote counting at statutory elections to the European Parliament, local authorities, the Presidency and referendums. The text is generally the same as that provided for in Part 3 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, which deals with Dáil elections but is adapted as necessary for the other three types of elections and referendums. Sections 6 and 7 provide for the modification of certain provisions of the Presidential Elections Act 1993, Referendum Act 1994, European Parliament Elections Act 1997 and the Local Elections Regulations 1995 to enable voting on voting machines and electronic vote counting at the elections and referendum concerned.

Part 3 provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of the Commission on Electronic Voting to consider the secrecy and accuracy of use of the system and to make recommendations in that regard, including the application or not of the system. As we now know, the commission issued its interim report and, as a result, the Government followed its commitment that the system would not be used at the June polls if the commission was not entirely satisfied with it. Section 17 provides for the continuation of the independent Commission on Electronic Voting constituted by the Government before the Bill and for the continuation in office of its chairman and other members. Section 18 provides specifically that the commission be independent in the performance of its functions under the Bill. The terms of reference given to the commission are set out in sections 21 and 22 and Schedule 5. Those envisage a first report from the commission to the Ceann Comhairle by 1 May 2004 together with a subsequent report or reports.

Section 19 sets out the membership of the commission. The members comprise a judge of the High Court, who is the chairperson, the Clerk of the Dáil, the Clerk of the Seanad and two other persons with knowledge or experience in the field of information technology. Sections 20 to 28, inclusive, provide for the usual different functional aspects of the commission relating to such matters as expenses, staffing, submissions and vacancies. Under section 22, the commission will present its reports to the Ceann Comhairle, who will have them laid before both Houses.

Part 4 has six sections providing for some miscellaneous matters. Section 30 provides that the Minister may regulate for the provision by the returning officer of election or referendum information after the conclusion of a count, provided such information shall not endanger the secrecy of the ballot. That is the provision designed to authorise release of data analogous to the former tallyman system. Section 31 provides for an amendment to allow the name of the election and constituency name to be printed in large capitals on the top of the ballot paper for use on the voting machine. Section 32 makes consequential changes to Part 3 of the Electoral (Amendment) Act 2001, following provisions in Part 2 of the Bill. Section 33 provides for the repeal, consequent to the Supreme Court decision in the Kelly case, of part of paragraph 2(a) of the Schedule to the Electoral Act 1997, which dealt with the use of property, services or facilities paid for out of public funds at a presidential election which were exempt election expenses.

Section 34 provides for an amendment to section 161 of the Local Government Act 2001, to enable an order to be made to allow the continuing in force of arrangements whereby certain local authority staff may become councillors and are not rendered ineligible for local elections next June.

Section 35 provides that it will be an offence to make improper use of a polling information card at elections. The report of the Commission on Electronic Voting envisages that electronic voting should be progressed for all forms of elections in Ireland, subject to a further testing programme. The commission in its recommendations has provided a clear route map to enable this to be achieved. It has not concluded its work at this time and my Department will co-operate with the commission in implementing its recommendations regarding the further tests of the Nedap-Powervote system.

The use of electronic voting continues to gain in strength around the globe, from sophisticated and developed European countries such as the Netherlands to developing states such as India with its enormous population and diverse circumstances. I am confident, working with the commission and its recommendations, that the benefits of electronic voting will soon be made available to the Irish electorate. In years to come, the investment which we have made in the system will be seen to be a wise one. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State but regret that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, has sent his messenger and second-in-command to the House to cover up the expensive mistakes he has made. I wonder whether the Minister has resigned or if he is recuperating after the fiasco he found himself in following the report of the Commission on Electronic Voting.

Photo of Cyprian BradyCyprian Brady (Fianna Fail)
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He is out doing his work.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Fine Gael)
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Leaving aside some peripheral matters, this Bill's function is to give official approval to a system of electronic voting for local and European elections in June. Perhaps the Minister of State will excuse me for pointing out that e-voting will not be introduced in June and that currently, the whole area of electronic voting has a massive question mark hanging over it. Given the conclusions reached by the Commission on Electronic Voting, that system now appears to be obsolete and not likely to be introduced again in its current form.

What is the Minister of State doing here today, wasting the time of this House and taxpayers' money discussing a Bill which is now by its very nature irrelevant? Members' time could be better spent considering the Residential Tenancies Bill which should have been before us many months ago. I oppose this Bill in the strongest possible terms and until the Government can present a system that is fully transparent and accountable without spin and deceit, there can be no support from Fine Gael for such legislation.

The Commission on Electronic Voting, which was essentially set up to answer the doubts of the Opposition, predictably found against the introduction of electronic voting in the June elections. Among many other flaws in the system, it discovered it was not possible to obtain access to the full source code of the system, which was deemed necessary to establish its trustworthiness to a level compatible with the critical importance of voting at elections. It also found that tests of the system carried out to date were insufficient to establish its reliability for use at elections in June. It went on to state that the system had not been tested as a whole or certified as being suitable for use in an Irish electorate context by an accredited testing and certification authority.

As one of only two Oireachtas Members to make a submission to the commission, outlining my opposition to the hasty introduction of an unreliable and insecure system, I am delighted to say that democracy has triumphed over an arrogant, incompetent Minister who would not listen when we pointed out the serious flaws. I congratulate the commission on its excellent work and would certainly support any measures necessary to establish it on a statutory basis.

I ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, to consider his position and tell us how he can justify squandering in excess of €50 million of taxpayers' money on what are now obsolete voting machines, despite the many voices of reason that attempted to divert him from his opportunistic course. I understand that the ballot boxes have been sold by the OPW for €2 each in spite of having cost the State something in the region of €50 each. Is the Minister now going to buy them back and what agreement has he made in this regard?

The course of Irish democracy may have been well served by the commission as regards the forthcoming elections but questions must be asked concerning the outcome of the last general election in the constituencies of Dublin West, Dublin North and Meath, which were used as e-voting guinea pigs. In Dublin West, the total number of votes cast as recorded by the presiding officers, namely the number of postal and special votes cast on machines plus the number of votes on voting machines at polling stations, was 29,272 and the total number of votes cast on voting machines including postal and special votes and null votes as recorded on ballot modules, was 29,988, with a discrepancy between the two figures of minus 716.

In Dublin North the total number of votes cast on voting machines, as recorded by the presiding officers, namely the number of postal and special votes cast on voting machines plus the number of votes on voting machines at polling stations, was 45,236 and the total number of votes cast on voting machines including postal and special votes and null votes as recorded on ballot modules was 43,942, with a discrepancy between the figures of plus 1,294 votes, these being two different types of errors.

The findings of the pilot test on the Nedap-Powervote system were inconclusive. No connection can be established between the number of votes cast and the set of results declared. The official document with the summary reconciliation of vote accounts shows major discrepancies. The PC count application crashed during the count. The same problems occurred in both the Dublin West and Dublin North constituencies.

These figures and findings speak for themselves and we have gone far beyond the pious platitudes served up by Deputy Cullen such as: "The system is secure and reliable and can be trusted by the people." His colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, said in support that "the system would be the most accurate and therefore the most democratic the State has ever had". It would appear that Fianna Fáil's definition of democracy is unique and highly suspect. We have had the Dempsey, Fahey, Cooper-Flynn and Coughlan scandals as well as the tribunal and now the e-voting scandals.

Questions must be asked on the outcome of the last general election. They will be asked and answers must be provided. Neither I nor my colleagues in Fine Gael are against the idea of electronic voting; in fact we fully support the concept. However, the concept we support is the introduction of a system based on the democratic principles of transparency and trust.

The Minister wanted to sell us a pig in a poke. He refused to countenance the use of any other system. He reneged on the Government's commitment to cross-party consultation and support and conned the electorate as regards the cost and transparency of his suspect system. He deliberately withheld a report by Zerflow Holdings, which emphatically stated that the system was not tamper-proof. This report was in the Minister's hands before the general election and yet the system was partially used in the constituencies already mentioned.

The Minister was asked by the Opposition and by concerned citizens and groups to modify the system to provide a paper trail, so that the subsequent records could be used for spot-checks or recounts, but he refused to countenance such a proposal.

The introduction of electronic voting is an exciting advancement but it is important that it is introduced in a foolproof way that will instil the greatest possible confidence in the electorate. Greater transparency is the only way to achieve this. A total of €52 million has been wasted and this loss is to be compounded by another €50,000 which will be needed to store the machines in the Minister, Deputy Cullen's constituency. This money, totalling more than €52 million, could have been put to good use in social welfare, housing the homeless or supporting widows and widowers who were almost victims of the Minister of State's heartless Government colleagues. The shell of the Longford-Westmeath hospital in Mullingar, built 11 years ago, is not complete and €52 million has been ring-fenced for its development, the same sum the Government has squandered on the electronic voting project. We have paid many times for the squandermania of this Government. The list is endless and the mismanagement of our funds is endless and without logic.

My colleague, Deputy Allen, has already cast some doubt over the storage of the machines. He obtained the contract for their storage under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 and noted that the original figure of €25,000 was crossed out and replaced by a hand-written one of €50,000. The Minster should tell us what this means and where he intends in Waterford to store the machines. Our money is paying the bill and it would be better spent providing a Waterford regional hospital with a radiotherapy unit as my colleague, Senator Cummins, has frequently said. It is the hallmark of this Government to throw good money after bad and ignore the needs of the sick and the most vulnerable in our society.

It is essential that e-voting is not introduced in the future without cross-party agreement. If the Government had listened to the Opposition and not insisted on ploughing ahead regardless perhaps we would now be in a better position to introduce an e-voting system that had the confidence of all parties, and most important, of the electorate.

The Electoral (Amendment) Bill should consider and resolve anomalies such as that of the requirement of independent candidates to bring 15 registered voters before the returning officer on the date they submit their nomination. This requirement surely flies in the face of democracy and is a direct discrimination against non-affiliated candidates. The Minister of State should explain this anomaly and take every step possible to reverse this grossly unfair and undemocratic position.

If the Bill before us were to address such situations it might be worthy of our time. As it stands it is nothing but an attempt to railroad us into accepting a system introduced by a Minister whose blatant arrogance has led to a significant loss of taxpayers' money and who has attempted to subvert our democratic process. Whether the Minister, Deputy Cullen, does the decent thing and resigns, or is pushed, he will leave behind a legacy of spin, lies and deceit unprecedented perhaps in his own party. Before a vote was taken in the Dáil on Thursday, 8 April 2004, the Minister said:

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.

The Minister of State should brood on that today and in the future. The Minister should do the honourable thing and resign because that is what people demand of him. He cannot be trusted to be a Minister after wasting over €52 million of taxpayers' money. My party and I call for his resignation on this matter.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and thank him particularly for bringing forward this Bill to establish on a statutory footing the Commission on Electronic Voting. This is very important because it has reported on this issue and will no doubt make other reports. The overall conclusion on page 22 of the report is interesting. The commission states that having regard to the issues that it investigated, secrecy, accuracy and testing, it was unable to recommend the use of the proposed system at the local and European elections and by extension at the referendum due to be held on 11 June. In the next paragraph, however, it emphasises that its conclusion is not based on any finding that the system will not work but on the finding that it has not been proven to the satisfaction of the commission that it will work. It continues to discuss the "threshold of proof" and acknowledges that a lower threshold of proof is required to recommend against the use of the system than in its favour.

