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e-Talks: Priit Vinkel on internet voting

2019 is the election year for Estonia and we expect a huge amount of attention from all over the world as nations will observe not only the results of the election but more particularly the conduct of internet voting or i-voting.

Although i-voting is not a new concept, so far Estonia is the only country that has done it on a nationwide scale. In this month’s e-Talks, Head of State Electoral Office Priit Vinkel gives us an overview of how the country embraced the use of the internet to exercise their right to vote and elect the new leaders of the land.

What is internet voting?

In Estonia, there are different modes of voting. It is possible to vote on paper in polling stations and it is possible to vote electronically over the internet.

“Internet voting has been around since 2005 and we are entering our 10th i-voting episode.”

I-voting or internet voting is a remote way of casting the votes, over the internet. You just need a computer, internet access, and an e-ID solution used in Estonia.

What is the rationale behind internet voting?

At that time, actually, Estonia was one of the many countries who was piloting, testing, and looking for all kinds of different methods of voting. But what Estonia had at that time was e-ID solutions which makes it possible to know trustworthily who the person is behind the computer. It means that there was already a knowledgeable crowd in the electorate who are used to communicate with the state over e-channels and having an i-election was like a logical step at that point.

But it is important to consider when we look at the development Estonia, electronic voting should never be the entry-level service. It should always be preceded by services that allow citizens to communicate with the state, for example, the e-tax declarations.

How did Estonians embrace internet voting?

We started in 2005 with local elections. In the beginning, the take up was slow but normal because every new gadget, new thing, needs time to be disseminated in the population. Approximately, 2% of all votes were given electronically that time. This number has grown really fast through the years and in the previous election, we had a proportion of 1/3 of all votes coming in electronically, 2/3 on paper. And this is quite the optimum reach now.

Will there be an increase or decrease in internet voting in this coming election?

From what we see, compared to the last election less than two years ago, I think there hasn’t been much of a change in the e-ID usage that would give foot for a possible rise. I think we have reached this optimum level of 1/3 – 2/3 and this will go on in the future.

Cybersecurity for internet voting in the last election, and iD card crisis in 2017, did it affect the election or not?

Hard to say how it actually affected because we did not see a decline of usage on e-ID card. On the contrary, we actually saw people having more confidence and being more confident actually to use the e-ID in the election. Maybe it did not have a negative impact on election instead its the opposite. It actually brought people out to show that it actually works for them, that they still trust the e-ID in Estonia, and they are willing to use it also in the election.

When we talk about the cybersecurity channel we have to be aware of all the risks. There is always a risk that can not be fully mitigated but you always try to lower them.

“We do constant development and constant evolvement of the system. It never stays the same, the security aspect is always enhanced after every election and before every election.”

Have there been threats to internet voting?

We have had internet voting for 10 years now, and there are always some kind of knocks on the door or somebody tries out. But fortunately, we haven’t had serious threats or serious attempts of breaking in. We are looking very keenly if something is happening on the internet surrounding the election system. The most important word here is cooperation. Cooperation between the agencies who are best in that field to quick avert it if something happens.

Are there changes in internet voting this year?

We have already had quite substantial changes in 2017 where we introduced a new framework that brought us into verifiability – a possibility to based on mathematical means, to test that the votes that were gathered were the same votes that were also counted and tallied. This way, we can say that everything was correct in the system without error of disclosing or opening the votes.

For 2019, we have some plans for user interface (UI) changes wherein we have a possibility to search for candidates. And the second change was that we try to put all the party list and independent candidates on one screen. Nobody is left down and you don’t have to scroll down. It is really important to get that glimpse on one screen.

Will there be a possibility in the future to vote using a mobile phone?

The smart device is already an important factor in our system. We use the smart device, whether a smartphone or tablet, to individually verify the votes that were given in the voter’s computer. So having the voting in the same channel would be a problem in terms of individual verifiability. But we are looking into this heavily in the upcoming years. Up until then, we still can only have it in computers.

The world is looking at Estonia now and in its conduct of internet voting, do you feel any pressure?

This already my 12th elections. I think you get accustomed to all these topics and things. But what is really important to emphasize here is that, yes Estonia is the only country so far doing this pan-nationally, but internet voting is also used in Switzerland, in Canada, in some places in the United States, in Australia, and even in one province in India.

Has there been interest in European Parliament elections to adopt Estonia’s internet voting?

Indeed. There have been talks, there have been reports, from other countries that they want to use that mode of voting. But in many countries, there are already remote ways of voting. Postal voting, for example, this method is really similar to internet voting, doing it elsewhere other than polling stations. But internet voting has a new feature, a new dimension to it and that’s cybersecurity. That I think is something that needs to be dealt with first and then you can go on with other solutions.

What are the important dates that we need to remember in this coming election?

This year, the parliament election day is on March 3rd, an election Sunday. Our election period is quite a long one, comprises of 10 days. On the 21st of February, we start the election on the internet and advance voting in selected polling stations. Then starting on Monday, the 25th until the 27th of February, all of the polling stations open and the internet voting continues.

On the 27th, Wednesday evening, both the advanced voting in polling stations and electronically ends. Then we have a three-day intermission where we consolidate data and check that everything is done correctly.

Lastly, on election day, only paper voting is possible in all 451 polling stations.

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