Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Opinion

EU neighbours cast hopeful eye on Estonia's E-voting

Political apathy, cynicism, voter fatigue…whatever the causes, falling voter turnout continues to plague democracies across Europe. With EU governments hard-pressed to find effective ways of coaxing citizens, particularly young people, to show up at the polling stations, many are now looking eastward, to Estonia, where a new, cutting-edge system allows voters to cast their ballots from home or work over the internet.

Here remote internet voting, or "e-voting" as it's commonly known, is seen as a way to bring young, tech-savvy people back into the voting pool. Offered in conjunction with traditional voting methods, it's been introduced primarily as a convenience, an improvement on postal voting systems already in use in most countries.

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  • Estonia held the world's first nation-wide binding local elections using the e-voting system last year (Photo: Steve Roman)

The Estonian system allows voters to use their chip-enabled national ID cards and smart card readers to cast their ballots from any internet-connected computer. During the three days leading up to elections day, they can vote from home, from the office, or even from an internet café. No pre-registration is required, and the process is designed to be as simple as possible.

Pointing to the Estonians' love of anything to do with the internet, Liia Hanni, Programme Director at the nation's E-governance Academy, said that moving the nation's balloting mechanism into cyberspace was a logical choice.

"Our people are quite innovative and oriented towards using modern technology," said Hanni. "Considering the attitudes among young people, we consider internet voting as a mechanism to increase voter turnout," she said.

Though pilot e-voting projects had already been carried out at local levels in the UK and Switzerland, Estonia leaped to the forefront of the e-voting race in October 2005 when it held the world's first nation-wide binding local elections using the system. In March of next year, it'll chalk up another world's first when it holds national parliamentary elections using e-voting.

But with so much attention given Estonia's e-voting system across Europe, this isn't likely to stay a uniquely Estonian story for long.

"Almost every second European state is considering something [similar]," said Heiki Sibul, Chairman of Estonian National Electoral Committee. He said that interest in the Estonian e-vote among other countries' elections officials has been "enormous", and that he has been invited to far more conferences on the subject than he can attend.

One EU neighbour planning to implement its own e-voting system is Lithuania, where, in addition to boosting voter turnout, officials see e-voting as a way to tackle another problem of post-expansion EU.

"We have a large number of our citizens working abroad, and for them to fulfil their civic duty, e-voting is one of the ways," said Jonas Udris of Lithuania's Central Electoral Committee. Lithuania hopes to have an e-voting system in place by the country's 2008 parliamentary elections.

Other EU states have waded even further into the e-voting waters. France, Italy, Portugal and Spain have all held polls using e-voting, though not all in binding elections. On November 22, the Netherlands held its first binding e-vote for citizens living abroad.

Whether e-voting will be the magic pill these countries are hoping for is still an open question however.

For one, the idea that e-voting will significantly increase voter turnout is only a theory. In Estonia's groundbreaking elections in October, only 1.8 percent of voters, fewer than 10,000, used the method.

This isn't a discouraging figure, according Sibul and Hanni. Both pointed out that any new and unfamiliar system takes time to find public acceptance. The hope is that in future elections, the figures will shoot up as the practice takes root. But just how much or how quickly that will happen is anyone's guess.

At least part of the problem is practical. Though Estonia has issued more than one million of the necessary ID cards to its 1.3 million citizens, relatively few of the nation's computer users, around 30,000 by one estimate, have installed the smart card readers that take them.

A larger potential concern for some pundits is that, by its nature, the practice of e-voting carries with it some controversy. It leaves no traditional paper-trail for election observers to follow, and leaves voters open to the risk of family or group pressure to vote a particular way. Fears have also been raised about hacking and falsification.

Estonia's system, according to Sibul, addresses these problems with heavily monitored security, and electronic means for observers to audit the e-voting process. The system also allows voters to change their vote as many times as they like during the three-day voting period, letting them correct any forced vote.

These measures weren't enough to satisfy one of the parties in the nation's ruling coalition, the Estonian People's Union, however. In a letter to the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, it called e-voting "a political virus …which poses a threat to the pillars of democracy worldwide."

Despite its critics though, with electoral committees so eager to attract young voters, this 21st-century twist to democracy is destined to spread.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Estonia

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