Elections in E-stonia

Ian Britton FreeFoto.com

Estonia held parliamentary elections on Sunday, in which a record number of Estonians cast their ballots through the internet.   This was Estonia’s fifth election where e-voting was an option and the second national-level poll to allow it.   The almost 25 percent of voters who used the internet shows that there is an increasing level of trust and familiarity with the system.   Although the election was largely successful, there were a few small bumps with the administration.

  • One online vote was invalidated because it was blank.  While this happens all the time with paper ballots, the online system is not supposed to allow blank votes.  So far, no one knows how this vote was cast this way.
  • For just over an hour, the system used to monitor votes broke down and the Electoral Committee was forced to use Facebook and Twitter to post results.
  • An error with the browser left three known voters unable to view several candidates.
  • On some small resolution computer screens, some names at the bottom were not immediately visible.  Perhaps minor, but complaints of lack of fairness could legitimately be raised if it is significantly harder to locate a particular candidate.

Internet voting is being piloted in local Swiss elections, with Norway looking to test a program as well.  While Estonia may seem like an odd innovator,  a quick look at the country reveals it may be more ready than anybody.  One AFP article noted that they have been dubbed “E-stonia,” as most state services are available online.  It is the country that invented Skype and has devoted one percent of its budget to building an IT sector.   Last week, the government announced plans to set up a nationwide network of charge-points for electric cars.  The last move was derided as a pre-election political stunt by the opposition, but try to imagine a “pro-electric car” campaign as a successful political stunt in America.   At this point one wonders if Estonia is doing all of this simply to show off.  I don’t know enough about the country to make a path-dependency or institutionalist explanation of this culture, but whatever the reasoning, Estonians have made the decision that technology was going to be something they are really good at.

There were some issues with the execution of the election, as mentioned above, but I don’t see how these are any more egregious than what we witness in developed countries with paper ballots.  Other countries looking to replicate this model, however,  will still have a lot of things to consider.  Estonia needed to significantly alter its laws to make the system work.  Furthermore, they still wrestle with issues that internet voting brings up. A major opposition party, for example, has complained that “e-voting takes place before a polling and campaigning blackout comes into force on election day.”  The United States obviously doesn’t have a ban on pre-election polling (Chuck Todd would lead the riots!), but I think the example shows how so many issues can be brought up by this.  I also wonder if Estonia benefits from its small size and relative obscurity.  While they claim the system is secure, I would imagine a larger country would attract a larger quantity of talented hackers.

Choosing a model like this would be a massive undertaking and one that isn’t really necessary.  Yet it’s happening regardless.  Maybe small Estonia could make some money by charging high consulting fees to their Nordic neighbors who desire the same flashy systems.  Hopefully they will listen.

Posted on March 7, 2011, in Democracy, E-voting, Elections and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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