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Estonians Cast Online Ballots in National Elections

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The tiny Baltic republic of Estonia rarely grabs headlines. But today it became the world’s first country where Internet voting was permitted in a national election.

As nearly 1 million registered voters today turned up at polling stations, around 30,000 didn’t have to. They had already cast their ballots in a secure online system, made possible by the fact that most Estonians have national identity cards with computer-readable microchips.

Using their ID card and its PIN, all they then need is a computer with an electronic card reader – voting from anywhere in the world.

E-votes could only be cast three days prior to elections. During the three-day period, online Estonians had a chance to change their minds after voting: the system allows multiple votes to be cast, with the latest vote canceling out the earlier.

Online voters still worried about security questions were nonetheless able to turn up at the polling stations today and cast a paper ballot – invalidating the computerized one. The security aspect of Internet voting has not caused much concern, however. “E-voting is not so difficult to think about here. We are used to using the Internet for business and for almost 10 years we have been using the Internet for banking,” said a computer systems specialist.

The Estonian experiment is being watched closely by other member countries in the European Union (EU) where E-voting systems have been tried on a smaller scale. Experts hope that eventual widespread use of online voting would encourage otherwise lethargic citizens to participate in elections.

Rush to Modernize

After independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, the little northern country rushed to modernize. Payment of bills with a cell phone is almost commonplace, and Estonia is a major European base for the Skype Internet telephone service. “One of the most common explanations as to why Estonians have taken to new IT technology is that everything had to be done new here [after Independence],” said Jaan Tallinn, a senior programmer. “There were no legacies to deal with, like with bank checks, which were already obsolete, so companies could create new systems and people used them.”

As expected, the center-right coalition government of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip would remain in power after today’s elections. The country’s astonishing economic growth rate, now running at 12% annually, was the winning card – offset by grave social problems ranging from ethnic tensions to a declining population base.

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  • Mayank Austen Soofi

    This is amazing, Mr. Choate. First nation to vote online in national elections! You would have thought of some other in-the-headlines nation but Estonia. Or is it that things were easier since it is just too small with so few people. Nevertheless, it is an envious achievement.

  • STM

    I thought it said Etonians, then I noticed the S. Good on them, though … not a bad idea, especially if you’re outside your electorate. I particularly like the idea of being able to change your mind after you’ve voted. Everyone’s wanted to do that, although it’s usually about six months after the ballot when the promises are being broken with this explanation “No, that was a non-core promise … we’ve fulfilled all our core promises.”

  • Roger Choate

    Thanks, Mayank. It’s probably easier to institute E-balloting in a small country where electoral procedures are straightforward – and with a high degree of computer ownership.

  • Aaman

    Very interesting, Roger, I wonder if the trend will really catch on, I think not, and hope not – a vote is too precious to just click on like a digg vote.

  • Roger Choate

    Interesting comment, Aaman. I can’t personally make up my mind about E-balloting – quite apart from the fact that it’s not realistic for most countries at the present time. Estonia is unique in that some 80% of households have access to a computer, in one way or other.

    Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but the idea of doing your duty as a citizen and trudging to a polling station rather appeals to me. When people are queuing with other people at a polling station I think they feel that they’re doing something important as participants in a democracy. I don’t think you’d get that feeling by doing it online. I’ve just gotten an Email from a friend in Estonia who has voted online and will ask her what she thinks of it

  • Roger Choate

    Comment from Maren Pärn, a friend in Estonia:

    Most glad to give a comment to your readers:
    I, as many of my contemporaries (and not only, many people of different age groups who have found ITC to be of great assistance; their time-saver, personal organiser, communication handler, multiplier of their memory, data storekeeper and analyst etc etc) welcome another opportunity how to put new technology in the service of people.

    Voting is an attitude, attitude that shows your concern as a citizen. The means how to do it does not really matter, as long as you do it safely. It does not make me a worse citizen (on the contrary, a better one). ITC applications are as safe as any other applications, as long as the user takes care of all the necessary security precautions and controls their own actions. One shouldn’t watch movies like Matrix too much. I love ITC, it makes the world smaller, easier, more tangible.

  • jaz

    great Article, Roger…

    i’m a bit ambivalent on the e-voting thing

    on the one hand, anything that gets more folks to Vote is always a good thing, imo

    on the other, a real concern about fraud in the vote counting process would need to be addressed, no paper trail could be irresistable to the unscrupulous

  • Roger Choate

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jaz!

    The question of fraud is evidently uppermost in the minds of those who devise these E-balloting programs. According to election officials in Estonia, the thing is working just fine. I can recall a similar concern when credit card payments first appeared on the Internet. In the case of Estonia, there is a fail-safe mechanism in case somebody uses somebody’s else’s National Identity Card with its computer-readable chip and files a vote.

    Acceptance of E-balloting would, I suspect, be higher in those countries where voters turnout is normally very high anyway, like Estonia and also here in Sweden, where it averages around 80% – as opposed to the Unite States where presidential elections perhaps see a turnout of around 48-50%, if I remember correctly.

    The other thing is that E-balloting in Estonia is predicated on issuance of National Identity Cards for every citizen. Most European countries issue National Identity Cards, and many of these cards have readable chips that are used for a variety of purposes. In Estonia, for E-balloting. In France, for the national medical service. The chip tells a doctor what your medical history is. But in most countries in the world, you don’t have Identity Cards(yet). This is a big issue in the UK at the moment because of terrorism. The Blair government wants to introduce identity cards.

    But I’m diverging. I think E-balloting also becomes appealing if it’s marketed and “packaged” in an appealing sort of way, to capture the imagination of would-be voters but, hey, what do I know? All I did was report on something that happened in Estonia. Though, if reader comment continues, maybe I’ll have to do more research!

  • jaz

    well, there is a huge difference in e-banking and e-voting

    in one, fraud can cost some money and inconvenience

    in the other, the overthrow of a government

    hence the concern

    still and all, a great thing for Estonia, we will see how it all sorts out in the end

  • moonraven

    It would never work in countries like the US and Mexico, where electoral fraud is a national pasttime.