Electronic voting claims faster results: Cullen


4 Feb 2004

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When full electronic voting is introduced in June this year, election results will be known much faster than before; as early as 3am in the morning after polls close, according to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government Martin Cullen TD. Introducing the new system today, he said e-voting would make elections more accurate.

Electronic voting will be used nationwide for the first time in the forthcoming local and European elections on 11 June. As part of an extensive public information campaign, a national roadshow will tour every constituency in the country from 26 April, explaining how the system works. A website, www.electronicvoting.ie, has been set up and a radio, TV and press advertising campaign will kick off later this week.

Prior to the elections, paper polling cards will be sent to every registered voter as usual. When a voter comes to the polling station, they will present their polling card to the returning officer, who will then issue a numbered permit which the voter then presents to the poll clerk. The clerk will then activate the voting machine (pictured) so that the elector can cast their vote.

The machine stands at around hip height and has walls on three sides to prevent observation by others. The interface shows photographs of every candidate and their party affiliation, with a button beside each. Votes are shown in order of preference, so that the first button pressed will record a first preference for each candidate and so on.

Mistakes can be quickly rectified; pressing on the button a second time wipes that choice and pressing the topmost button will eliminate all preferences so the voter can start again if they wish. Once the voter is happy with their choice, they press the ‘cast vote’ button at the top of the machine. It’s also possible to register a spoiled or protest vote by handing the permit to the poll clerk but walking away without registering a vote at the machine. The system will record this as ‘no vote cast’.

The e-voting machines have been developed jointly by the Dutch hardware maker Nedap and Powervote, a UK company that develops election software. After every election, the data stored in the ballot modules will be kept by the Oireachtas for six months before being deleted. Under the paper system, ballots are destroyed after three months.

The software was written in the Delphi programming language. It will be upgraded before every election, although in most cases the Department of the Environment, which is managing the electronic voting project, does not expect any major change in the code, which is being double-checked. Although it has not received the final code to be used in the e-voting machines this June, an official said that it is unlikely to differ substantially from the version that has been tested.

Critics of the system have called for the source code used in the election software to be publicly released, citing the example of Australia where members of the public were able to spot flaws in the voting code and suggest that changes be made.

Opponents in the political and computing communities also argued that the electronic voting machines offer no physical record that confirms the accuracy of the votes cast. Although they said they were not against electronic voting in principle, they advocate including a proper audit trail that would allow voters to verify their own choices and would improve the transparency of the process. It would also act as a hard copy backup in the event that the electronic system failed.

Minister Cullen hit back at the critics, saying: “We have never had two systems. This system is so much more secure by a number of degrees than the old system. It has been proven to work in Ireland – 400,000 people used it. Electronic voting was voted on democratically by the Oireachtas. This is not a Martin Cullen, Fianna Fail or Government thing; it has been decided upon democratically but has since, sadly, become politicised.”

By Gordon Smith