What Estonia could teach us about internet voting in a post-pandemic world

While the United States grapples with controversy over electronic voting machines and mail-in ballots, Estonia has created a remote voting system that could address many of the concerns about elections in a post-coronavirus world.

Refined over more than 15 years of development, Estonia’s i-Voting system allows citizens to vote from home on their computer using a government-issued smart card. The system is currently used by 46.7% of the population, a figure that has steadily risen over the years.

But Estonia remains the only nation to vote this way. The problem is not the technology, which has been open-sourced for any government in the world to use. The real obstacle is the phrase “government-issued.” For the system to work, residents have to trust the government with their electronic identity and personal information.

Eroding trust in governments around the world, and particularly in the United States, has created roadblocks for centralized technologies such as coronavirus tracing apps. For governments to even consider using data-intensive technology to solve problems like voting during a pandemic, they must reset their relationship with citizens through increased transparency.

“Trust is absolutely crucial,” said Florian Marcus, a digital transformation advisor to the country’s e-Estonia program. “Most governments have completely lost the trust of their societies because they’re not transparent about how they use their data. That being said, I think digitalization is always a tool. You can do it right; you can do it wrong. And it depends on the population how they perceive what is right and what is wrong.”

The challenges of voting in the U.S. during the pandemic have been highlighted in recent days, thanks to the chaotic primary vote in Georgia. Voters seeking to cast ballots faced huge lines and long delays. Problems included faulty electronic voting machines, but the state also faced a huge shortage of volunteers, as well as logistical issues in delivering ballots.

Voting rights activists have called for a return to paper ballots to avoid issues with electronic voting machines, but this wouldn’t solve the lack of polling places or shortage of people to staff them. Activists have also called for expanded use of mail-in ballots, something President Trump has sought to derail by falsely claiming that they are ripe for voter fraud.

Meanwhile, Estonia‘s e-Estonia initiative has made it one of the most pro-technology countries in the world. The centerpiece of this program is a national identification card with a chip that uses 2048-bit public key encryption. Residents can use this card as definitive identification across a range of Estonian government services. They can use it as their national health card and to access their bank accounts, sign documents digitally, pay taxes, and start a business.

And they can use it to vote.

The i-Voting program launched in 2005 with local elections. Marcus said not many people used it that year, but with each election the numbers have increased.

“It has a very high sticking rate, he said. “Over time, more and more people really got into it.”

Today, there are two ways someone in Estonia can remotely cast their vote. The first is using their electronic ID card directly. In Estonia, most laptops are now sold with an integrated card reader, though residents can get an external reader, which typically costs around $15.

To vote, residents download the voting application and then log in with their card. The app immediately recognizes the user’s voting district and brings up a list of offices and candidates. Once residents have made a selection, the application asks them to confirm their choices. The last step is entering their PIN code, which acts as a legally binding signature.

Once the vote is registered, a QR code appears, which the voter can scan with their smartphone to confirm their vote was counted and ensure it was registered correctly. During the 10-day voting period, voters can go back into the system and change their vote as many times as they like before the final deadline.

Votes can also be cast directly from a smartphone. Carriers in Estonia sell special SIM cards that contain the same government ID. Users purchase the SIM cards with their electronic smartcards and then link them to their government accounts. The SIM card is then used to authenticate someone when they vote by phone.

To build trust, the Estonian government has placed all the code for its voting system on Github. Each citizen has access to their own data hub, which allows them to see what personal information the government has and how it’s being used. With each election, Marcus said there has been a gradual increase in participation.

For now, the internet voting system has effectively replaced mail-in voting in Estonia. The balance of the population still goes to a public polling station and votes in the traditional way. And the country doesn’t release any results before the final votes are tallied.

As part of his mission, Marcus works at the e-Estonia Briefing Center, where visiting delegations can come for demonstrations and workshops on the country’s e-government programs. But when it comes to the i-Voting system, few have followed in Estonia’s footsteps. Marcus said a couple of regional governments have done pilot projects, but no other nation has adopted the system.

This comes back to the question of trust. Beyond voting, the idea of a government-issued ID card in the U.S. remains a hard sell. While most citizens have a Social Security number, the standard ID card remains their driver’s license.

Almost two decades ago, Oracle’s Larry Ellison attempted to make the case for a national ID card. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Oracle donated free software to the U.S. government to create such a system. In writing about the proposal, Ellison argued that IDs such as Social Security cards and driver’s licenses should have the same capabilities as credit cards and that any personal data the government holds should be centralized to be used more effectively.

“Many Americans instinctively fear that a national ID card would sacrifice basic freedoms and compromise personal privacy,” Ellison wrote. “On the face of it, issuing ID cards does seem a significant step. Trusting government to maintain a database with our names, addresses, places of work, amounts and sources of income, assets, purchases, travel destinations, and more seems a huge leap of faith.”

The backlash to Oracle’s proposal stopped the initiative in its tracks. Two decades later, it seems unlikely U.S. citizens’ relationship to technology and government would make it a serious consideration. Still, Marcus said he believes the coronavirus is causing governments and businesses to rethink their approaches to everything.

And he’s more optimistic that Europe, where many countries have long issued national ID cards (though without chips), might be more ready for i-Voting. The European Union has tacitly endorsed such a system for its member states, though no country has made efforts to implement it as yet.

“I think digitalization overall will get a boost over the next few years because governments realize that it’s time to step up,” he said. “Will i-Voting be the very first thing they want to implement? I don’t think so. I think an ehealth system or digital infrastructure for businesses might be higher on the priority list. But I personally think that i-Voting is a very exciting topic and that most countries should get on board.”

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