The proposed electronic voting system is a "complete danger to Irish democracy" in its current form, it was claimed today.
Mr Joe McCarthy, an independent computer consultant and election expert, told a press conference organised by the Irish Citizens for Trustworthy E-Voting (ICTE) group today he would rather scrap the system, which has been installed at a cost of €43 million, than proceed with it in its current state.
The group claims it is impossible to trust the security and accuracy of the system proposed by the Minister of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Mr Cullen.
More than 6,000 NEDAP/Powervote machines will be used in the local and European Parliament elections on June 9th. The system was piloted in seven constituencies in the last General Election and the Nice Treaty referendum.
ICTE is demanding a paper trail of all votes, the facility to spoil votes as part of the constitutional right of protest, the establishment of an independent panel to oversee the introduction of electronic voting and an Electoral Commission to oversee its use. "We are not anti-electronic voting per se, as we believe in the benefits of e-voting," said Mr Colm MacCarthaigh of ICTE. "We do, however, have serious reservations about the security of the system."
ICTE want electronic voting machines to provide a Voter Verified Audit Trail, a paper printout that is verified by the voter on the spot before being stored in a ballot box in case it is needed for a recount or spot-check. They argue that without a printout of every vote cast, there is no way to physically verify the ballot.
Mr Cullen dismissed this argument this afternoon. He said the votes stored in the ballot modules will be intact and kept by the returning officers for a period of six months. "If so ordered by the Courts, all the votes cast in the election can be printed out and counted manually," he said.
Mr McCarthy submitted 103 questions under 41 topics to the Department of the Environment at a Joint Oireachtas Environment Committee Hearing into Electronic Voting last December. He said he had received the response from the Department this morning, in which he says they "used serious cleverness in ducking my questions" in 24 of the 41 topics.
While not casting any doubts over the honesty of Department officials, Mr McCarthy accused them of incompetence in understanding the highly technical computer systems involved. "I think the current system is a complete danger to Irish democracy in its present form."
Mr McCarthy says he also has serious reservations about the computer system. The software to be used in the NEDAP/Powervote machines was written in Dutch by engineers in The Netherlands. He claims the whole code has never been translated into English and verified as suitable for the Irish system.
Mr Cullen disputed the claim of lack of testing, saying today integrity of the system has been "vigorously tested by six independent, internationally accredited test institutes".
Mr McCarthy also said international computer experts recoiled in horror when he told them the final counts would be collated using the Microsoft Access database programme. Microsoft has itself warned the programme is unsuitable for use in "critical" applications. "How more critical than democracy can you get?" he asked. However, the minister countered, saying it had received expert advice that Access was safe, pointing out that the system to be used in Ireland has been used successfully in Germany and the Netherlands for some time.
Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Greens have all demanded a paper trail for e-voting, despite repeated assurances from Mr Cullen that the system is safe and accurate. "The system ... is an easier method for voters to cast their votes, it counts votes more accurately and more speedily and it will improve electoral administration," the minister said today, adding that "wild claims" to the contrary were not helpful to the debate on the issue.
The Cabinet this morning discussed the make-up of an independent panel to oversee the implementation of e-voting. A High Court judge is expected to chair the panel, which will be asked to examine aspects of the system and to report by early May - less than five weeks before the local and European elections.