There are many issues that indicate the commission is in favour of the principle of electronic voting. Among its general observations the report notes the system was used in previous elections in 2002 in three constituencies and in seven constituencies in the referendum on the Treaty of Nice. The people in those constituencies seemed to be very happy with the system, which was designed by manufacturers in the Netherlands and Germany.

There are some positive points on the principle of electronic voting. It is more accurate and user-friendly than a paper-based system and also very efficient, reflecting better the democratic wishes of the electorate. When one sees the number of inadvertent errors made in local elections — the Minister of State cited figures for errors in the last general election — one recognises the need to move to a more accurate and user-friendly system. There has been much antipathy to the improvements in our electoral procedures but it is wrong to think our paper-based system is perfect because it has many shortcomings. In the new system there would be fewer voter errors, quicker election results and in the long term administrative costs would fall.

Senator Bannon referred to a case that might be taken by people who used the electronic system in 2002 but it is equally possible that people would take a case on foot of the paper-based system. Many counts changed, as we saw in Limerick and Cork in the last election where people were declared elected and after re-counts another was declared elected. Both constituencies went to a third count. The fact the system deployed in pilot areas in previous elections was successful and that a system designed by the same suppliers is used at elections in the Netherlands and Germany proves it can work here.

I disagree with the commission's remarks on secrecy. It concludes that because the voting machine beeps when a voter selects his or her preferences a voter who votes for a single candidate would be easily identified by those in the vicinity of the machine. I do not understand that point because the same voter could be just as easily identified when using the paper-based system. On the issue of secrecy, the report also refers to people with certain disabilities who may need third party assistance in using the machine. It is also the case that people may need help with the paper-based system.

The report also refers to the attempt to overcome the random method of vote storage in the ballot module. I already referred to the issue of accuracy and the testing procedure itself which were examined by the commission. The bottom line is that we do not have enough time to deal with the issue of testing. In general, the move to electronic voting and counting is progressive. An electronic system will improve our elections and also make them more accurate and democratic.

The Minister referred to the incidence of invalid votes in previous elections. In the last European elections which took place in 1999, more than 46,000 votes were deemed invalid. Some of these were deliberately spoiled but the vast majority were not. Invalid votes have a major bearing on election results. In the last local elections, 24,000 votes were deemed invalid. Some 40 council seats were decided by fewer than 50 votes. In the last general election some seats were decided by as little as three and five votes.

A survey revealed that 87% of people who used the electronic voting system in the last general election preferred it to the paper ballot. In excess of 400,000 people used the electronic system. The system has been successfully used in the Netherlands and Germany for the past 15 years.

The technology has even been improved since 2002 and I hope we can make further improvements in line with the recommendations of the commission regarding testing accuracy and so on. These improvements are needed for the sake of democracy. It should be a priority of the Government to ensure that every vote is accurately counted. We must try to eliminate human error in both the voting and counting processes.

A question was raised on the voter-verifiable paper audit trail, VVPAT. Many comparisons have been made with the election system in the United States. However, a PC-based electronic voting system is in place there, which is significantly different from the system proposed for use here. Therefore, the comparison is unfair. The Commission on Electronic Voting did not endorse a paper trail as a necessary component of electronic voting. It stated that its absence raised standards and quality requirements that the other system checks, which is something we must investigate. Arguments can be made to support both sides of this issue. In California new equipment purchased in 2005 must have a voter-verifiable paper audit trail. No such machines are yet available so we must wait and see what the machines will be like.

Senator Bannon referred to the issue of secrecy. Like me, the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, comes from a rural area. I am aware of polling stations in small rural areas and on the islands where only 20 people may vote. As tallies are done on the paper-based system, people seem to know how those 20 people voted. Everyone says it is great to have a tally and I agree that it is useful for politicians and political parties, but it does give rise to questions about secrecy. Assumptions, which may be wrong, are made about how people vote.

The Minister of State dealt in some detail with how to use electronic voting machines. He explained that one has to press the "cast vote" button at the start of the procedure and again at the end. I do not see how one could interfere with the process. If the button is not pressed at the end of the voting process, the presiding officer can deal with it without interfering with the secrecy of the ballot.

Another myth exists in regard to verification. The ballot paper is displayed on screen. It is not an image. We are voting in the same way as we would with a paper ballot. I hope we can resolve the outstanding issues because it is the wish of the majority to use electronic voting and to have an electronic count to provide early results, thus leading to greater accuracy. It is the way forward for the Irish electoral system. Electronic voting has been endorsed in India where it can take a number of days for people to vote. The same is true of the Netherlands and Germany. I look forward to the introduction of the system here. The commission is correct to say that we need to get the system right. I have not heard anybody decrying the system for its modernity. We need to move forward. The system needs to be properly endorsed and time is against us in that regard in terms of 11 June. I have no doubt it is the way forward, as shown by its use heretofore in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

12:00 pm

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State.

