Sunday

14th Aug 2022

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EU must beware Beijing's new charm offensive

The EU needs to be clear eyed about China's new diplomatic charm offensive, as it's more likely driven by short-term necessity than any fundamental policy re-assessment.

Only Western unity can stop Iran hostage-diplomacy

The Belgian parliament's recent decision to ratify its prisoner-exchange treaty with Iran is a grave mistake, and one which exemplifies the many downfalls of dealing with Iran's human-rights abuses on a case-by-case basis.

Russia puts EU in nuclear-energy paradox

There's unprecedented international anxiety about the safety of Ukraine's nuclear reactors, but many European countries are also turning to nuclear power to secure energy supplies.

How Ukraine made the case anew for an EU army

The Kremlin attacked Ukraine because it believed it could afford to. It perceived nuclear deterrence between Russia and the West as reciprocal, and therefore almost a non-issue. It also saw, in military terms, Europe is disappearing from the world map.

Let Taiwan's democracy shine brighter

Dr Ming-Yen Tsai, head of the Taipei Representative Office in the EU and Belgium, responds to EUobserver op-ed on Taiwan by the Chinese ambassador to Belgium. "Taiwan is an 'island of resilience'. That will continue to be the case."

Column

Global hunger crisis requires more than just the Odessa deal

International donors are playing hide and seek. Instead of stepping up their assistance programmes, richer nations are cutting overseas aid, or reallocating funds from other parts of the world towards the Ukraine crisis.

Exploiting the Ukraine crisis for Big Business

From food policy to climate change, corporate lobbyists are exploiting the Ukraine crisis to try to slash legislation that gets in the way of profit. But this is only making things worse.

News in Brief

  1. Germany to help nationals cope with energy price spike
  2. Germany wants pipeline from Portugal
  3. Ukraine urges US to sanction all Russian banks
  4. Spain evacuates 294 Afghans
  5. EU sanctions have 'limited' effect of Russian oil production
  6. Donors pledge €1.5bn to Ukraine's war effort
  7. Sweden overtakes France as EU's top power exporter
  8. Italy's far-right star in European charm offensive

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  3. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  6. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting

Latest News

  1. Defying Russian bombs, Ukraine football starts 2022 season
  2. Sweden to extradite man wanted by Turkey
  3. EU must beware Beijing's new charm offensive
  4. Forest fire near Bordeaux forces over 10,000 to flee
  5. Estonia and Latvia sever China club ties
  6. Russian coal embargo kicks in, as EU energy bills surge
  7. Only Western unity can stop Iran hostage-diplomacy
  8. Kosovo PM warns of renewed conflict with Serbia

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us