Last of the Tallymen

Donegal Democrat

Back last May, as the general election campaign was drawing to a close, I had an idea for a story. It was to be called Last Of The Tallymen, a soft focus look back at the unsung foot soldiers of Irish democracy, the men with the pencils and the clipboards.

I’d hoped to track down the oldest tallyman in Donegal, get some good anecdotes from days gone by, with any luck get a few quotes about how things had changed in the last ten years, it was all flash young fellas with lap tops nowadays, so the move to completely electronic voting was inevitable when you think about it.

Somewhere deep in the story, I’d planned to have a few paragraphs on the history and origins of the tallymen. It’d be an aside to the main interview, a device to vary the pace and keep the reader interested.

As things worked out, I never got around to writing that story. The big story was the election, there were no electronic votes cast in Donegal, there was no reason why it couldn’t be put on hold. I filed it away.

Then the Zarflow consultants report on e-voting became public. The company was hired to review the security of voting machines, and their report outlined several problems.

In the way we’ve come to expect of government, the Dept of the Environment immediately waved their hands and said they didn’t buy the opinion of the experts they themselves hired (presumably at some expense to you the taxpayer).

The thing is, you see, the tallymen don’t exist just so Brian Farrell can tell you who won the third seat half an hour before the official announcement by the returning officer. Originally, back in the day, the tallymen were appointed by the candidates to monitor the count and ensure fairness. In theory, they still are. In practice there are so many tallymen around, no one with two brain cells would bother trying to rig a vote. A nice closed circle of fair play in fact.

The system is simple. Each ballot box is sealed and brought to the count centre, where it is opened in the presence of the tallymen, who keep an eye on the count for the candidates to make sure the votes are counted correctly. But with an electronic vote, there are no tallymen. Where are you going to find someone with eyesight good enough to count electrons?

There’s been almost no debate on whether this is a good idea, despite worries about the security of computer systems worldwide.

“It is not possible to tell what programs are running inside the voting machine at election time, nor is it possible to tell that they are working correctly,” according to Ciaran Quinn, who runs the Irish Elections Database website.

“If the paper ballot system were to work the same way as electronic voting system, it would operate as follows:-

“You mark your ballot paper as at present.

“You give it to an official.

“The official makes a copy of your ballot paper, without letting you see the copy he has made, and puts the copy into the ballot box. He destroys your original ballot paper so that there is no record of it.

“The ballot boxes are taken at close of poll into a sealed room, where officials secretly count the votes. The candidates are not allowed to witness the count. Eventually, an official comes out and announces the result. Even if an audit is carried out on the ballot boxes, it does not allow for any error (deliberate or otherwise) when the official copied your vote.

“Would you be happy with this system?”