Koppel: Electoral Committee does not falsify election results in Estonia

Olari Koppel.
Olari Koppel. Source: www.oiguskantsler.ee

Minister of the Interior Mart Helme (EKRE) said that election results are falsified in favor of a particular political party in Estonia by those with access to electronic votes – members of the National Electoral Committee. As a member of the committee, I regard these allegations as serious, Olari Koppel writes.

Comments by the interior minister, finance minister and member of the European Parliament (Mart Helme, Martin Helme and Jaak Madison – ed.) on the likely next president of the United States and the integrity of elections in America need to be analyzed by those responsible for Estonia's national security, foreign policy and relations with the U.S.

Luckily, what the interior minister said on Sunday about election results being tampered with for the benefit of a particular party by those who have access to e-votes in Estonia – members of the National Electoral Committee – received much less public attention. As a member of the said committee, I regard these allegations as serious.

Intentional, conscious and systematic falsification of election results is a criminal offense the punishment for which is likely incarceration. It is also a crime against one's country in my eyes as secretly and arbitrarily tampering with the will of the people constitutes a coup – giving power to those who should not have it according to the law.

E-voting is at its core an unfathomable series of ones and zeroes, a secure digital process organized through complicated keys and procedures the results of which are verified at several stages. It has been studied inside and out by an uncountable number of times over the last 15 years.

There have also been attempts to break it both consciously (when testing the security of the system) and with slightly more malicious intent. We do not know of a single verified incident of anyone having succeeded in changing, erasing or adding an electronic vote in a way not in accordance with the Elections Act and other public rules.

Allow me, as a member of the electoral committee, to provide a short and unprompted overview of how e-votes are counted. All phrasal or terminological inconsistencies are my mistakes, nor is this in any way an official protest against the Sunday radio show by the electoral committee.

Every member of the committee is given a personalized encryption key that resembles a credit card before elections. The keys are personalized and issued to members in front of observers. The act is recorded in writing as well as using audiovisual means. The keys stay with members of the committee at all times.

E-votes can only be counted on election night by entering all five keys into the reader. The five members of the committee whose keys will be used are determined immediately before the counting of votes. This means that anyone with the intent of falsifying the results would have to turn all seven members of the committee.

E-votes are counted in the presence of observes in a closed room to avoid the results of e-voting leaking before polling divisions close (8 p.m. for national and 12 a.m. for European Parliament elections). The e-voting result is verified – all rows must match: every row and column must return exactly the same result for all digital inquiries. There is no margin of error (unlike with paper ballots).

Not a single vote can be added, removed or changed after the fact. The e-vote count is final. The entire process is repeated in the morning following the election day when e-votes are recounted and the final results determined – all under the eyes of observers. The results are confirmed if the system detects that the data is uniform.  The encryption cards are destroyed then and there.

The interior minister suggested that the system "freezing" on election night when the results are gradually being published is indirect proof and a sign of fraud.

As I'm sure everyone interested in politics knows, the election night does experience a shorter or sometimes longer period when no new data is received. And yet, e-votes are by then counted and their final and unchangeable number published using the elections information system on the www.valimised.ee website. No one has ever suggested that the initial number of e-votes cast and their distribution has ever changed by even a single vote.

This kind of lag is usually caused by system overload – too many people trying to access the system at the same time, while it can also be the result of technical mishaps at polling stations when entering paper ballots into the information system. These errors have nothing to do with traditional or e-voting or the process of counting votes.  It is a matter of migrating initial election results to the information system that the public can access.

The interior minister also wondered at some polling stations reporting a lot of votes very late and these changing the election result. He suggested the reason is that somewhere someone is manufacturing votes. For example, by looking up people who did not vote in the elections and fabricating paper ballots under their name.

As I described before, this stage no longer has anything to do with e-voting. The e-votes will have been counted and published by then. The delay in receiving election results from certain polling stations is caused by the fact some are very big and yield a lot of votes/ballots that need to be counted. Perhaps, some stations have fewer people tasked with counting votes, work slower than others or there could be other technical or work organization-related problems.

The fact remains that vote counting takes place under the eyes of observers who include representatives of parties taking part in elections. All actions – opening of the ballot boxes, counting of votes, arguments over whether ballots are valid, vote sorting, packaging, sealing of boxes, their transport etc. – are monitored and public.

No one has ever identified or reported efforts to "complement" voter lists or pull packs of ballots "out of nowhere". Not once.

Estonia's unique e-voting system needs to be explained to the public better. A corresponding committee working with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications has discussed the matter and concluded that the system can be made better. And yet, even the most skeptical members of the committee have not raised a single fundamental or technical issue in the key of what was suggested by members of the government on Tre Raadio.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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