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What’s so special about online voting?

Every single election cycle in democracies around the world, politicians across the party spectrum urge citizens to go out and cast their vote. Usually, high voter turnout is associated with a high level of civic engagement with politics and politicians can then claim that they have a strong public mandate to pursue the policy promises made during the election campaign. You would, then, expect that every country on earth would try to make the vote as accessible as possible to people from all walks of life – and with i-Voting, Estonia is at the forefront of this endeavour.

Generally speaking, most countries offer two ways of voting in elections, be they local, national, or supranational (for example elections for the European Parliament). Either you submit a postal vote for which you have to register well in advance of election day, or you cast your ballot at the polling station on election day itself. Depending on the country, you either cast some type of physical ballot paper or submit your vote through a type of standalone electronic voting machine (EVM for short). So far, so good.

Possibilities of i-Voting

In addition to those two methods, Estonia is also offering a third one: i-Voting. This means that you can vote through the internet from the comfort of your home or anywhere else in the world. What do you need for i-Voting? Well, you require a computer to run the voting application, an authentication method (ID card or Mobile-ID), and of course an internet connection.

Why would anyone vote online? I think there are several good reasons. One would be convenience – maybe we want to have a coffee with our friends on election day, maybe we’re at work or on vacation. Whatever the reason, we can now do it online within a matter of seconds. Some elderly may prefer it because standing in line at the polling station causes them pain. Some people may have to work on election day and could thus be disenfranchised. In Estonia, these things don’t have to happen.

Why bother when you can vote by mail?

Now you may say “Hang on there, that’s why many people use postal voting!” And that’s a fair point – at the UK parliamentary election in 2017, 18% of all votes were cast via mail. That’s quite a lot. In the German parliamentary election, also in 2017, it was a whopping 28.6%. That’s even more. And if you look at the global data, the use of the postal vote is on the rise in most countries. Why? Because you and I…what can I say? We’re a bit lazy every now and then. If we have the choice between having a cup of tea at home and standing in a temporarily converted kindergarten for an hour, we choose the former. Postal voting was initially intended for people who live abroad or have to work on election day – so, in a way, we already abuse the system today.

Most importantly, there are some glaring points of incertitude connected to the postal vote. The four most common and pressing ones: (1) the state has no certain way of knowing whether the ballot it sent to your address actually reached you (2) the state has no certain way of knowing that you filled out the ballot on your own free will (3) you have no certain way of knowing whether the ballot that you filled out reaches the vote count (4) you have no certain way of knowing whether your vote is counted correctly. Regarding the final point, of course, there are international voting observers and so on and that’s great, but it is humanly impossible to supervise the correct counting of every single vote.

i-Voting risk management

i-Voting addresses these four points as much as it can: The first point is not a problem because you can cast your vote through the application – and if it doesn’t work, you can call the authorities for clarification. The second point is perhaps the most pressing one: how do we make sure no one forced you to vote for a certain candidate? Very simple: In Estonia, the voting period is ten days long and during the first seven days you can vote digitally…as many times as you want. Point three and four are also addressed because after you submit your vote, the application shows you a QR code which you can scan to see whether your vote arrived at the voting server the way you cast it.

So, in a way, i-Voting has further democratised the vote. Yes, our votes already count the same, but now the vote is even more universally available to the electorate. And let’s bear in mind: i-Voting is an option – it is not compulsory to vote online. If you want to vote offline that’s well within your rights – around 45% of votes were cast online in the recent parliamentary elections in Estonia, but that still means that 55% voted offline. I find this to be the most beautiful thing about this system – it is there for those who want to use it and those who don’t want to use it just…sort of don’t.

The cost of elections

But let’s go beyond the subjective emotions of a political scientist and talk money. How much does it cost your home country to enable you to cast a vote at an election?…Don’t worry, I don’t know the numbers for Germany, my home country, off the top of my head either. But researchers have found that the average physical vote in Estonia costs the state € 4,37, while a vote cast online cost only € 2,32. Now multiply that by the number of votes cast in the last parliamentary elections in your country. In the last German parliamentary elections, 46 million Germans cast their ballot. Now imagine cutting the money the state has to spend on holding elections in half. That’s quite a bit of money.

Still skeptical?

What if you’re an IT specialist and you just don’t trust the Estonian i-Voting platform? Fine. Go check out the source code which is made publicly accessible before elections for everyone to peruse if they so wish. I am not an IT specialist myself but for me it is good enough if loads of white hat hackers, crypto-analysts and cyber security experts who work independently of each other have thus far not found any weaknesses that would cause the Estonian government to call the whole thing off.

So let’s recap: i-Voting is more convenient and secure, it’s faster and cheaper to boot. It doesn’t take anything away from people who don’t want to use it and adds to the quality of life for the people who do. And to end this on a personal note, I am terribly excited to cast my very first online vote in the European Parliament elections later this month. 😊

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