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When will other countries join Estonia in voting on the internet?

It’s going to be an interesting autumn for voters and political scientists. This spring Estonia held general elections and formed a new government. Now, we can count up to eight more countries heading to the polls for national elections in the next two months, from the Americas to the Mediterranean.

Internet voting has been one of the methods to cast your vote in elections since 2005. So, let us take a look around and ask ourselves – are we still the only ones picking our representatives online, comfortably from our couches and desks?

Who is heading to the polls next (and how)

September and October are looking like the start of a proper voting season. The countries that will hold general elections are the following:

  • Canada, seeing the attempt of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party to remain in government;
  • Israel, after previous elections in April this year saw incumbent PM Netanyahu failing to form a new ruling coalition;
  • Uruguay, to choose the successor of Tabaré Vázquez, now ineligible due to limits to presidential terms established by the Constitution;
  • Argentina, where there’s not only the presidential seat at stake, but congress and governor posts as well;
  • Austria, following the fall of the ruling coalition and a no-confidence vote in the mandate of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz;
  • Poland, with 560 seats at stake between Chamber of Deputies and Senate;
  • Portugal, to renew the members of the national Assembly;
  • Switzerland, to indicate the new members of the Federal Assembly.

All nation-wide elections. Among these countries, however, only Canada and Switzerland display some degree of experience with internet voting.

In the Swiss case, internet voting was available in 2015 to about 34 000 citizens living abroad in 2015. A few cantons also gave people the possibility to cast their ballots online and have been trying to do so since the early 2000s. This last solution, however, was not uniformly up and running for all citizens regardless of their place of residence. Moreover, in July this year, efforts to make the technology available to use for the upcoming elections have been interrupted. In Canada, some municipalities in the past fifteen years have used internet voting to elect people’s representatives. However, these tests also have not been subject to regulations enforced at the national level. General elections, indeed, do not include the use of either electronic or internet voting.

US struggles with electronic voting

From the other side of the Atlantic, however, experts are debating over what other forms of voting apart from ballot papers can actually be safe and secure. Particularly, this is the case for the United States. The country’s electronic ballot machines were targeted by Russian government’s attacks during the 2016 elections. A recent report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence strongly advises replacing outdated electronic voting systems to reduce vulnerabilities. With the 2020 elections approaching, research centres and specialised media outlets are on the lookout for more ways to decrease risks.

A study from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice points out that eight states are still planning to use paperless voting machines in 2020. That’s about 16 million people whose voting preference undergoes the risk to be altered. And although there seems to be large consensus over the fact that electronic voting is not secure, potential solutions seem to look back rather than forward. Recommended options include statistically sound audits, and the use of paper ballots as backups or second, mandatory ways to vote.

Try to mention that to most people in Estonia and you’ll probably raise some eyebrows. Citizens here have had the possibility to vote online since 2005 and no serious threats have emerged. So why should we go back to paper ballots as the single source of truth?

Vote on the internet and preserve democratic legitimacy

Earlier this year, Priit Vinkel, Head of Estonia’s State Electoral Office, forecast a 33% participation rate via online voting at the national elections. That percentage, in the end, was even higher. 43.7 % of Estonians voted on the internet in March 2019, marking an all-time high in the country’s history of i-voting. It means that people trust the technology, and policymakers’ reliance on i-voting to legitimize our democracy. Coming a long way from the 2% online participation achieved in 2005, we can now state that i-voting is an established reality in Estonia.

Internet voting helps alleviate the risks that come with postal voting and electronic voting machines. Priit Vinkel, and our Briefing Centre speaker Florian Marcus, have addressed these topics extensively. It also allows us to decrease the cost of voting on paper by almost 50 %. And voting on the internet represents also a great opportunity to participate for those who are, for example, living abroad. Same works for those who find it difficult to go to a polling station on election day.

By constantly enhancing all the security aspects connected to i-voting, we made non-voting only an issue of political disaffection. People always have the possibility to participate if they want, and as they should. But trust issues can’t lie in technology when you live in a digital society. Safeguarding participation, we also protect the democratic legitimacy of politics and decision making – a goal that every statesman globally should strive towards.

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