Every Bill that passes through this House is important, but few have the importance this one has assumed through circumstances that have developed. Its importance is not only due to its proposed effect on our voting process, which goes to the very heart of our democracy but, more significant, it is important because it comes to the House after the publication of the first report of the Commission on Electronic Voting, published after Committee Stage of the Bill was completed in the other House. It falls to the Seanad, therefore, to carry out the revision of the Bill that is so clearly needed in the changed circumstances created by the commission's report.

I hope that in the relatively non-adversarial atmosphere of this House, the Government will put aside its natural tendency towards defensiveness and that the Opposition will restrain its understandable temptation to make political capital out of the situation in which we find ourselves. I also hope that all sides of the House can work together to make the Bill a better one and to ensure that we end up with the best possible electronic voting system.

Members who know me well, will be aware I have long been a champion of the information society, and of the potential for Ireland to become a world leader in this area. In that context, it is important we adopt electronic voting as soon as we can satisfy ourselves and the electorate that this is a positive step forward and that we will not lose anything by doing so. I say "yes" to electronic voting, provided we do not throw out the baby with the bath water.

It is not my style to say "I told you so" and still less is it my practice to quote myself at length. On this occasion, however, I find it necessary to do both in order to correct something the Taoiseach said on two occasions during the past week. In an interview last Sunday, and again in the Dáil on Tuesday, he attempted to create the impression that opposition to the proposed electronic voting system had arisen only in the past few months, in response to problems that had emerged in America. With respect, that is untrue. I draw his attention to the Official Report of this House of 21 February 2001, which is more than three years ago. When speaking on Second Stage of the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2000, I devoted most of my speech to Part 3 of that Bill, which made provision for electronic voting. I began my remarks, prophetically as it has now turned out, by saying:

While I welcome it, I do so with caution as I am not convinced that the implications and practicalities have been fully thought through.

I then went on to focus on the fundamental nature of the change that was being proposed and I said:

At a conceptual level, what we are talking about is not a shift from paper-based voting to electronic voting. What is really at stake is a move from voting with an audit trail to voting without an audit trail. That is the basic difference.

Let us consider the present system, old fashioned as it is. Its key characteristic is the physical existence of a vote on a piece of paper which is tracked at every single stage. Before a vote becomes a vote, it is counted in the sense that the number of ballot papers is carefully controlled. The issue of each piece of paper is recorded and takes place in full public view.

A vote becomes a vote when a voter records his or her choice on that physical piece of paper. The voter can look at the paper and handle it before giving it up to confirm that the paper reflects his intentions.

The fact that the vote is secret does not mean that it disappears from view. It is counted going into the ballot box and again when it is being taken out and it is guarded while it is in the box. The counting takes place in public so that everyone can see it and if there has to be a recount the physical evidence is there to do it.

The entire process is so open and visible that the voter has total trust in the integrity of the system. To the best of my knowledge nobody has ever questioned the integrity of the balloting.

... The fundamental reason for this is the existence of a physical audit trail from start to finish. Our unquestioning trust in the system rests on that foundation.

I physically create my vote by marking the ballot paper and from that moment on the ballot is handled in a way which virtually eliminates the possibility of fraud or error. There is no fraud because the ballot is watched over, while there is no error because the raw material is there to recount if there is any question of doubt.

I have never quoted myself at such length. That is what I said in 2001. I went on to compare that system with the one being put in place. I said:

Under the new system a voter will indicate choices by pressing the relevant parts of a touchable screen ... and these presses will be electronically recorded on a medium such as a cassette or cartridge.

The voter will not see the record and he must trust the technology to ensure that his voting intentions are fully and correctly recorded.

There is no feedback, confirmation or guarantee that the voter's intentions have been properly translated into digital impulses.

... Under the new system the moment of truth, the instant of voting, will disappear into a black hole and, to the best of my knowledge, it can never be retrieved from it.

The Bill provides for detailed regulations for the care of the recording medium before and after the voting has taken place. The regulations will ensure that the counting process can be done repeatedly.

However, it does not provide for any means ... to allow us to inspect whether the translation of the voter's intentions into digital impulses was properly carried out. The new system will require an act of faith that the current system does not require.

The vast majority of people will make this act of faith but whether they are right to do so is another matter. Nobody who has ever been involved in the commissioning of a major computer system would put much faith in any system ever getting it perfectly right on the first occasion.

Developing software is notoriously a matter of trial and error. However, in most projects it is possible to build in space to undo mistakes. The Minister spoke with confidence about what will happen, but I wonder whether that space will be built into this project.

That is recorded in the Official Report of 21 February 2001. I quoted it to make it clear that the Taoiseach, in claiming that until a few months ago no one had any reservations about the system, was clearly mistaken, and to put the role of the Minister, Deputy Cullen, into perspective. This was not his project but one he inherited from his predecessor. It was the previous Minister, and the Government of the day, who started this hasty and not sufficiently thought-out road which is where we now find ourselves.

I agree that in recent months the Minister, Deputy Cullen, has been pigheaded and stubborn in pushing the now discredited system. However, if we are honest, we would admit that pigheadedness and stubbornness are often needed to get things done in this country. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, was pigheaded and stubborn in pushing his case for introducing a tax on the use of plastic bags. The Minister, Deputy Martin, was equally pigheaded and stubborn in pushing for a ban on smoking in the workplace. Likewise, the Minister, Deputy Brennan, was pigheaded and stubborn in his determination to bring in penalty points.

It is not being pigheaded and stubborn that is the problem here; it is being wrong. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, his predecessor and the then Government in 2001, which pushed through the legislation in that year, were wrong about some of the most critical issues involved. The Minister made a mistake, as did his predecessor and the then Government. We should all acknowledge that and move on to the real work that needs to be done.

