Submissions show strong disapproval for e-voting

2 Apr 2004

Submissions to the Commission on Electronic Voting show a huge majority of respondents are against the system proposed by the Government for use throughout the country this June. The submissions, seen by, also indicate that just over half of all those who made submissions (51.59pc) called for a paper audit trail to guarantee the accuracy of the votes cast.

As part of its investigation into the e-voting issue, the Commission requested submissions from the public on the electronic voting issue, to be sent before Friday 26 March. In total, 157 replies were sent before the deadline. The majority by email or submitted via the Commission’s website, others by post. Some entries were handwritten. Most of the submissions were less than a page in length but a small number of others, usually taking issue with the technical makeup of the system and the testing in great detail, ran to more than twenty pages.

Only 12 respondents, representing 7.6pc of the total number, said they were unequivocally in favour of e-voting. Of these, one of the submissions came from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which is tasked with managing the introduction of full e-voting. Its contribution was one of the most detailed and lengthy on display.

Another in the ‘pro’ camp was Powervote, the firm which developed the software to be used in the proposed e-voting system. In its submission, managing director Roy Loudon said: “Our system assures the secrecy and accuracy of the polls, if we had any doubts as an expert supplier we would withdraw.”

However the issue is not as black and white as simply being for or against e-voting. Several respondents who criticised the nature of the proposed system nonetheless said they believed electronic voting was good in principle. They called instead for checks and balances to ensure the system is transparent.

Two thirds of those who made submissions (66.24pc) said they did not believe that the e-voting machines would record their votes accurately. Some of the submissions called for greater scrutiny of the counting process. Many were similar in theme, saying that any system must not only be accurate but must be seen to be so. Those who said the system would be accurate numbered 12 submissions, or 7.6pc of the total.

Just under half of all those who made submissions (47.7pc) indicated that they did not feel the Government’s proposed system was secure. Ten people (6.36pc) said they believed the system was secure; the remainder did not express a preference or did not refer to this in their submissions.

These two points are important because the commission’s remit specifically refers to checking on the accuracy and secrecy of e-voting and the system chosen for use in the local and European elections in June. The Commission was set up by the Government last month in response to concern over the electronic voting issue.

The public submissions will not be the sole basis on which the group reaches its conclusions about the system. They do however provide some barometer for public feeling on the issue. Many of the comments were technically informed, others simply reflected the concern of regular voters.

Some chose to criticise what they saw as narrow terms of reference placed on the Commission; “My deepest concern is that this commission is irrelevant,” said Michael Malone. Cllr Joe Brennan said that the Commission’s remit was: “so narrow as to render any submission other than a submission from a computer expert as pointless”.

Many of the submissions came from individuals or groups with backgrounds in technology, either in the private sector or in academia. Brian Mathews said: “Testing only ever shows up the presence of bugs in a system. In any non-trivial system, testing can never verify the total absence of bugs.” Professor David Lorge Parnas raised questions about the nature of testing on the e-voting machines. “If a system has been changed after inspection and testing, some or all of that process must be repeated,” he said.

Although there is no direct provision for it in the Constitution, the option to spoil a vote was cited in 21 submissions (13.3pc). One of the key elements of the Government’s proposed e-voting system was that it would remove unintentional spoiled votes. However, some submissions cited the Irish ‘tradition’ of protest votes. Some humorously referred to votes for Dustin the Turkey made during a presidential election some years ago.

Other notable responses asked if the system could be used by the disabled or visually impaired.

The success of lobby groups such as Irish Citizens for Trustworthy E-voting was evident in the high number of submissions that called for a voter-verified audit trail – essentially a paper record, visible to the voter, that would act as proof that the e-voting machine recorded their preferences accurately. Several submissions referred to printers, such as those used with lottery machines, as being capable of handling a large throughput such as on an election day.

Ending his own letter to the Commission, Labour TD Tommy Broughan added the quip: “I would be grateful for an early acknowledgement of this submission (to check that you received it) and so that I may keep a hard copy of your receipt.”

The contributions were mainly serious although some managed to see humour in the situation. One read: “At least get rid of the dreadful beep.” Another plea was put as follows: “Please stick to pen and paper which is cheaper and more accountable and has not been found faulty, just a little slower – who cares – time is plentiful and God is watching.”

The commission has the power to review the reports on testing that has already been carried out on the Nedap/Powervote systems. The group may, if it feels the necessity, ask for further reviews to be carried out. The commission must make a preliminary report by 1 May. If serious doubts remain, it may call for the introduction of full e-voting to be suspended.

By Gordon Smith