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.