In its present state, the Bill is flawed. It needs to be drastically revised in the light of the report of the Commission on Electronic Voting. If it had been so revised, we would have taken a decisive step towards getting this valuable and desirable project back on track. If we fail to revise it, we will be left with seriously flawed legislation and, consequently, will run the risk of getting an electronic voting system that is equally flawed.

I tabled amendments on Committee Stage early — I did so yesterday — to provide enough time for all sides to consider them coolly. It is my sincere hope that all sides of this House will co-operate in making this Bill better and giving the country the kind of voting system it deserves. I urge the Minister to give consideration to the words I have used and to give consideration over the weekend to the amendments I tabled yesterday to ensure that when we come to deal with Committee Stage we will have had time to consider them.

Maurice Hayes (Independent)
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I welcome the Minster of State. Like Senator Quinn, I believe this is the quintessential non-party, non-partisan issue because it is in everybody's interest to have a proper voting system in which the public can have confidence. I, too, favour electronic voting. I hope it can be brought in and that it will be introduced in a way that will preserve the theatricality of the count. Watching the broadcasts of the counts on television contributes greatly to educating young people, in particular, about politics. We do not want to have such a desiccated system that people will feel dehumanised or separated from it. That is one of the difficulties with an electronic system. On the one hand we are calling for transparency in all activities, but there is a danger in handing over the voting system to a procedure in which there is no transparency. One presses the button and that is it until the result comes out the other end. That is why it is so important to ensure there is validation at all levels and all stages of the procedure and that there is a person present to confirm that what a voter intended to happen when voting has happened and will be carried through. That elevates the importance of the commission and the validating mechanisms.

I do not want to go into any of the detailed sections of the Bill.

However, there is one general matter on which the Minister of State might provide some assurances. I have not yet found the provision in the Bill for assisted voting. I am hopeless when confronted with an ATM because I find the display extremely difficult to read. Not only must we consider those who are blind or partially sighted, there are those who are congenitally incapacitated when faced with electronic machinery. It is important that the needs of such individuals should be catered for.

A great deal of the pressure has been taken off the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as a result of the commission's report. The compulsion to have the Bill passed by a certain date has disappeared. It is now more important to get matters right rather than pushing through the legislation in one particular form or other. Like Senator Quinn, I had a fairly disastrous and painful experience when trying to introduce major computer and electronic systems. Many trials and much work is required when putting in place such systems and they need to be run in parallel with other systems. Unless people can be assured that the instrument finally chosen will be 100% dependable and correct, it undermines what one is trying to do.

It is fortuitous that the Bill, as drafted, does not commit the Government to any particular system. Nevertheless, as a result of the report of the commission, it may be necessary to make changes. We may have to consider doing so, even in terms of the procedures that are being proposed. I appreciate that it is necessary and desirable to place the commission on a statutory footing. Rather than us wracking our brains about various matters, the commission should be responsible for resolving the difficulties involved. I suggest that a commencement clause be inserted into the Bill. This would enable the Minister to immediately commence Part 3 and the various desirable miscellaneous provisions in Part 4. Parts 1 and 2 could then be implemented by order in the ordinary way when the nuts and bolts of the matter have been dealt with by the commission. I commend this to the Minister of State as a means of satisfying people's concerns.

While there is considerable enthusiasm on both sides of the House for the idea of electronic voting and a great desire to help the Government put it in place, there are reservations about the current state of knowledge relating to it. If the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government could accept a situation in which the commission could be placed on a statutory footing and then wait until it has reported on further trials, what changes might be made etc., before proceeding, he would avoid having to return to the Houses with amending legislation in the future.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher. I also welcome the opportunity to contribute on Second Stage.

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent weeks and months in respect of this issue. If we knew then what we know now, much of that debate might not have taken place. I welcome the report of the commission. It was a good decision to establish the commission. The views expressed by Opposition spokespersons, experts in the IT industry and people who know a great deal about this issue have been vindicated by the report.

As Senator Maurice Hayes pointed out, the system used in this country for many years has been good and has given rise to great excitement. No one will ever forget the traditional excitement and suspense of the traditional count involving the paper and pen process.

There are good arguments in favour of e-voting. Like Senator Bannon, I welcome the spirit of electronic voting. It will be introduced at some stage and, when proper procedures have been followed, proper consultation engaged in, a lengthy debate and good research into the system, I believe it will prove efficient. The count in the 2002 general election in Cork South-Central provided a very good case for e-voting. The count in question dragged on for a couple of weeks. One candidate was elected then, following a recount, the other was elected and finally the first candidate was deemed elected. Electronic voting will help to avoid such situations and will reduce costs. However, an obvious argument against it would be what happened in Dublin North at the same election when the candidates heard the final result at the same time as those in the count centre. That was unfair on one particular candidate who lost out on that occasion. Such a situation could be avoided if the returning officer took a particular line.

I understand the commission will be making a further report and that the legislation is necessary in order to indemnify its members.

As regards the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and what happened in January and February, genuine concerns were raised in this House, the Lower House and elsewhere in respect of the accuracy of the system, the secrecy attaching to it, the capabilities of the software and the costs involved. It is a pity the Minister did not listen to Opposition spokespersons when they advanced these points in the context of the debate. They were not scaremongering but were articulating genuine concerns. This again highlights the important need for the Government and Ministers to listen to concerns expressed about any matter.

The Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution issued a perfectly good report in recent weeks. It did so, under the chairmanship of Deputy O'Donovan, after two years of receiving submissions and hearing observations and contributions at its meetings. The committee's work is a typical example of what cross-party activity can yield. It is also an example of why debacles such as that relating to electronic voting should not be allowed to occur. If a committee is given its terms of reference, receives submissions and observations and then makes recommendations and conclusions based on the contributions of all those involved, a better outcome is achieved.

When the commission's report was published, I met a number of slightly older adults who, to my surprise, stated that they had not intended to vote if the e-voting system had been put in place. They said that if they arrived at a polling booth and were confronted with a system that was alien to them, they would feel a sense of powerlessness and fear and might not carry out the transaction required of them which could make them look stupid in front of others. An ideal opportunity now exists to properly educate people in respect of this matter when the immediate difficulties have been resolved. People must have confidence in the system. If there is a lack of such confidence in e-voting, the project will be doomed from the outset. We need to carry the goodwill and confidence of the vast majority of the public in order to ensure that the system will be successful because it is people's participation which makes our democracy.

Will the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, indicate the costs to date in respect of e-voting and, in particular, those relating to storing the machines that will not be used on 11 June? Is it correct that Aer Rianta is charging the State €5,000 per week to store the Nedap-Powervote machines at Cork Airport? If this is correct, that is an extraordinary amount of money to be spending on storage when there are other causes much more deserving of this kind of public expenditure.

I understand that after the programme "Friends" on E4 this week an advertisement attempting to educate people about the good points relating to e-voting — a number of days after it had been shelved — was shown. Will the Minister of State say categorically that all advertising has actually ceased? I understand there may be an overrun where advertising contracts were agreed for a certain amount of time with some particular companies. However, it is important that all advertisements cease immediately and that public expenditure in the area is withheld and spent in areas in need of more urgent attention.

It is unfortunate that the Minister did not listen to the fears expressed by Members. The Minister told the House that electronic voting would commence on 11 June. That is not now the case and he has egg on his face. The matter has damaged his credibility as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and raises serious issues about his stewardship. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State touched on those issues in his response. I look forward to Committee and Remaining Stages of this Bill when we will have an opportunity to propose amendments to improve the quality of the legislation. The situation in which we now find ourselves could have been avoided.

I pay tribute to the commission which worked within tight parameters. Few of us realise the strict parameters within which it operated, as evidenced by the need to introduce this legislation to indemnify it. It is unfortunate that the co-operation sought from some of the companies involved was not forthcoming. I look forward to its next report.

Photo of Cyprian BradyCyprian Brady (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his introductory remarks. I also welcome the opportunity to debate this Bill.

We must consider the reason we want electronic voting and what is the point of it. We want it because over successive referendums and local and European elections there has been a decline in the number of people taking up their option to vote. It is our responsibility as legislators to encourage them to vote and to ensure that it is possible for them to do so in the easiest, clearest and most efficient manner. Electronic voting provides those conditions.

This Bill puts the commission which produced the report on a statutory footing. The commission was set up by the Minister and it is therefore disingenuous of people to suggest that he did not listen to people's concerns. I have attended numerous meetings of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government since early last year where the issue was discussed. The matter was discussed in detail, there were demonstrations of the equipment and experts, both for and against, set out their cases. The Department also explained its position. The Minister listened to all of that and both he and Government accepted the need to set up the commission. They immediately agreed that any decision taken by the commission would be accepted and acted upon. That is what happened.

I welcome the work that has gone into the commission's report and while I agree with the majority of the points made, I disagree with some. A full page of the summary and conclusion of the report explains the benefits of the system and the reasons it would work. It has a straightforward layout and is user-friendly. The report also confirms that the machines accurately counted and recorded the votes cast in the test.

The report describes the testing of the secrecy and accuracy aspects of electronic voting. Technology is advancing at a rapid rate and a sign of that is that approximately 111 different versions of the source code exist since testing began. Technology changes occur from week to week. Decisions must be made with regard to when we select our technology as we could spend another five years debating, testing and examining it. Somebody must decide sometime on what system, what codes and what secrecy aids we will use.

I have yet to hear a Member of either House say he or she is not in favour of electronic voting. Some of the vox pops carried out at electronic voting roadshows and exhibitions prior to the commission's report show that the majority of people found the system easy to use, understandable and acceptable. However, we cannot be too careful or sensitive about how we treat the issue of people's right to vote and democracy.

I agree with the Minister's decision to delay the implementation of electronic voting. I do not agree, however, with those who say it will never happen and that we will not get to use the infrastructure for which we have paid. It is nonsense to suggest that we have squandered €50 million. That is a once-off capital cost. The system will be used in the future although we will need more discussion and testing of it. We can never be too stringent regarding the right to security and secrecy of a person's vote.

The commission's report mentioned that electronic voting machines beep when buttons are pressed. That is an insignificant matter and the beep could be replaced by a light or some other signal to ensure the secrecy of the person's ballot. On the issue of accuracy, the commission qualifies its comments with the word "possibility". It stated: "There is a possibility that further testing will uncover software errors." It also stated: "While eliminating the possibility of certain types of inadvertent error, the chosen system introduces the possibility of new types of error" and that "there is a possibility of interference". We all know there is a possibility that we could all fall into a hole in the ground in the morning.

We can only know the system by using it. The system has been used. Some 400,000 people in the country voted using the system and not one complaint was made about it and no issue was raised with regard to it.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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We knew nothing about it. We now know discrepancies exist.

