The trouble with Internet voting in Estonia

Posted: February 27th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Estonia, human rights, politics, technology, thoughts | No Comments »

Voting in the national elections online sounds like a fantastic idea. No more wasting time at polling stations, it is quick and easy and makes voting accessible. In Estonia it has become so popular, that more than 30% of voting population (so likely more than half of all voters) have already voted before the actual polling day on Sunday, 3 March. Out of ca 900 000 eligible voters, ca 200 000 will have done this electronically using Internet voting. Internet voting ends this evening, i.e. 4 days before polling day. During the seven day internet voting period one can change one’s vote electronically numerous times, but you cannot change it or vote on the polling day.

Estonia is the only country in the world that uses Internet voting for parliamentary elections. Estonian government and tech elites promote it as a success story for making voting easier and more convenient. Nevertheless there are some new issues that can be highlighted due to the popularity of Internet voting.

As a sidenote, prisoners are not allowed to vote at all and so are not tens of thousands of stateless persons mostly belonging to the Russian minoirty who have lived in Estonia long term, but have been deprived of citizenship.

Security

First of all, there is no software without bugs or vulnerabilities. The more popular internet voting becomes, the more of a target it will be for hackers that want to undermine democracy in Estonia, either by modifying the outcome or creating distrust regarding the outcomes of the election. For the latter no actual security breach is needed, just effective ‘fake news’.

Lack of secrecy

The secrecy of the vote could be undermined, because internet voting does not take place in a more or less controlled environment of a polling station. This means that there are no guarantees that voters are not unduly pressured by their friends or family while voting, nor is there a guarantee that the actual voter themselves is voting (if you have the ID-card and the PIN-codes, you can vote for someone else, although this would be a crime).

Voter influence by online ads

During the Internet voting period, there is no ban on campaigning, unlike on the polling day. This means that voters are influenced by online advertisements to click and vote online by various parties. An offline analogy would be political parties busing voters to polling stations, which is not a good thing. More than half of the voters will probably vote during the active campaigning period, which makes banning ads during polling day pointless and quiant.

Politization of online vote

Voting methods should be neutral. However, Internet voting is in Estonia closely connected to (neoliberal) nation-building and state image, proving once again that innovation is political. This means that those parties that oppose the establishment (Centre Party when it was in opposition, the populist radical right EKRE now) question the validity of Internet voting. Other parties use Internet voting to promote their achievements and the image of a technologically progressive nation. In an ideal world all participants in an election would equally accept all means of voting.

Making an informed decision

While the majority of voters have likely voted online or during prevoting, what is the point of having election debates on the eve of the elections or during those last few days? The voters who have cast their vote online are not able to change their vote on the election day. Those who voted before will not be able to make as an informed decision as those who did during the polling day.

Cost

Internet voting is an additional expense. Although not as costly per vote as a paper ballot, it requires to have an parallel system to exist and be constantly kept up to date. Having two voting systems means that both systems are less cost-effective than having just one system. Online vote will be a cost-effective solution only when the paper ballot is lost entirely or mostly, which would allow to close down the majority of polling stations.

Long term impact

Technology can have transformative effects. Internet voting has the potential to transform (or has already transformed) representative democracy in ways that can be both good and bad. There are also questions what this means long term (provided there is no catastrofic event that stops this). What is the point of having a specific polling day with the quaint rules? What is the point of election districts, when online voting is not connected to a specific location? Are national and lingustic minorities somehow more or less disenfranchised?

Furthermore, what is the impact to democracy when it becomes such an instant experience? Will it transform the relationship between the citizen and the state? If yes, then how?



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