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Justi Petrone

Dispatch from the land of i-Voting: reflections of an American in Estonia on the US Elections

Estonia-based American expat Justin Petrone asks will US Elections ever undergo the same digital leap forward that has allowed Estonians to vote online, or is it too large and federated to make those kinds of improvements?

13 NOVEMBER, MORNING. A gray autumn day in town. Even before the light begins to show behind the curtains, you can hear people making their way to work or school. They trod forward in silence, bags hoisted over their shoulders, hats on their heads, scarves on their necks.

November is a sleepy dream of a month in Estonia, but piercing this cold quiet is news from hot Arizona. Former Vice President Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the state ten days after the election. It’s no longer something to open your windows and shout into the street about here. Life goes on. It’s almost as if people have become so bored with reporting the results that they’ve lost interest. While systematic, the Estonians can also be impatient people.

This is the land of internet voting, where one expects that results should be instantaneous or at least delivered the same day. The Americans, though, seem to be thoroughly stuck in yesteryear.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 4, their eyes were trained on the vote counts in those all-important swing states. The US presidential election system, particularly its peculiar electoral college, are things of wonder to the Estonians, who have one foot anchored in the 1920s when their country was established. The other in the 21st century, when most e-governance services were rolled out. Something that was concocted by long-dead statesmen in the 1780s is a real curiosity. It’s like finding an old loom in an attic that has somehow survived the test of time.

Can you believe that it still works?

But it takes so much time, especially in this strange year, 2020. About ten days ago, all eyes were on Pennsylvania. As far as they are concerned now, the Americans might never finish counting the votes there. It’s become a distant static in the background, and unless President Trump really is plotting a coup with the help of some new loyalists in the Pentagon, nothing to lose sleep over.

‘The Red Mirage’

On the morning of November 4, I had an interview with a scientist in Tartu, the second largest Estonian city and home to the prestigious University of Tartu, at its founding by King Gustav Adolf in 1632, one of two universities in the Swedish Empire (the other was in Uppsala).

The night before, I had gone to sleep, staring like many at President Trump’s all impressive 15 point lead in Pennsylvania, which didn’t seem to jibe with any polls in the state I had seen before the election. My interviewee had seen the same thing. “Well, it looks like it’s all over,” she said. “It looks like Trump won a second term.”

I didn’t know how to respond to her as we rode the elevator to her office. It just didn’t seem real.

It wasn’t real, though. Instead, it was a so-called “red mirage,” the illusion that the Republican incumbent was ahead based on the order in which votes were counted and tallied in the state.

“If Pennsylvania had allowed for counting mail-in ballots in advance, the reporting of results would have been the other way around,” says Lauri Tankler, lead analyst at RIA, the Estonian Information System Authority. “They would have instead shown millions of more votes for Biden, and then that deficit would have closed as the votes came in on election day. Everyone would have started to think that Trump was going to close that gap instead,” Tankler adds. “If the system had been designed the other way, we would have had a completely reversed experience.  It would have still been a nailbiter, but the other way.”

It would take several days of counting before Biden overtook Trump’s lead in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until later in the day on Friday, November 6, that networks felt comfortable projecting Biden as the winner of the state and its cache of 20 electoral votes. The following day, the networks began to call him the president-elect. Yet even on that morning, I had been stopped by an older acquaintance who asked me, eyes full of pity, if the Americans would ever finish counting. Even for Estonia’s older generations who matured under Soviet rule, it seemed absurd that the world’s oldest democracy would have such an antique election system.

Paper ballots and i-voting

According to Tankler, the concepts underlying American vote-by-mail systems and Estonia’s online i-voting system are not so different. When I voted this year, I initially filed an application online via a state website, then emailed my board of elections, which walked me through the process. I had to print out an application, sign it, scan it, and send the paper copy to them via mail. I also downloaded a ballot, printed it out, and had to place it within two security envelopes before dispatching it with an Estonian blue, black, and white stamp on it to the US.

I’m hopeful that it arrived on time, passed muster, and was counted, but I cannot confirm this.

The Estonian i-voting system works similarly. Estonians vote using digitally encrypted identity cards, but their vote is packaged as a file together with another file containing voter information. When the server counts these votes, the identity information is first verified and then discarded, leaving behind an anonymised vote that is then tallied within the system. Estonia uses a separate system for counting all votes, whether done online or done in person.

