Estonia vs. Paper Ballots. How Technology is Shaping the Way People Vote

01 Jun, 2020

Technology has become such an inseparable part of our life, we don’t even question it anymore. It’s literary everywhere it helps us to order groceries, gets us a taxi, and keeps an eye on our health. However, when it comes to voting technology, it remains rather traditional to this day. In the wake of Ukraine’s presidential election last year, we decided to look into one of the most advanced voting systems in the world the Estonian one.

As of 2019, many countries have already introduced electronic voting. Various types of electronic or electronics-assisted systems are being used during elections in the USA, Canada, Brazil, India, South Korea, etc., while countries like Germany, the UK, Norway, Portugal, Japan are testing various technologically advanced systems. According to the current legislation of Ukraine, electronic voting is not foreseen. Paper ballots are used in both presidential and parliamentary elections. Obviously, the traditional election process requires significant financial and human resources before, during, and after the election. For example, the upcoming March 31, 2019, presidential election will cost Ukraine’s state budget over ₴ 2 billion. The history shows that the current election system in Ukraine tends to cause a number of misunderstandings and doubts among candidates, members of electoral commissions, and voters. How different are things in Estonia?

Eesti goes digital 

Nowadays, when you think of Estonia – the word “high-tech” immediately comes to your mind. Indeed, the small country of Estonia is said to have the best internet in the world, more startups per person than Silicon Valley, and its e-residency program has made buzz internationally. Estonia can be referred to as a startup itself – the country has completely redefined itself after it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Estonia was the first country to introduce nationwide online voting also known as internet voting back in 2005. As the software for i-voting was developed from scratch, the project implementation took 3 years and the total cost over 15 years has been approximately 1 million Euro. Kristi Kirsberg, Advisor at Estonian State Electoral Office told us: “In the technological sense, the end of the 1990s/the beginning of 2000 was the best time for changes. But the most important challenges we came across were: firstly, how to ensure trust, secondly, the political will was also an important aspect.”

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What makes Estonian i-voting system especially convenient is the fact that it doesn’t tie you to any physical location. Whether you are on holiday, sick with flu, or forgot to register at a new place after you moved – Estonian government has got you covered. All you need is your Estonian ID card or Mobile ID and a computer connected to the internet. You can vote as many times as you want, with only the last vote being counted. Estonians didn’t dismiss the option to vote at the polling station. Voters are free to choose between two options, which is undoubtedly very handy, especially for older generations who might not be that tech-savvy. If you vote both via the i-voting system and at the polling station, the paper vote will be the one that counts. Right now, Estonians are working on the idea to extend the i-voting system also to mobile devices.

The i-voting system didn’t win popularity overnight, with less than 2% of Estonian residents casting their ballot online in the local elections in 2005. However, as the world grew more tech, Estonians got used to voting with a few clicks. Right now, on average 1/3 of Estonians votes electronically, and 2/3 still choose traditional paper ballots. In the most recent parliamentary elections, i-voting was very popular – 44% or 247 232 i-voters among participating voters used this method.

Before the i-vote project was launched, the State Electoral Office has mapped all the risks and continues to cooperate with other public authorities on a regular basis. Kristi Kirsberg is confident that i-voting is as reliable and secure as voting in the traditional way: “The measures to guarantee security are constantly being improved. Since the 2013 elections, the voter has the possibility to check if their vote has reached the elections server. Monitoring the work of central voting servers, observing and the audit conducted by independent auditors are the security measures ensuring that i-votes are stored and counted in a correct way.”

According to Kirsberg, making the system as secure as possible was the priority during the development process. “It is necessary that the voter identifies themselves with an ID-card or mobile-ID, and does not use any other, less secure solutions for identification. The structure of the i-voting system ensures that nobody can find out whom the voter voted for,” tells Kirsberg. “Security is also increased by the fact that the functioning of the i-voting system can be followed and monitored by the observers. In July 2013, the source code of i-voting system software was made public for examination and studying to all who are interested via the elections web page.”

Voting tech across the pond

When it comes to other countries, their voting systems do not seem to be as advanced as Estonian one – let’s take a look at America, the country where the term e-democracy actually comes from. In the USA, various types of voting technologies have been used in the last 40 years – mechanical lever machines, punch-card voting devices, Direct-Recording Electonic (DRE) machines, etc. Hand-counted paper ballots are now rarely used in the USA, and both lever machines and punch-card voting devices have been banned for use in federal elections after the famous 2000 presidential election recount and catastrophic Florida butterfly ballot design which resulted in mass confusion.

American voting machines are on average 10 years old – which makes them very vulnerable: basically, every election in the USA is followed by reports of machine errors, vote flipping, hardware breakdowns, etc. The problem is, states and counties are responsible for renewing voting equipment, which is rarely on their high-priority list when it comes to budgeting. After about 2 million ballots were disqualified because of technical glitches (some votes were counted twice, while some didn’t count at all) in the 2000 election, The Help America Vote Act of 2002 was passed, and the federal government provided the money for voting equipment across the USA.

The future of elections in Ukraine 

Electronic voting has a number of advantages – more people might be interested in casting their vote since it does not require leaving the house; it is certainly more inclusive; massive manipulation of the results is practically impossible; the time spent on processing the results is reduced, and the results can be visualized in real time; in the long run, the cost of elections will be decreased. On the other hand, the implementation of electronic voting – be it electronic voting machine or similar to Estonian example internet voting – will require a lot of investments beforehand. A significant part of voters might not trust the system, and the threat of cyber attacks will always be there.

At the moment, Ukraine uses solely traditional paper ballots during presidential, parliamentary or local elections. However, the country successfully utilizes a few computer systems that were developed to assist in the preparation process leading to elections and during elections. For example, the unified information and analytical system “Elections” digitizes information about every election or referendum hold in Ukraine, and the “State Register of Voters” was created to ensure registration of voters – any voter can check online their registration status.

While Ukraine and Estonia might share the common past, Kristi Kirsberg is confident that the country’s ecosystem played the most important role in the development of i-voting system: “Estonia decided to introduce i-voting in order to make participation in elections more convenient for people – so that voting would not depend on time and place. This decision was supported by the technological base and the readiness of society. The Estonian i-voting system is based on the fact that the Estonian ID-card has been an official document for establishing the identity of a person for more than a decade. Most countries do not have such an extensively used digital system for identification and verification. Besides technological solutions, it is also necessary to have a legislative basis and political will.”

Cybersecurity expert Liisa Past agrees that Estonian approach does not apply to the voting process only, it’s a part of the vibrant ecosystem: “In Estonia, 99% of banking transactions are done and medical prescriptions are issued online, with the proportion of taxes filed electronically not far behind. There are thousands of digital services provided by the state as well as the private sector, most facilitated by the same digital identity scheme. Every government-issued ID card includes a chip that together with PIN codes becomes the key to one’s electronic identity for both identification purposes as well as legally binding digital signatures. Once a user is comfortable using one service, such as online banking, they become more likely to use other digital services as well, be it voting, accessing digital health records, or signing contracts.” Past adds: “Elections are not – and should not be – where a nation experiments with the use of technology. Rather, as the Estonian experience with i-voting and election information system demonstrates, elections have to be as digital or analog as the government and civil services around them. Elections can rely on technology that fits into a lively digital ecosystem, but even then, technology should not be focal.”

It might be another few years or even a decade until Ukraine’s voting system will be automated. But the Estonian example with internet voting certainly shows that technology can make elections transparent and convenient for all walks of society. In 2019, the world strives for sustainability and democracy more than ever and it’s certainly in our hands to make that one-meter long paper ballot and voter bribery a thing of the past.

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