Release peace: the magazine
Release peace: the magazine
Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs
In This Country Parliament is Elected Online
Written by: Bogdan Romanov
Photo credits: Jorge Franganillo
Where Electoral Life is Online Life
Like no other nation in the world, Estonia has moved all civil service processes online, simplifying the lives of its citizens and residents over the past two decades. This phenomenon of having fully digitized interactions between the public and the civil service was explained in our article from earlier this year. However, the real e-Governance gem is online voting: Estonia is the only country that established an online voting system back in 2005. It was the same year that now world-renowned YouTube was born. It was an electoral game-changer.
First Things First: Definitions
In academic literature and popular media alike, the phenomenon of online voting comes by many names, such as internet voting or i-voting. Despite the difference in labels, the technology is universally described as a service where citizens can cast their vote during any election by accessing a voting platform through the internet via a smart device. Currently, Estonian elections allow voting via laptops or PCs, with deliberations about mobile voting ongoing.
The uniqueness of the system lies in how well it is integrated into the country’s e-Governance ecosystem. No dedicated IT architecture or separate documents for voter identification are required. The system relies on existing eID cards, corresponding PIN codes, and card readers. This helps explain why there were no major crises the system had to deal with for almost 20 years, according to the OSCE/ODIHR.
A Blessing and a Curse
Being a pioneer is both a blessing and a curse: On the one hand, Estonia set trends in digital governance, while on the other, the small Baltic nation faced intense scrutiny and attention. Consequently, most research on online voting draws from Estonia’s experiences. Most of this research is produced by Estonian universities, foremost the University of Tartu’s Skytte Institute, which accesses post-election surveys, expert opinions, and statistical insights. The current state of play in the online voting domain can be split into four major findings, which might be applicable to other countries far afield from Estonia:
1. Diffusion and Acceptance
After the online voting system was introduced in 2005, it became fully accepted by society within just 5 years, eliminating digital divides in voter behavior and societal disparities in online voting usage rates. This does not imply that online voting can “sew together” societies torn apart by major crises. Rather, it is inclusive and affordable to every person regardless of age, gender, education level, or other factors.
2. Direct and Indirect Voting Costs
Voting costs are the time and effort required by the electoral process. Online voting has been found to be less costly than paper-based voting (Mihkel, Vassil, Vinkel, Romanov, 2023). This is mostly due to reduced transaction costs: There is no need to dress up, which is still a custom for Estonians according to the ELECTRUST project, or make your way to the polling station during a thunderstorm to perform the civic duty of voting, or to send a letter prior to voting day to participate in postal voting. There is also no need to count paper ballots by hand with the help of thousands of volunteers on election day. Instead, online voting allows the electorate to spend less than 2 minutes to cast a vote and participate in the political life of a state from home.
As a lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, online voting can serve as a tool in situations when close personal contacts are hazardous. Over 80 countries had to postpone their elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. By contrast, Estonia -even though it still held in-person paper elections- could offer the long-established practice of online voting. It offered a safe option for people in high-risk groups and greatly reduced organizational efforts and in-person contacts at polling stations. COVID-19 serves as just one example, while more frequent and unpredictable events, like severe weather events, should likewise not prevent a person from exercising their democratic right.
3. Safety Mechanisms
Online voting in Estonia is organized in such a way that vote buying and coercing a voter into voting for a specific party is literally made impossible. The system works as follows: Every voter can re-cast their online vote an infinite number of times, which overrides any previous vote. Those intending to force or bribe someone into voting for a certain party would need unlimited attempts to do so. Moreover, on election day, any voter is permitted to cast a new vote on paper, which will also override all previous online votes.
4. Political Neutrality
A study published in the Government Information Quarterly that analyzed the Estonian experience between 2005 and 2015 found that online voting does not alter the political preferences of the electorate in any way. On the contrary, it mobilizes people to cast a vote for their preferred party in an uncontrolled environment.
Every Rose has its Thorns, but Some Have More
Online voting still carries untapped potential for other democracies around the world: inclusiveness, the physical safety of voters, the political integrity of elections, and unbiasedness. Over the last 18 years, Estonia has established a safe and reliable online voting system, setting records of online voter turnout, with 51% of all votes being cast online in the 2023 national elections. Despite these achievements, Estonia and its electoral system face challenges. One of the most significant worries for any democracy is a potential lack of trust, whether in the state, in technology, or other aspects of the electoral system. If a person does not trust the entity that initiates and maintains online voting, they will not be convinced by the benefits of the online voting model. In Estonia, there are comparatively low levels of trust in political institutions when measured against other developed nations.
Other Online Voting Nations?
Other nations have also been adopting the implementation of online voting, such as Switzerland and Canada. Switzerland’s example is somewhat the opposite of the Estonian experience: Starting in the early 2000s, various cantons began trialing online voting systems. By the 2010s, a number of cantons offered full-fledged e-voting to Swiss citizens. However, concerns about security vulnerabilities led to the suspension or termination of the some of those developments. The approach pursued by Canada is a different one: It could be described as a grassroots attempt at e-governance at local levels. Various municipalities in Ontario, for instance, have used online voting in municipal elections, often as an additional option rather than a replacement for traditional methods. For now, Estonia appears to be lonely at the top.