Both of these systems undergo constant innovation, and a new version of the i-voting system is under development with plans to pilot the system next year. It will be the third version of the i-voting system since it was first deployed in 2005. “Innovation is constantly ongoing,” notes Tankler. “There are always issues that need addressing that we need to change and improve.”

Yet 2005 was 15 years ago, and the US doesn’t seem to be prepared to launch anything similar. The question remains, will it ever undergo the same digital leap forward that has allowed Estonians to vote online, or is it too large and federated to make those kinds of improvements?

Seeds of disbelief

Sunday, November 15. Another gray northern day. I am visiting relatives in the southeasternmost part of the country along the Russian border. Even for the industrious locals, it’s a day of rest, and the neighbor’s blue tractor stands idly beside a half-finished wooden barn. It’s hard to believe this hushed nook of the world is a flashpoint for NATO-Russian relations. Yet this is, as Newt Gingrich called it in 2016, the “suburbs of St. Petersburg” that aren’t worth going to war over.

The Russian border is only a few kilometers away from here, but mentally the distance is greater. Estonia’s democracy seems quite lively compared to the Russians’, where the same man has been in power since the final days of the 20th century. The Estonian minister of the interior recently announced his resignation after supporting the theory that the US elections were corrupt and illegitimate. Word battles play out across the internet. The Estonians enjoy a spirited debate. American democracy has always provided a heavy anchor for these margins of the liberal democratic world. Yet from this vantage, it feels as if the Europeans are the ones helping out the Americans now, with multiple EU leaders congratulating President-elect Biden on his election.

Last night, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania were finally called by the news networks. This, I suppose, was the end of the election. Yet the president has no plans to concede, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been talking publicly about a “second Trump Administration.” The seeds of disbelief have been planted. January seems a lifetime away.

Could it have been handled better?

One wonders, could the election have been done differently, and could i-voting have made the results less suspect to various political camps? According to Tankler, having paper ballots in the US system, with a paper trail that makes them verifiable, actually makes the results more secure.

“If you have a large country where people are not used to digital systems, how could you keep an online vote secure with no paper trail?” asks Tankler. “In the case of the US, it’s probably better to have a paper trail now.” Online voting, he says, is essential to get right, not get right fast.

Liisa Past, head of cybersecurity business development at Cybernetica, an Estonian firm that develops e-governance solutions, agrees with Tankler that without an ecosystem of digital services like exists in Estonia, introducing online voting in the US would “solve nothing.”

“The reason that people vote online in Estonia is not that voting is available online; it’s because everything is available online,” says Past. “There is just a habit of doing things online, whether it is filing taxes or accessing health information or signing contracts,” she says. “Voting becomes just another one of those services.” In the US, where people are more likely to be suspicious of new technology, the introduction of i-voting could make results more suspect.

“As an election organiser, you shouldn’t introduce a black box into your elections,” says Past. “If there is a piece of technology that is an unknown, even if it isn’t digital, it’s a bad idea,” she says.

A great and agile experiment?

Like most of us, Past has ridden the election newsflow as reports dribbled in day after day. As much of it can be trusted. Even CNN, the “most trusted name in the news,” states that administration officials have been lying to the American public. Dualing realities are reaffirmed.

“I went to sleep peacefully on election night,” says Past, “but I did check the results first thing in the morning.” Many Estonians have probably wondered why they care so much about the results in a country located across the Baltic Sea and then over the Atlantic Ocean. But for them, the outcome means much more than by how many votes a candidate wins in Nevada.

“The US has been designed to be an experiment in democracy,” says Past. “It has been a robust experiment that has withstood many wars and dramatic inclusion of groups of people into democracy,” she says. “The rule of law in the US is designed to be a constant experiment, but it has had trouble adjusting to foreign meddling and, frankly, unstatesmanly behavior,” she says.

Watching the US election unfold is, therefore, seeing if this long ongoing experiment still works.

“The US democracy is a great, agile experiment, but we have reached a moment where some players do not respect the fundamental premise of this great, agile experiment,” Past says. “And, as we have seen, the system cannot handle that so well.”

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