How did Estonia carry out the world’s first mostly online national elections

Article content

For the first time in history has a majority of votes in a national parliamentary election been cast online rather than on paper. Estonia elected its parliament in the first week of March, and 51% cast their vote online. Estonia has offered secure i-voting since 2005, and the number of citizens taking advantage of internet voting has gradually increased.

How did I vote

It’s another Monday morning in the office, except the 27th of February is not like any other – it’s the first day of the parliamentary elections in Estonia. I am hosting a delegation very soon at the e-Estonia Briefing Centre, wanting to hear about digital wonders taking place in Estonia.

But it’s the elections! I must vote. Before the guests arrive, I open the laptop and enter to download the voting application. I insert the ID card into the reader, verifying my voting and district eligibility. As I click next, the list of candidates becomes visible. I select my preferred candidate and proceed to confirm. For that, my selection is once more displayed. Upon clicking “vote, ” a window requiring my Pin-2 code pops up, meaning I will seal my vote with a digital signature, a process an average Estonian has performed thousands of times.

It took me around a minute to make my voice heard about whom I want to see govern Estonia for the next four years. It took less time than writing down this explanation.

It’s convenient and safe

I-voting has been available in Estonia since 2005 and relies heavily on strong voter authentication via eID. Since then, five elections of local governments, five parliamentary and three European Parliament elections have occurred. I-voting might provoke mixed feelings about safety and integrity. But one thing is for sure – if there were any doubt our elections might be compromised, i-voting would not be available like it has been for 18 years.

The best part is that you don’t have to trust the process blindly. Here’s how to verify it.

The National Electoral Committee is an independent institution responsible for holding free, general, uniform, and direct voting (offline and online) where every voter has only one vote, and that vote remains secret. The Electoral Committee does not cater to any political power’s needs but rather broadens the participatory democracy for the voters.

I-voting offers an incredible level of transparency and integrity which experts and enthusiasts consistently monitor in real-time, the voting application source code is made publicly available, and several in-depth audits have been carried out on the system’s functioning. Moreover, within 30 minutes after casting a vote, each i-voter can verify with the help of a smart device if their i-vote reached the electronic ballot box correctly. An additional verification mechanism you will never get after dropping your ballot paper into the security box at the polling station.

Misuse of i-voting is also a larger myth than you might imagine. The elderly are the eligible but vulnerable voters group, who, under external pressure, might give their PIN codes and ID cards to the caring staff, for example, in elderly homes. However, hypothetically possible scenario, none of these allegations has been proven despite this matter being the subject of an investigation by the police, the managers of the election, and the Chancellor of Justice.

Also, you can change your i-vote countless times. Not to be confused with casting a limitless amount of votes – changing your one designated vote throughout the i-voting period, in which the vote cast the latest will be counted. Oh! And your right to ballot paper vote still remains! After the end of the i-voting period (in the 2023 Parliamentary elections from February 27th to March 4th), you can still show up at the polling station on election day and make your choice written on paper. In this case, the electronic vote will be deleted.

Check, and then double-check

In 2021 several amendments regarding voting were passed, including enabling the person who has i-voted to change (or affirm) their vote on voting day in the polling station. Hence, i-votes cannot be counted before the polling stations are closed. Once that happens, i-votes are compared to paper votes, double votes are removed (the ballot paper vote remains), and i-votes are anonymised, meaning personal data is extracted. To ensure the secrecy of each vote, the order of anonymised votes is shuffled and re-crypted.

Shortly put – the safety protocol to treat i-votes is deliberately making sure no one can track whom you voted for. Not only is your vote safe, but no one knows it came from you.

Although i-votes are digital, the results are not revealed automatically. The Electoral Committee’s various members holding distributed decrypting keys initiate the i-vote counting process, where digital votes are mathematically verified and the count certificate issued.

In human language, just like paper votes need to be taken out of their respective sealed envelopes and counted by hand, the digital vote is extracted from its digital envelope and run through a counting algorithm; there is no need to calculate every digital vote manually. The first confirmation of i-votes was made public approximately three hours after closing the polling station. The double-confirmation will take roughly the same time, making Estonia’s voting system among the fastest from closing the elections until the publication of results.

The principle of uniformity means that every voter’s vote must have the same weight. In 2005, the Supreme Court found that, in i-voting, despite repeated voting, a voter cannot affect the election results to a greater degree than the voters who use other manners of voting. A vote cast by electronic means is counted as one vote, and in terms of election results, it does not have more influence than a vote cast by a voter using another manner of voting.

The world’s first mostly digital elections

Election participation is not mandatory by the Constitution of Estonia. Every citizen has the right but isn’t obliged to vote. The introduction of i-voting has not previously had a significant impact on voter turnout. The greatest impact on voter turnout has been in voting in foreign states.

In the 2023 Parliamentary elections, the highest voter turnout was registered, amounting to 63,7% of the eligible population.

internet voting i-voting

For the first time in history, more i-votes (51%) were cast than paper votes (49%), amounting to record 313k digital votes registered (The National Election Committee will confirm the Exact percentage of votes).

The record voter turnout surprises Estonians due to the methodology change for calculating turnout from Riigikogu elections. Previously, in addition to the citizens permanently living in Estonia, the turnout reflected only those citizens permanently residing abroad who actually voted. Thanks to the electronic voter’s list, regardless of their permanent residency, all voters will be included in the calculation of voter turnout, expecting the turnout figure likely to fall.

Despite changes in calculation, Estonians are used to electronic services and see them as a natural part of their lives. I-voting is no exception. Although i-voting being available since 2005 already, the argument behind the logic is not any separate e-service, but rather a wholesome ecosystem where people trust the strong electronic identity forming a part of their everyday consumer’s path of public and private services. I-voting to become the majority participatory channel of elections in Estonia reflects a maturing digital state where people change processes to fit their lifestyle better without compromising the values and principles of a democratic, transparent society.

And, of course, you’re curious about who won. Estonians voted for Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform Party) to remain in power, with 37 seats in parliament secured for the Reform Party. And another undisputable win for Estonian democracy is a record-high number of female representatives. A total of 30 women were elected to Riigikogu, two more than in the previous elections!




Visit us physically or virtually

We host impactful events both in our centre and online for government institutions, companies, and media. You’ll get an overview of e-Estonia’s best practices and build links to leading IT-service providers and state experts to support your digitalisation plans.

Questions? Have a chat with us.

Call us: +372 6273157 (Monday to Friday, 9:00-16:30 Estonian time)
Regarding e-Residency, visit their official webpage.

Find us

The Briefing Centre is conveniently located just a 2-minute drive from the airport and 15- to 20-minute drive from the city centre.

You will find us on the ground floor of Valukoja 8, at the central entrance behind the statue of Mr Ernst Julius Öpik. We will meet the delegation at the building’s reception. Kindly note that a booking is required to visit us.

Valukoja 8
11415 Tallinn, Estonia