Taoiseach Brian Cowen today said the electronic voting machine project, which has cost the Government over €54 million, will be disposed of.
Speaking during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil this morning, Mr Cowen conceded that the 7,000 unused voting machines would “not be put to use”.
“The question of their disposal is under consideration, but it is true that that is a loss to the exchequer and obviously it is a great disappointment in that respect,” Mr Cowen said.
But he defended the Government’s decision to pilot the system. “The legislation required to bring in e-voting was supported by the parties in Opposition,” he said.
Mr Cowen claimed that the use of the machines had become “a matter of public confidence” and they had been withdrawn as a result.
However, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said the Government made the decision to scrap the project because an expert group found the system was unreliable. “That is why the machines could not be used. It was an unreliable system and had to be abandoned,” he added.
Mr Gilmore said two years of the new 50 cent prescription charge would bring in the same amount of money as the e-voting system had cost. He said no Minister was ever held to account for what happened.
"Nobody was ever sacked or chastised. The money was wasted. It is about time that the Taoiseach, or somebody in the Government, had the good grace to stand up, say that they made a mistake, the money is gone, apologise, and accept responsibility for it,'' he added.
The Government agreed to buy the voting machines eight years ago after they were piloted in a number of constituencies in the 2002 general election and in the Nice referendum. Plans to use them on a national basis in the 2004 local and European elections were abandoned following mounting controversy over the system's transparency and whether it was open to manipulation.
In April last year, Minister for the Environment John Gormley announced the plans would be scrapped.
The total cost of the electronic voting project has now reached €54.6 million. Some €3 million has been spent on storing the machines over the past five years, while tens of thousands has been spent on hiring consultants to advise on how to dispose of the machines or more cost-effective ways of storing them.
The Irish Times revealed today that Government officials have had "no serious offers" to buy the 7,000 machines, which it purchased for €50 million eight years ago.
The Department of the Environment has had about 20 expressions of interest about salvaging the equipment or putting it to alternative use. Two of these offers were from other departments.
The Department of Education inquired about using the equipment for education programmes about civics and politics, while the Department of Social Protection explored the possibility of adapting the machines as “information portals” in welfare offices.
Officials concluded the equipment was unlikely to be suitable for the purposes they had in mind. Government records state that all inquiries to date have been “general in nature and would certainly not constitute serious offers to buy or acquire the equipment”.
The Government will soon put out a tender seeking formal expressions of interest. Privately, however, officials are not hopeful of recouping a significant amount. Although they are valued at about €30 million – following eight years’ depreciation – the machines are regarded as out of date.
Dutch firm Nedap made the machines and public concerns in the Netherlands and Germany prompted the decommissioning of thousands of the same company’s machines in those countries.
Government officials have been told by the manufacturer that there is no scope to sell the machines back to it. There are also concerns about whether it can legally allow the licensed software in the machines to be used by other potential owners.
A document prepared for the secretary general of the Department of Environment – who is responsible for disposal of the voting machines – says all avenues to recover some of the cost in purchasing the machines will be pursued. However, it states it remained a “realistic possibility that none of the investment will be recovered”.