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Electronic voting: the horror we hacks dare not mention

Adrian Weckler


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Counting votes in the Iowa caucus. Photo: Reuters

Counting votes in the Iowa caucus. Photo: Reuters

REUTERS

Counting votes in the Iowa caucus. Photo: Reuters

Political anoraks and Twitter pol corrs: look away now. I'm about to bring up something terrifying. It's the two most hated words in Irish electoral nomenclature: electronic voting. My timing couldn't be much worse. A few days ago, the US Democratic Party embarrassed itself in the Iowa caucus app-voting fiasco. If there was a takeaway over this side of the Atlantic, it was that electronic voting will always be a laughing stock.

So why would anyone even want to talk about it? Here in Ireland, the election count is acclaimed as exciting material for great reality TV and radio. The twists and turns of the transfers accompany underdogs, heroes, villains and giant-killers.

That it takes a long, long (long) time is treated not as a weakness, but a strength. It's a binge-watching session to beat anything Netflix or Amazon Prime Video have, right?

And yet, and yet.

The time will come again when we will have to reconsider the merits of electronic voting. Not this year and probably not next year. But soon.

Woe betide the person who brings it up. Any time a faster form of vote counting is mooted, it raises all sorts of hackles among a very large number of political hacks and anoraks. These are often unrelated to the merits of the system. The very term 'electronic voting' is a pejorative in Ireland, a bit like the term 'mobile phone' was in the 1990s.

But there is nothing wrong - nothing whatsoever - with wanting to know who has won an election that will shape a nation's direction. If we have the means to understand, safely and reliably, who has won within hours, it should be our aim.

Anything else is - let's be honest with ourselves - theatre; it's there to serve a relatively small number of people who relish the attention and the spotlight of being the gatekeepers to an important process.

I've seen this first-hand at many election counts. There is a deference shown to tallymen and political party bosses, some of whom wouldn't get a second look from one election to the next. Who can blame their thrill? It's power, attention and respect all rolled into one. Try telling those people that a safe, reliable, instantaneous system will cut them out of the cameras for those two days. The best, most honest argument I have heard about why our current system should be preserved over that of a safe, reliable electronic voting system was articulated to me by the Irish Independent columnist Jason O'Mahony, himself a self-confessed political anorak.

"This is a time when people who put in a lot of honest work get a bit of acknowledgement," he told me once. A former political candidate himself, he has seen the hard yards put in by party workers.

Many do so for honourable, civic reasons. After taking months of abuse, is it not reasonable to afford these people some respect for the few short days it takes to go through the manual voting count system? It may even encourage and educate people along the way, showing that politics is not all about shouting, bragging and demeaning, but about an important democratic process that's physically and tangibly handled in front of your eyes.

OK. But if that is the reason, let us admit it. Let's not hide behind the facade that electronic voting is impossible. We don't draw out the process of being approved for a loan just so we'll appreciate the importance of finance more. We don't delay the results of medical tests to increase respect for doctors. In the long run, it is hard to argue against knowing a democratic result more quickly.

Especially if the real reason is a ceremonial one for a subset of political hacks and apparatchiks.

- If there's one thing that can be relied on, it's that big tech companies' quarterly results make liars and hypocrites of those of us who assert that we have them on the run.

A trio of multinational tech company results last week served to remind us that our solemn public pledges and our actual consumer behaviour are two separate things.

Apple posted a record profit (€20bn for three months, or around €220m per day), partially based on an 8pc surge in iPhone 11 and 11 Pro sales. The iPhone 11 Pro has two notable characteristics. First, its extra cameras (each one has four now) are fantastic. Second, it starts at €1,170, making it the most expensive flagship phone.

All of the dinner table chatter and Twitter talk you hear about 'no one paying €1,000 for a mobile phone'? Or 'who really wants more cameras on their smartphone'? It turns out that they're very far wide of the mark. Again.

Similarly, Facebook published quarterly figures showing that our usage of its products and services went up, not down.

Almost three billion of us now have an account with one of the main Facebook services. Over one billion of us use it every day.

Most ironic is the cohort who believe they are palming the social media giant away by swapping Facebook for Instagram.

Instagram, Facebook revealed, made a staggering €20bn for the firm, a quarter of all its cash last year. That money comes from you using Instagram, feeding Facebook. Well done, moralising Instagrammers.

Amazon's results were little better. Remember when you said you prefer to shop locally? Last week, it reported an increase in its Prime membership by a whopping 50pc to 150 million people. That means people like you are starting to buy 'the odd thing' because you can 'get it delivered at work'. Is it any wonder Retail Ireland just reported a sharp fall in shoppers on Dublin streets? It's not high rents. It's not a lack of parking.

It's you, quietly shopping on Amazon.

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