The Electronic Election: Coming Soon

Published May 2002.

As the politicians begin to form the next government, Anthony Mc Guinness, Voice Technology Correspondent, takes a look at the new voting system we’ll all be using at the next election.

Many herald it as an essential update to a system which has dated from the 19th century while others regard it as a system which presents security hazards and takes away the traditional aspects of the Irish electoral system. The issue of course is that of electronic voting. For the first time ever voters in the constituencies of Dublin North, Dublin West and Meath have had the chance to cast their votes electronically. It must be said that this move is almost unique in Europe with only the Netherlands and Germany having used these systems previously. However the issue has become a contentious one with many people complaining that the system has not been tested enough and also that it removes an aspect, which has been at the centre of Irish voting for years, the count. It’s supporters’ say that the system has been fully tested during its time in the German cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf as well as the Netherlands. The machine’s mechanical failure rate has been extremely low and any issues have been carefully examined and studied.

Many people have also asked what the benefits of changing the existing system are. Well, it does away with spoilt votes, provides greater accuracy in vote counting, earlier results and it modernises electoral administration. An information campaign began in April to distribute leaflets alongside a travelling road-show which visited a range of locations in the three constituencies. The actual voting procedure itself has not changed all that much. “The essential thing for voters to remember is that this system is simple. They go to the polling clerk in the normal way, get a permit which authorises them to use voting machine, put the candidates in order of preference by pressing the buttons beside the candidates’ names and finalise their vote by pressing the CAST VOTE button? said former Minister Noel Dempsey. “It really is a case of using your finger instead of a pencil.? The administration of the vote will be easier to maintain as there is a lot of unseen work in the organisation of elections. Supplies of materials ranging from ballot boxes, ballot papers, polling booths, forms, pencils, rubber bands, twine, sealing wax, stamping instruments and much more has to be requisitioned and returned after a poll. The voting machine will eliminate this complexity serving as a polling booth, ballot paper and ballot box. On the environmental side, it will also reduce the number of ballot papers from approximately 3 million to about 30,000 for each national poll.

The secrecy of the ballot has also been questioned with many fearing that the individual vote could be traced back to the voter. The software behind the machine prevents this eventuality though. There are also contingency plans in the event of data storage failure, power failure and the attempt to switch a ballot module with a fraudulent one. When all votes have eventually been cast, the vote modules are brought to the central count centre where a result can be obtained almost instantaneously. The returning officer will have detailed documentation on the result and the machine will produce a report from each count.

With the results of the election now known (aside from a few recounts) we asked a spokesman from the Department of the Environment about the pilot of the electronic voting system. “It was a great success and we had no technical issues with the software or hardware units? he said. When asked if there would be any changes to the system for the next general election he said, “The hardware and software will largely stay the same except for the possibility of tweaking the interface after receiving feedback from the voters?. He also outlined that security was of the utmost importance. “We decided not to transmit the results from the polling stations because of fears over security. We cannot compromise in that aspect of the system.? So with a successful pilot programme completed the future is looking good for electronic voting in Ireland.

Q. How will people vote on polling day?
A. Very simply and in four easy steps:

  1. Voters will have their name marked off the register in the normal way and will be given a token by polling staff
  2. They will go to the poll clerk at the voting machine and hand over the token
  3. They will record their preferences by pressing the buttons beside the candidates’ photograph on the ballot paper displayed on the machine and finally.
  4. They will cast their vote by pressing the “Cast Vote? button on the machine

Q. What if the voter makes a mistake?
A. If the voter makes a mistake or wants to change their mind they simply press the button opposite the candidates’ name a second time. This will delete that preference and any other lower preferences and they can start again.

Q. Is it possible for the controller to see how a person is voting?
A. No. The controller can only see a visual display that the voter has pressed the “Cast Vote? button on the Control Unit screen.

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