E-voting will not be reintroduced, junior minister says

John Paul Phelan claims electronic voting could undermine confidence in democracy

Electronic voting machines and ballot modules for Dublin county in storage in Glasnevin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Electronic voting machines and ballot modules for Dublin county in storage in Glasnevin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

There is no prospect of electronic voting being reintroduced into Ireland in the short to medium term, the Government has confirmed.

The Minister of State in charge of local government, John Paul Phelan, has said that far from representing progress, electronic voting can potentially undermine people’s confidence in the democratic process.

“There is no prospect in the short to medium term of the chicken coops being taken out of retirement and used,” he said.

Mr Phelan was referring to the eventual fate of the voting machines that were purchased when then minister for the environment, Martin Cullen of Fianna Fáil, introduced electronic voting.

Electronic voting had been used on a trial basis in three constituencies in 2002. When it was being introduced across the State two years later, it led to a huge backlash with concerns being voiced about the lack of proper auditing, or a paper trail, in the event of a close vote, or a contested result.

An inquiry into the new voting system raised similar concern. In the end, the scheme was scrapped. A separate controversy arose over the arrangements that had been made for storing the voting machines locally, at huge cost to the taxpayer.

When it was abandoned in 2009, the eventual cost of the project had risen to €55 million, including €3 million for storage. The machines were eventually sold for just over €75,000 to a scrap merchant.

Concerns

Mr Phelan has now expressed similar concerns and said that not much had changed in the past decade to assuage people’s concerns.

“The problem with what happened previously here is that it ran the risk of undermining people’s confidence in the process.

“There is no prospect in the short to medium term of the pencil and ballot paper being abandoned. It is a comfort to candidates when you can see that you’re losing [in a count].”

He said that if, for example, the scale of the victory in the marriage equality referendum in 2015 had been delivered electronically, the No side would have been “down in the Four Courts in the morning saying where is your paper trail. It is about that public confidence.”

He also said there remained a huge interest in the counts, with continuous coverage on television, which gave a visual validation of democracy to citizens.

“There is something quaint but also fantastic of having a polling station in the middle of nowhere.

“The image which appears regularly of a ballot box being transferred to an island; it’s a great image and it goes everywhere.”

He said he would not be keen to see any major change in that approach to people exercising their democratic right.