Estonian diplomat: E-voting can be tricky

Miko Haljas.jpg

Electronic voting (e-voting) in elections can help increase voter turnout and is technically safe. But it is also exposed to human vulnerabilities like voting pressure from political parties, Miko Haljas, Estonia's ambassador to Budapest, told EURACTIV Hungary in an interview.

Miko Haljas is Estonian ambassador to Hungary. Estonia is the world's most advanced country in terms of e-voting.

He was talking to EURACTIV Hungary's Szilvia Kalmar.

Ambassador: I recently learned that your country is sometimes comically called E-stonia. Could you explain why you have this nickname?

I'm not sure how much the nickname has really attached to us, but we tend to like it. Estonia tries to use all sorts of electronic solutions as much as possible. Of course, the trick with using e-solutions is that it is easier to implement those that are related to the government, and it takes a little bit more time for the private sector to implement the same solutions.

So if I look at Estonia, I think the systems that work best are the ones where the government is interacting with citizens: for example, this year, 92% of all taxes are being returned electronically.

In Estonia, are businesses taking over ideas from government projects?

Not necessarily, as most of the government's ideas still come from the business side. But implementation itself is more difficult for the private sector, because we have a small country where the businesses are small too. Any new solution that has initial costs may be prohibitive for a small company and it takes them longer to realise that it also creates revenues.

The first time Estonia used e-voting was during the national elections in 2005. You are not the only ones using this method, but at last year's European Parliament elections only Estonia took advantage of this tool. Why did your country decide to introduce e-voting?

We think that elections are the highlight and the feast of democracy. Therefore, the initial idea was to get more young people interested in taking part in civil society. Later, it turned out that e-voting is very age-neutral. Statistics show that the participation rate is pretty evenly divided across age groups. In that sense, the initial idea to lure more young people to take part in the elections did not work as much as we had imagined.

But it was successful in that it still increases the number of voters participating in the elections. In Estonia, we have always had traditionally small turnouts. The 64% turnout in the recent Hungarian elections would be a really high turnout for us.

The first time, of course, e-voting was not very popular. In 2005, around 2% of the votes were cast electronically. Voter turnout was 41%, which is pretty low. At last year's elections, however, turnout was more than 60%. Of course, it is not entirely attributable to e-voting. Statistically, there is great progress. Compared to 2% in 2005, the proportion of votes casted electronically in 2009 was around 15%.

Are you using both methods of e-voting?

One of the early examples that we had was the US, where they have been experimenting with e-voting since the beginning of the 1990s. They concentrated on voting machines. But this is not e-voting in the sense that it is not connected to the Internet. Instead of throwing your ballot paper into a cardboard box, you just do it on a screen.

In our case, the idea started to develop from this. Why couldn't these machines be connected together and to a central server, so you can do it all much more cheaply and easily?

E-voting in Estonia, however, is not done in a way that people usually imagine. It is not used on the day of the poll, but during the pre-voting period. You can change your vote until and on the voting day if you go and cast your paper ballot.

The principle is to eliminate forced or paid voting. If you were a victim of such faults and you are an honest person, you can still change your vote later.

The first thing I think about when it comes to e-voting is security issues. Did you experience any difficulties in this regard?

The technical part of e-voting is very secure. They use a very high level of encryption and in order to be able to cast the vote, you have to have a valid ID card. It is similar to the way we use digital signing for documents.

But the vulnerability lies in the human component. The first time, there were Estonians who thought that it would be a good idea to gather round, have a coffee, discuss the different issues and then take out the computer to vote. This is not in line with the code of conduct for e-voting. You have to do it individually and you have to be able to cast your vote without pressure.

One party tried to organise a kind of collective voting, where they put up voting tents with computers. The idea was that people who were voting for the first time would be assisted by the party personnel. You can imagine what the advice could be. So that, of course, was prohibited and led to an upgrade of the code of conduct.

You cannot completely eliminate these risks. But you can change your vote later electronically, or go and cast your ballot paper on the election day. With every election, we learn a little bit.

In a recent interview with EURACTIV, the chairman of the Association of Hungarian Content Providers said that he fears a problem of political philosophy. He thinks that e-voting makes elections so cheap that the political system can easily move in the direction of direct democracy, which he thinks could lead to a proliferation of direct democracy. Do you agree that this is a real fear?

In a way, I am not the most enthusiastic supporter of e-voting, for some of the reasons you mentioned. I see that there are very many good parts, but personally I think that it takes away a little bit of the festive feeling: after four years, this is now your day! You go and say what you think of all this and what should happen in the future.

Through e-voting, it may become overly commercialised. But if you look at the big picture, I do not think that the issue is that serious. It is better to have more people expressing their will, even if it is less festive.

The proliferation of direct democracy depends, I think, on the rest of the legislation. In Hungary, maybe it is quite easy to create a referendum on anything. In Estonia, the threshold is much higher. If initiating a referendum is more difficult, then I see no danger in e-voting. If it continues to be very easy, then of course people can initiate a referendum on all sorts of things.

Some say it could bring in passive voters. Is this true?

It is very difficult to track this. With every election, we try to do sociological studies, but it is still difficult to tell. The higher percentages of turnout and e-voters are facts, but this can be for multiple reasons. The sense of disappointment in Estonia was higher in 2009 than it was in 2005.

In 2005, we had just joined the EU and the economy was growing like a mushroom, so people did not bother to vote. In 2009, we had the deepest crisis in the past 70 years, of course people were more interested in voting. So all of the growth in activity cannot be attributed to e-voting, but some of it definitely can. We need more time to make the necessary studies and have the relevant outcomes.

Have you been contacted by other countries in order to change their best practices about e-voting?

Before this interview, I contacted the election commission and they confirmed that they have a lot of visitors who are interested in how our system is working.

Do you think that Internet penetration, which is below 25% in Hungary, is an important component?

Statistics say that in Estonia, 74% of people between the ages of 16 and 74 use the Internet regularly. I think this is quite a high number as it also includes older people. And it is obviously an important question. If people are familiar with the Internet, then they also tend to trust e-voting more.

Do you think e-voting could be a solution to problems like those that we had in Hungary during the national elections on 11 April? [On that occasion, hundreds of voters had to wait for hours to cast a ballot in the traditional way.]

I have not been asked to give any advice, but it seems to me that e-voting could be one of the tools to make the queues a little bit shorter, but obviously other tools should also be used. Internet voting can help, but it can not be the only solution. It is not a silver bullet.

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