Photo of Cyprian BradyCyprian Brady (Fianna Fail)
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The system has been proven. Approximately 70 million people throughout Europe have used the system. India, like Ireland, is a huge producer of software and technology. When we know people can vote electronically from a remote desert or mountain area and we have a result within an hour, we must ask ourselves why we are resisting, especially considering our current system. We have all been involved in tallies and while they may be entertaining at the time, they are archaic. In some cases we spend thousands of euro of taxpayers money on counts which carry on for three or four days.

The electronic system, when introduced and despite the money spent on the infrastructure, will save us money in the long run. We will save on count staff, security and time, which are all paid for with taxpayers money. We should consider countries like India and how it introduced a system for hundreds of millions of people. We have a population of less than 4 million, only a percentage of whom vote.

We must encourage our young people to participate in elections. There has been some talk of introducing votes for people of 16 years of age, yet we cannot get our 18, 20 or 30 year olds to vote. We must attract people to the process and persuade them to exercise their franchise. We must make it accessible for them so that they are in a position to take up the options that exist to enable them to have their say. It is incumbent on all of us to do that.

I welcome the Bill. It is essential that the commission is placed on a statutory footing. Certain processes have to be put in place for the future and that is exactly what this Bill does.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I welcome the Interim Report of the Commission on Electronic Voting on the Secrecy, Accuracy and Testing of the Chosen Electronic Voting System. It makes for interesting reading. The report's executive summary states:

On the basis of its review of expert reports, submissions received and other relevant information to date, the Commission finds that it is not in a position to recommend with the requisite degree of confidence the use of the chosen system at elections in Ireland in June 2004.

The bottom line is that this is a matter of confidence. If we do not have confidence in the system we use, we cannot have confidence in the results it produces. Our voting system is the basis of our democracy. If we cannot trust it, we have nothing. As someone who contested the last general election in the Dublin West constituency, I have to say that I find it difficult to have confidence in the result, having read the interim report. I do not question that the candidates who were elected were rightly elected — it is not a question of sour grapes — but I find it difficult to trust the system that was used. We know that errors have been shown up and that there were discrepancies in the counts in the Dublin West and Dublin North constituencies. In one case, the number of votes recorded by the machines was greater than the number of people who voted. In the other case, the number of people who entered polling stations was greater than the number of votes registered as having been cast.

I am not sure if many Senators have read the interesting report produced by a returning officer, Mr. John Fitzpatrick. I hope we take on board the recommendations made by Mr. Fitzpatrick when we finally introduce an electronic voting system. While we accept that things can go wrong during a pilot scheme, we should bear in mind that we are dealing with individuals. We now know that we were not ready to introduce an electronic voting system in 2002. Mr. Fitzpatrick's report highlighted certain matters, such as the fact that in the Dublin West constituency "one module was found to have been left in the election office in Glasnevin." Those who have read the report will be aware that the module did not contain any votes, as it turned out, but such a haphazard way of working is unacceptable. The module turned up eventually.

Mr. Fitzpatrick continued:

In Dublin North one module was also found to be missing but was discovered within two or three minutes having been left with the incoming envelopes and not passed on to the readers. In Dublin West it was found that the first attempt at mixing and numbering completed far too rapidly and it took some time to discover that this was because one step had been missed out in the procedure for transferring results from the reader machines to the master PC for processing. In both constituencies the mixing and numbering procedure failed to finish at the first attempt.

He gave further details of such problems and highlighted many other areas in which he feels improvements need to be made. The type of human error he outlined does not inspire confidence in me or in many voters. We should not proceed with the system until we are absolutely sure that it is safe and will record votes accurately. For that reason, I welcome the report of the Commission on Electronic Voting.

The Minister, Deputy Cullen, insisted that the new system should be pursued and maintained that it was safe. It was quite unacceptable that he used all kinds of names to refer to those who questioned him. He has been proven to be wrong. He and his Government colleagues have been left with egg on their faces.

I do not intend to say much more about the matter. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to ask the Commission on Electronic Voting to re-examine the counts in the Dublin West and Dublin North constituencies in 2002. The commission has said that it does not have any reason to believe that votes were not counted accurately on that occasion, but I do not share its confidence in that regard. Is it the case that the votes cannot be checked because the discs are no longer available? I presume that they have been destroyed. There is no way that should have happened. I am glad that the new system will not be used in June. Senator Brady said he has not met anybody who does not like the system.

Photo of Cyprian BradyCyprian Brady (Fianna Fail)
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I said I have not met anybody who does not like electronic voting.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I will not say that I dislike it, but I do not trust it. We have been proven right. It is not good enough. A great deal of additional work needs to be done. The tests that were done in Dublin West, Dublin North and Meath, as well as the other tests that were carried out in Buncrana, Athy and elsewhere, were not accurate. To coin a Fianna Fáil phrase, a lot has been done, but it is certain that a great deal more needs be done.

Michael Brennan (Progressive Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher. An Agreed Programme for Government contains an agreement to introduce electronic voting. I compliment the work of the Commission on Electronic Voting, which published its report on this matter last week. It has served the electorate well. It is important to have a tried and trusted voting system. If more time is needed to get it right and to introduce legislation to put a system in place, it is right that we should provide that time. There is disillusionment among the general electorate because of the problems that have been encountered during the introduction of the system. I wish the Minister of State well with this Bill and with the testing that is needed to bring the system up to date so that it can be introduced.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators Bannon, Kitt, Quinn, Maurice Hayes, McCarthy, Brady, Terry and Brennan for their contributions to this debate.

