Electronic voting

Tue, Mar 17, 2009, 00:00

THE GOVERNMENT finds itself in a deep hole because of the purchase and storage of thousands of electronic voting machines. It should stop digging. What had seemed like a good idea, way back in 1999, has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. The initial waste of public money on the purchase of this dangerously insecure system has been compounded by the establishment of long-term leases of up to 30 years for the storage of machines in controlled environments.

John Gormley is the fourth minister for the environment to have responsibility for the mess. And because there is no question of the machines being used in the forthcoming local and European elections, or thereafter, he should call a halt to the madness. An estimated €52 million was spent on voting machines by Noel Dempsey and by his successor, Martin Cullen, in spite of the objections and concerns of the opposition parties. And when a special Commission on Electronic Voting found it was easy to bypass the proposed security system in 2004, the machines were put into storage at an annual cost of about €700,000.

This public waste must end at a time when everybody is being asked to tighten their belts. The cost of storing these machines will amount to €3.5 million by the end of this year. And because contracts ranging from 20 to 30 years were entered into on behalf of the State, penalties are likely to be imposed for an early buy-out. The Government should not continue to engage in what is a face-saving exercise.

Ireland is the only country in Europe that holds out a vague prospect of using this technology. Last year, the Dutch government decided to abandon the system because of its inherent vulnerability. Last week, the supreme court in Germany ruled that the Nedep system – which we also purchased – breached its electoral laws. It found that the control measures required would not be achieved by a print-out of votes. The ability to recheck votes was more important than early election results. It was not saying a final “No” to electronic voting, just that the current generation of voting machines was unsatisfactory.

Ten years ago, the replacement of pencils and ballot papers by machines was seen as a badge of modernity. But technology was not sufficiently advanced to guarantee security of the new system. In spite of that, Fianna Fáil ministers ignored the views of computer experts and ploughed ahead. Now that the Netherlands and Germany have abandoned the project on security grounds, the Government should bow to the inevitable.