The internet has been part of the election ecosystem for many years now, yet its uses remain mostly as an auxiliary, often times for campaign propaganda or for transmitting results.
But between February 21 – February 27, the internet played a different role in the Estonian Parliament Elections – this time as a means to fill and cast ballots. It is now the 10th time Estonia used internet voting (i-voting) as an option to exercise this democratic right which was introduced in 2005.
We joined the election observer programme, organized by State Electoral Office, together with election observers, election experts, policy-makers, and media, who were equally curious about how this small Baltic state is able to pull such a sensitive, nationwide scale endeavour despite the persisting threats of cybersecurity and trust issues surrounding an election. We followed the topic of i-voting from the preparation to the actual tallying of i-votes to rounding up the numbers, to give you the behind the scenes of what is going on in the digital side of the election in Estonia.
To keep yourself on track with our coverage, watch Head of State Electoral Office Dr. Priit Vinkel‘s e-Talks video, a tech talk series of e-Estonia, discussing the journey of i-voting as a logical progression for service delivery after activities like e-tax or e-health have made inroads to citizens routines. He also gives an overview of what i-voting is and how to maintain its reliability over the years.
Dr. Vinkel was one of the presenters at the State Electoral Office hosted seminar for election observers from over 40 countries.
The seminar was held in Tallinn Creative Hub, an abandoned Soviet-era powerplant that served as perfect juxtaposition to Estonia’s digital ambitions, experts, and election administrators weighed in on the state and future of the Estonian elections.
The head of the Electoral Office opened the discussions by presenting key figures: more than 880,000 voters, 1,099 candidates, 451 polling stations, 10 party lists, 15 independent candidates, and a whole lot more. More statistics are available at valimised.ee.
Professor Dr. Robert Krimmer from the Tallinn University of Technology presented a different set of numbers – the cost of internet voting. An article about his research team’s work was published recently on ERR’s website, revealing that i-voting is 50% cheaper than conventional paper voting.
Cyber security expert on election technology Liisa Past talked about the threats and vulnerabilities of an election system.
“Election technology must be introduced very carefully, it must be tested to fulfill its functional role, and more importantly, that it wouldn’t do things it is not supposed to do.”
The way forward, she added, is to have resilient risk management processes and active international and cross-agency cooperation which value exchange of best practices.
Dr. Martin Mölder and Dr. Mihkel Solvak, both from Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, delivered their separate studies in the second half of the seminar.
Dr. Mölder gave a brief overview of the political landscape. He revealed that political parties are moving toward lesser differences that have been empirically derived from the parties’ respective manifestos. He also showed that the voters’ preferences in the past elections have stabilized, which means that a voter is most likely to vote again for a party that bears the same ideology in the next election.
And lastly, Dr. Solvak focused on the reliability of i-voting and his study on the perception of people towards different ways of casting the votes. The study revealed that Estonians have an overwhelming trust to i-voting and it is continuously rising.
Trust towards i-voting depends heavily on the reliability of the election, particularly on the processes from front to back end of i-voting.
Cybersecurity expert Liisa Past, who moderated the tallying of i-votes on the last day of the elections, emphasized that voters must have the confidence that their votes are tallied as intended, which goes the same for paper voting.
I-voting tallying mimics the double envelope scheme used on postal voting. The digital outer envelope is digitally signed using the secure e-ID card. And before the vote is counted, the system anonymizes the ballot by removing this digital outer envelope.
Votes are then counted by a computer with the bare minimum capability to ensure that the result is not exposed to any computational alteration. The computer has no internal storage and has no internet or network connection, only a DVD drive and a smart card reader for reading and storing the result, the RAM disk is used as its processor. As the computer is turned off at the end of the process, all information disappears.
During the tallying, experts recorded zero invalid votes cast over the internet, which serves as a confirmation that the system only did what it was designed to do. In addition, 5.8% of the i-voters validated their votes which affirmed that the candidates they selected were indeed the same as what was transmitted to the system and displayed in their mobile devices.
After a seven-day window for i-voters, from an expanse of 145 countries, the results can never be more reflective of the trust the voters put into the electronic means of Estonian election.
The 2019 Parliamentary Elections yielded 247,232 votes electronically out of a total 565,028 votes. This is a 40% increase from the previous election that tallied 186,034 i-votes.
It also means that in this elections, according to the initial reports, 43.75% of all votes were cast online, a new record for i-voting. For comparison, the 2017 local elections posted 31.7% i-voting share while the 2015 parliamentary elections tallied 30.5% of ballots from i-votes, very different from 2005 record of 1.9% i-voting turnout. A detailed statistics between 2005 to 2017 can be found at the State Electoral Office website.
If we consider the rising trendline, backed by cost-effectiveness, end-to-end verifiability, and the high rate of trust towards i-voting, this year could be the last time we are going to see paper voting as the dominant method of casting a ballot. The upcoming European Parliament elections in May can definitely set the tone on which method of voting will be preferred in the future elections.