Estonia voting

Estonia leading the world in e-voting

James Oates, a former British Parliamentary candidate, reports from Estonia about the country's pioneering experience of e-voting, e-elections and e-government.

In the last election I was one of the several thousand candidates standing for election to the British House of Commons, in my case in the Liberal Democrat interest in the Wycombe constituency. However, although we improved the vote for the party and had a lot of fun trying to persuade the voters, we did not win and I went back to my day job as a financial specialist in Central and Eastern Europe.

For people involved in politics there is still a certain romance about 'the count': the much parodied announcement by the returning officer followed by the speeches by the candidates. There is even a certain shamefaced excitement about the physical process of going into the polling station and making the simple pencil marks upon which our democracy depends. Yet for a new generation, the process of voting is a mystery.

The turnout of people casting their ballot has been falling for a long time. Far distant are the days when 70 or 80 per cent of voters would voluntarily turn up. At the last general election only 61.4 per cent of those registered to vote in the UK actually did so. Local and European elections typically show far lower levels of voter participation, and last year in Bootle only 12.6 per cent of the voters bothered to turn up for the European polls. Now, as we finally face the 2010 general election, politicians of all parties fear another low turnout could threaten the very legitimacy of democratic institutions in the UK. Perhaps, some argue, the time has come to update the way we hold our elections.

Many ideas have been discussed about how to reduce voter apathy, from opening polling stations in supermarkets to making polling day a holiday. However, perhaps at least part of the solution may lie in introducing new technology to the process, as Estonia has done. The implications of it may be more profound than the politicians think.

Estonian e-democracy

Estonia is an enthusiastic champion of IT - and anyone who uses high-speed bank transfers or the myriad of services delivered via mobile phones will testify to the benefits that it has brought to this small and nimble Baltic state. Electronic solutions are used in pretty much all walks of life - from paying taxes, which over 80 per cent of people do online, to Skype, which was developed and is largely run from Tallinn (see p28). I guess it was inevitable that the Estonians would soon consider how to bring online technology to their democracy and would seek to develop the most radical solution to the question. So in Estonia, E-voting means not just using technology to cast or validate ballots in the polling station, but actually being able to vote over the Internet.

Consideration of E-voting began in 2002 and the final pilot project went ahead in 2004. Initially, the idea was not to replace traditional voting but to supplement ballots by allowing people to vote remotely when they could not make it to the polls. Estonians initially used E-voting in the local elections of 2005, where valid votes could be cast online for the first time anywhere in the world. E-votes, like postal votes, are issued and cast well before Election Day: the E-polls are open from the tenth to the fourth day before the election date. During that time, a voter can change their vote several times if they wish but only the final vote will be tabulated. They also have the right to vote in the conventional manner during advanced voting, which invalidates their e-vote. Once an advanced vote, either e-vote or paper ballot, is cast, it prevents a voter from being allowed to vote on Election Day.

The initial take up of votes was quite small, with only just over 9,000 voters using the system in the first election of 2005, but the experiment was, nonetheless, judged to be a success. Over time, the popularity of e-voting has grown substantially - in the last local elections in 2009, over 100,000 people voted online: roughly 9 per cent of the electorate. As an Estonian resident, I was entitled to vote in the local elections and decided to give online voting a try.

Multi-purpose ID Card

With voting, as with all interactions between the state and the citizen, the key to security is the Estonian ID card. Each Estonian resident is issued with this chip and pin biometric document. As well as the card itself, there are two secret personal identification numbers (PINs) issued with each one. These PINs are considered robust enough to allow electronic signatures on official documents and Estonians are used to the signature technology when they file their tax returns, for example. Once logged on to a site, the card may be inserted into a reader and the PINs entered.

Online voting works in much the same way. A voter may log on to the election website, www.valmised.ee. They identify themselves using an ID card reader on their computer and the first of the two PINs. The electoral server checks that the voter is registered and then shows the choice of candidates for their address. The voter makes their choice and this is encrypted. The choice is then confirmed with the second PIN code - the digital signature.

