Pencils, not pixels: Ireland scuttles electronic voting machines

Faced with rising costs and growing fears of hackers, Ireland has decided to join a growing movement in Europe to return to old school voting practices.

DUBLIN, IRELAND – For sale: 7,500 electronic voting machines. Never used. Will need retrofit for security. Cost: $67 million, but all offers considered. Contact Irish government.

Bought in the midst of the booming Celtic Tiger economy, these Dutch-built Nedap Powervote system machines were technologically chíc. Piloted in three constituencies during the 2002 general election, they were expected to eliminate lengthy manual counts and parse votes from Ireland’s complicated proportional representation system to give instant results.

And if Ireland didn’t embrace e-voting, warned then Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Bertie Ahern in 2006, the country would be a laughing stock “with our stupid oul pencils,” he said, using an Irish colloquialism for "old."

But the stupid oul pencils have had the last laugh. Ireland is now selling its unused machines, which thus far have incurred storage fees of €3.5 million [$4.6 million].

Although manual counting can be inaccurate (aim your mouse here for more on this idea), it doesn’t carry the same security concerns of electronics.

A report from Ireland’s Commission on Electronic Voting, “found it very easy to bypass electronic security measures and gain complete control of the 'hardened PC,' overwrite the software, and thereby, in theory, to gain complete control over the count in a given constituency."

Similar concerns have surfaced in the United States and Europe. The Dutch government abandoned electronic voting after the anti e-voting group, Wij vertrouwen stemcomputers niet [We don't trust voting computers] hacked into a machine on a television documentary (see here) and changed results.

Last month, two Germans - political scientist Joachim Wiesner and his son Ulrich – won a lawsuit in the German Constitutional Court, which ruled that the machines were unconstitutional. “Even cell phones are better protected against manipulation," said Ulrich Wiesner in an interview with Der Spiegel.

The principal concern is that the Nedap machines don’t leave a paper-trail and, according to opponents, can display one vote but record another.

The Irish government could retrofit the units with the paper-based VVAT - Voter Verifiable Audit Trail – but at a cost of up to €27 million [$36 million]. “The financial and other resources that would be involved in modifying the machines ... could not be justified in present circumstances,” says John Gormley, Minister for the Environment.

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