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Would you vote for these machines as the decade's daftest decision ?

Encased in heavy greyboxes in an old hangar at Gormanston Army Barracks, Co Meath, 4,762 electronic voting machines sit idle, unwanted and never to be used. Elsewhere, in 13 different locations scattered throughout the country, the remaining 2,742 machines are similarly housed.

Launched to much fanfare by then Environment Minister Martin Cullen in 2004, these bulky, Dutch-made gadgets -- each about the size of a standalone ATM -- were set to transform voting in Ireland.

Then, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was one of its biggest cheerleaders, always on hand to criticise "the silly old" existing procedure that used "stupid old pencils". He said Ireland would be a "laughing stock" if it didn't introduce electronic voting.

But they were never to be used after similar machines in the Netherlands were shown to be susceptible to tampering from hackers, and thus completely unreliable.

Unlike the gushing PR campaign that greeted its arrival, its advocates had little to say of its demise.

Environment Minister John Gormley said this week he was studying ways that the machines could be disposed of -- possibly by returning them to the manufacturer, Nedap -- although it remains unclear if a reclaiming fee will have to be paid.

Whatever the outcome, e-voting -- as the marketers insisted on calling it -- was a costly mistake that has, to date, set the taxpayer back to the tune of an estimated €55m. "In terms of symbolic significance, it was the greatest governmental cock-up of the last 10 years," says Labour environment spokesman Ciaran Lynch. "Absolutely nothing but wastage, and there was no need to change the method of voting that has existed since the origins of the State. Electronic voting was just another of Bertie Ahern's vanity projects and we're left with its costly legacy now.

"And then there's the issue of the long-term leases that have been taken out on the warehouses to store them. Contracts of 25 years have been signed and the State could have to pick up the bill to buy out those long-term leases. It's all one long sorry mess."

The plan to introduce e-voting goes back 11 years. In the spring of 1999, then Environment Minister Noel Dempsey commissioned research on the counting of ballot papers in the European and local elections to test its feasibility.

He followed that up with an e-voting pilot scheme for the 2002 general election in the constituencies of Dublin North, Dublin West and Meath. It was to be the only time that the electorate would vote electronically in the history of the State and it was notable for the distress caused to Fine Gael's Nora Owen who learned that she had lost her seat live on television and without the usual warnings that come with manual counting.

An order to purchase 7,504 machines was placed after the trial in the three constituencies. "The machines weren't tested properly at all," McCarthy says. "Nobody within the department seemed to ask the right questions. In hindsight, it was madness."

Dempsey's successor Martin Cullen bought the machines for €51m and promised to install them in all constituencies for the 2004 European and local elections.

But while there seemed to be widespread support for the scheme across the political spectrum, dissenters were emerging, most notably Joe McCarthy -- a tallyman and computer consultant. "I could see from the start that there were significant problems with electronic voting, the most significant of all being the lack of a paper trail," he says.

"This provides the proof that's essential in a democracy at election time. Then, there was the issue of the software and the fact that a programme was being devised in the Netherlands by someone with no hands-on experience of the intricacies of the Irish election system."

Opposition politicians started to heed the warnings and, under pressure, the Government established a commission to examine the system which had already been purchased. Chaired by High Court judge Matthew Smith, the commission's report was unable to verify the accuracy and secrecy of the proposed system in the available timeframe. Consequently, the Government deferred its planned introduction in 2004.

In its second report two years later, the commission found that e-voting was feasible if the voting machines and software were modified to ensure their security. It has been estimated that it could cost up to €14m to bring the machines up to a specification that would enable them to be used, and that would feature the essential paper audit trail.

Privately, government officials were concerned about the rising costs -- as detailed in Pat Leahy's book Showtime -- while opposing parties questioned the folly of the decision to purchase the machines in the first place.

With the machines incurring an annual storage cost of €800,000, the Government decided not to use them for the general election of 2007 in which voters in all 43 constituencies reverted to the old manual system. That year, 60pc were moved to Gormanston in order to cut down on storage costs.

Even when it looked like there was no way back for the system, Bertie Ahern remained bullish. On his final day as Taoiseach in 2008, he responded to a jibe from Labour leader Eamon Gilmore about the e-voting farce: "Since it is my last question as Taoiseach, it is only fair I should give Deputy Gilmore my best answer and best advice.

"My best advice is that since he could not beat me with the peann luaidhe (pencil), he should go to the old machines because he would have a far better chance with them."

It was left to John Gormley to formally announce the scrapping of the machines last April, leaving him with the headache of what to do with the consignment, before announcing this week that they would be removed from storage. "I think that was a good decision," he says. "I looked at it, I took my time. I said: 'These machines are not going to be used'."

The intellectual property rights for the software on the machines mean the Government cannot simply sell them elsewhere, even if a buyer could be found. Furthermore, the software is thought to be generations out of date. And, to add to the sense of farce, it has been noted that wheelchair users can have difficulty reaching some of the buttons.

"It beggars belief when you think about it," Lynch says. "Everything that could go wrong with it seemed to have gone wrong. It's already come to be seen as a relic of Celtic Tiger excess. Even the lease arrangements entered into were farcical and a huge waste of public money."

Among the controversial arrangements was that undertaken by Monaghan County Council. Martin Duffy, the nephew of the returning officer Josephine Duffy, was awarded the contracts before it was discovered that his shed did not have correct planning permission.

"There has never been a satisfactory reason given as to why electronic voting was needed," McCarthy says. "My own Machiavellian theory is that electronic voting would do away with 'plumper votes' that cause Fianna Fail a lot of grief every election.

"These are spoiled votes unwittingly made by people faithful to the party. They come into the polling station and tick the boxes for the Fianna Fail candidates, but don't list their preferences per candidate and thus the vote is spoiled. Electronic voting would ensure that that couldn't happen."

Meanwhile, the official website established to promote electronic voting has not been taken down. Anybody unfamiliar with the fate of these machines certainly would not be enlightened by the marketing-speak on the site.

Nora Owen is happier than most to see the back of the venture. She says: "My immediate reaction was good riddance to bad rubbish. It was a foolhardy project to start with, one which was very badly designed, but that's not to say I would have won my seat."

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