The next step is at the count. The digital signature is removed, which makes the votes anonymous. The votes are then electronically opened by the representative of the national elections committee, de-encrypted, counted and tabulated with the conventional ballots. All the electronic votes are cast in advanced voting - up to four days before polling day. At that time, the list of those who have voted is published - this allows challenges from voters to be made well ahead of polling day itself.

Before I cast my vote, I discussed with Rain, a friend of mine, what he thought of the system.

'Estonians', he said, 'are practical people. I use the E-voting system ... why would I waste time going to the polling place when I can vote from the office?'

I asked him about the possibility of compromising the secret ballot through hacking. His response was typical of many: 'We use the Internet all the time for secure transactions, especially banking and filing our tax returns. Voting is just another transaction and there has been no recorded successful penetration of the Estonian e-government systems. They are as secure as anything we know.'

Internet society

He is certainly right that E-voting is just one of many online systems that Estonians use on a daily basis. Apart from the banking system, virtually all communication on issues such as healthcare, planning, indeed with any state body, is normally transacted on the Internet. When Ministers have official meetings, the minutes are published online.

Nevertheless, there is a very clear distinction between public information, which the state is obliged to publish, and private data, such as health care records, which the state is obliged to keep confidential. A substantial check on this is the individual. For example, a person can check who has been reading his medical records; because the ID card validates these transactions too. With elections, the list of those who have voted is something of a check, and while one could not identify which precise vote belongs to which person - that would compromise the secrecy of the process - you can't do that with paper ballots either. The electronic signature is a secure way of validation and the encryption prevents interference in a valid ballot.

There is, then, a high level of trust in the security of electronic transactions, and the very ubiquity of these transactions is driving up their popularity. E-voting is really beginning to catch on, with about 10 per cent of votes already cast online. Given the near universal free access to Wi-Fi, the Estonians are hardly disenfranchising those who do not have access to the Internet.

I certainly found the process of voting to be very straightforward. If anything, it was probably slightly quicker to vote online than by making a pencil mark on a ballot paper, especially given the complexity and number of papers I faced at the last local elections when I lived in London. So there seems little doubt that E-voting is simple, secure and it works.

However, there is now a recognition that the technology could be extended into other fields. The costs of E-voting are substantially lower than the conventional ballot, and there is the tantalising possibility of extending it into referendums.

At a recent conference, Marek Strandberg, the then leader of the Estonian Green Party, suggested that using E-voting for referendums could make Estonia move towards a Swiss model of direct democracy. Indeed several politicians have called for some areas of decision making to be taken from the Riigikogu - the Estonian Parliament - and reserved exclusively for E-referendum.

'It is all about choices,' says Justice Minister Rein Lang, who was able to cast his vote at 2009 European elections while on a visit to Chile.

Yet others are more sceptical. Igor Gräzin, an MP from the ruling Reform party points out that the constitution would need to be substantially rewritten to allow this. 'I think that Estonia is not yet ready to make this radical move into what could be dangerous ground, and with our history we should be cautious about constitutional change.'

Witnessing the future

It is clear that the E-voting technology could lead to more direct democracy in time, though I understand Gräzin's caution about how quickly this could be introduced. I am impressed by the level of trust that people have in the robustness of the system and, given the resilience that the Estonian systems showed in the face of the cyber war of three years ago, I do have a reasonable degree of confidence in the system. It is not, however, total confidence. I do wonder whether hackers could invade the system and even change the result.

However, the paper ballot system also has weaknesses, as repeated postal ballot scandals in the UK have shown. A polling station is probably the most secure place to cast your ballot, but as the lower turnouts show, fewer and fewer voters are actually willing to physically go.

Have I seen the future? And does it work? Cautiously the answer is 'Yes'. Voters are willing to use the Internet and it could have the power to transform the way we govern ourselves. However, from a UK perspective there are so many barriers that we would have to cross just to be where the Estonians are now. Not least there is the issue of ID cards - the resistance to which has increased with every scandal involving lost data. I suspect it could be more than a decade before the UK even considers the idea. By that time, the Estonians may have even made the changes that Gräzin opposes today.

As we listen to the polls come in for the 2010 General Election, we might ponder how long it will be before the ritual of the returning officer's declaration is consigned to history. As flickering computer screens reveal the results, a little of the old romance will be missing.

It may be a little while before the returning officer clears his throat for the last time.

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