We have debated the general concept of electronic voting on other occasions. The aspect of the system being considered today is important. In my introductory remarks, I clarified the reasons we are proceeding with the Bill. Although the Government has decided not to proceed with electronic voting on 11 June, the Bill contains other important provisions which mean that it needs to be passed by the Oireachtas by next Thursday. There will be serious problems if it is not enacted in time. The commission must be placed on a legal footing. Councillors who are employees of local authorities may be affected. I explained earlier that the Bill is important in so far as it relates to voting cards. I appreciate the views expressed by Senators, all of whom are in favour of electronic voting. We hope to use an electronic voting system at a future election. I look forward to the support of Senators in the future when we engage with the commission on any concerns it may have.

Senator Bannon asked why the Bill is still being considered. It provides for the establishment of the commission on a statutory basis and I appreciate the Senators' support for this. It also removes any doubt about local authority employees standing as candidates. Part 2 provides enabling provisions to allow electronic voting and counting at European, local and presidential elections and referenda. I note Senators' support for electronic voting and counting.

Senator Bannon referred to the results of pilot runs of the system in the 2002 election. However, I draw his attention to the contents of the commission's report on the results. The commission was pleased with the physical layout of the system and that it was straightforward and contributed to ease of use for both voters and election officials. Meath, Dublin West and Dublin North, the constituencies used in the pilot run, straddle the urban and rural regions. These constituencies are a microcosm of the rest of the country, and electronic voting was extremely successful in them. If those people were intelligent enough to use it, then there are no doubts about anyone else.

It is important to draw from general observations of the commission's report. It states "the system eliminates many inadvertent voter errors as well as the need for subjective judgment by returning officers". The report refers to the system deployed in pilot areas at the previous elections and the second Nice treaty referendum. The report also states "testing carried out by experts retained by the Commission on a significant sample of the voting machines deployed to returning officers confirms that the system can accurately and consistently record voter preferences". Those words are not mine or those of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, but the commission's general observations on the secrecy, accuracy and testing of the chosen electronic voting system. On the three elections in the Dublin North, Dublin West and Meath constituencies, the report found "testing of the counting software carried out by experts retained by the Commission using voting information from pilot tests during previous elections in Ireland confirms that it accurately counted the votes recorded at these elections".

The loss of funds for the equipment purchased was referred to by Senators. This is not a loss because the equipment is available for future use. It would be more apt to describe it as an investment in the future. The report indicated that more time was needed to test election management software. There were some concerns over external security requirements that are not directly linked with the equipment. Security protocols were developed for issue to the returning officer but were not available in time for the commission.

Senator Maurice Hayes referred to assisted voting for people with disabilities or visual or literacy problems but there are no changes to this. It was intended to have a detailed publicity and awareness campaign to inform voters and provide voting machines for the public to test. I do not have to tell seasoned Members about the system that is currently in place to assist some voters.

Senator McCarthy referred to radio advertisements that were broadcast after the Government's announcement that electronic voting would not proceed. I apologise for this occurring. There has been some misunderstanding between the various bodies involved. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government sent an instruction to all advertisers to cancel all broadcasts. However, the broadcasts happened inadvertently and were an error on the radio station's part. Outdoor advertising has been either covered or removed. The Department has followed up any cases of advertisements still running.

Senators raised the cost of the project. The costs were made public and were no hidden secret. Last week, in reply to a parliamentary question, the total estimated cost was given at €46.4 million, including VAT at 20%. The net cost is less. The machines will have a lifetime of 20 years after first use. I made the case both in the Seanad and the Dáil that these extra costs would be beneficial in the long term. As Senator Brady said, this is a once-off cost and the Government is satisfied there will be many benefits in the long run. The question of storage is a matter for returning officers and not for the Minister or the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. They have always been responsible for storage of ballot boxes and voting booths in the past and will now be responsible for the storage of election equipment. The costs for the European and general elections come from the Central Fund. Costs for local elections, either town or county, have always been the responsibility of the local authority.

Senator Maurice Hayes referred to the necessity to have a commencement clause. I draw his attention to section 1 which allows for this. Part 2, which deals with the introduction of electronic voting, will not be commenced without a favourable recommendation by the commission.

Senator Terry raised the results from the pilots in the last general election. In the report's general observations, the commission has no difficulty with the accuracy of those results. The returning officer for the Dublin area has publicly answered queries about procedures at the election. Senator Terry drew selectively from the report's executive summary. I refer her to the paragraph subsequent to that which she quoted, which states:

The Commission wishes to emphasise that its conclusion is not based on any finding that the system will not work, but on the finding that it has not been proven at this time to the satisfaction of the Commission that it will work.

The commission requires further time and the Government is only too pleased to give it that. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will provide the commission with any information it requires.

Electronic voting is off the agenda until there are further reports from the commission and the commission has had an opportunity to carry out further testing. The Department worked closely with the international accredited institute for electronic voting, Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt. PTB has worked with the introduction of electronic voting in Germany, The Netherlands and now in Brest in France. There was also the successful pilot test in the last general election in a number of constituencies in Ireland. Of those surveyed on the pilot test, 87% said they were happy and had every confidence in it. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been pragmatic in taking on board the recommendations of the commission. Electronic voting will not now proceed. However, as I said, there are good, solid reasons for proceeding with the legislation at this stage and I have explained these adequately.

Question put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 21 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, Timmy Dooley, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Michael Kitt, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, John Minihan, Tom Morrissey, Pat Moylan, Mary O'Rourke, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 11 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Fergal Browne, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Frank Feighan, Brian Hayes, David Norris, Shane Ross, Sheila Terry, Joanna Tuffy)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators Bradford and U. Burke.

Question declared carried.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 11 May 2004.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Next Tuesday at 3 p.m.