Interview: How e-voting works in Estonia

E-voting in Estonia. Even a card reader is not essential - voters can authenticate themselves using mobile ID.
E-voting in Estonia. Even a card reader is not essential - voters can authenticate themselves using mobile ID. Source: Flickr

Estonia held two elections in 2019, with the general election on March 3, and the European elections following on May 26. In both cases, voters had a range of options on how and when to vote. The most celebrated of these is undoubtedly e-voting, which is open in advance of polling day itself (in the case of the European elections, from May 16 to 22).

***Please note that since this interview was conducted, the rules governing e-voting in Estonia have changed. E-voting can continue right up until the day before polling day - there is now now "dark period" separating advance voting and election day - while voters can change their vote on election day at a polling station, even if they voted electronically beforehand. New electronic voter lists have also been introduced.***

Many people might see e-voting as a good thing, without really knowing why, or the details of how it works (that goes for its critics too). Luckily Professor Robert Krimmer of the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance, at Tallinn University of Technology, now known internationally as Taltech, was able to provide an overview both for here, in Estonia, and internationally.

We started with a couple of questions which I'd not yet had a satisfactory answer to. First, is it true you can cancel your e-vote at a polling station at any time during the electoral process, and second, should we refer to electronic voting as e-voting, or i-voting, as it is sometimes called.

"Either is fine, but it depends on the context," Robert says, in response to the latter question.

"e-voting essentially just means there is a form of IT, and an election, and that's it. It's a generic term which can be used internationally."

Ironing out a common misconception

There are several different types of e-voting, as we'll call it from now on. We'll look at those later on, but the other question – can you cast an e-vote, in Estonia, and later override it at the polling station?, we'll turn to first.

"Yes you can, but not always. There is a large array of options for voting, including on board ship or at a foreign mission, followed by the advance voting period proper, which allows people to vote online and at polling stations, including both county centers, and at shopping malls and other places with a high through-flow of people. If you vote online during this advance period, you can then go to a polling station and override that vote while the advance period lasts, but you can't do it on the election day."

There are three "dark days" between advance voting and election day, where incidents of voting online, which are then overridden by the voter, at a polling station are reconciled, amongst other tasks. We will look at that later, but the main take-home is that if you have voted in advance, either online or in person, you cannot then vote on election day itself.

"In general, with the principles of sharing data, and the X-road system of e-governance, a key concept is that you should not do things twice. In Europe as a whole, maintaining addresses is one way for people to make money, as people move around. If you don't know where people are living, it can become a problem, including for governments. A lot of time and money is spent on cleaning these things up. So it makes sense to have one, secure, re-usable source of information, not only on addresses, but the same with health records, educational qualifications etc. A lot of European countries (the UK is an exception) have an active registration, and Estonia's ID card system is one way of working towards avoiding this duplication," Robert says.

Estonia a pioneer

As he obviously has a background in e-governance, perhaps it's no surprise that Robert, who is from Austria, came to live and work in Estonia.

"I'm from the other end of Austria from the capital, Vienna – I'm actually from close to the border with Switzerland and Liechtenstein, but I went to study in Vienna in the 1990s. This was the early days of the internet, of course, so I was thinking a lot about how technology could shape our lives. At the same time, I was studying business administration, which was handy since at that time there was an idea going round, which turned out not to be the case, that somehow the basic rules of economics would no longer apply in this hi-tech world."

"I was involved with the students union, which in Austria was quite plugged-in to the way of doing the 'real' elections there. Amazon was just starting, and I thought, if we can buy books online, why can't we vote online too? When I came back from an exchange program at New York University, we'd started e-voting at the students' union, so it was now a hot topic – in Estonia too, which was planning to roll-out an e-voting system for the 2003 general election, though in the event, the first e-voting happened at the municipal elections two years later."

"Following the debacle of the 2000 U.S. presidential election (when lack of clarity on who had won in Florida led to a Supreme Court decision giving the presidency to George W. Bush, over Al Gore-ed.), they also toyed with the idea of exploring e-voting there. But in the event, it was Estonia that decided to actually do it".

"My first visit to Estonia was off the back of this, in 2005, when Epp Maaten, secretary of the electoral commission then, presented the plan. Other countries, including Venezuela and Switzerland, were also going down that road, and gaining practical experience in e-governance, as well as doing the research to generalize on that experience, became my job.

"Later, I was working in Poland, when I got the opportunity to come to Tallinn, in 2014, so my wife and I decided to move even further north right then.

Voter turnout issues

Robert has some pretty valuable advice for EU citizens resident in Estonia, who plan to vote in the EU parliamentary elections (this also applies to the municipal elections).

"You need to be registered here, but the most important thing is not to vote twice (i.e. in the home country as well as Estonia). You'd be violating the law in doing that, although there have been cases where people have demonstrated it is possible, due to a lack of communication between different member states. If you get an email request from the Electoral Committee, respond to it. At the same time you don't want to miss out on a vote."

"There is still a much lower turnout at EU elections than for the domestic ones. We'd be lucky to get 50 percent turnout, to be honest. Forty-five to 48 percent would be more realistic, so we're not going to match the 270,000 e-votes cast at the general election in March."

We were speaking ahead of the European elections, but Robert was right that turnout would be comparatively low – in fact in the end it was only 37.6 percent.

Types of e-voting

But what is e-voting? We've established the term and its popularity in Estonia, but what are the methods that Robert can tell us about, from his international experience?

"So, there are three stages – identifying a voter, casting the vote, and counting the vote. The simplest way to do the latter would be optical scanning, where voters have already established their ID and cast their vote on paper. These are then scanned by optical scanners, and counted that way. If anything breaks down, they can still revert to the human eye if needed."

"The second-most complex method is voting machines. These do both casting and counting, and are basically large machines which look like, and are even based on, lottery or gambling machines. While they are anonymous, they are also limited in some ways. For instance, breaking up sequences of votes – with the old fashioned manual counting, ballot boxes would be given a good shake before human counters started their work, to break up sequences, which can in fact lead to inaccuracies."

"The other problem with machines is the cost – the machines are hugely expensive, need to be stored and maintained, and are only used once a year, often less than that. For some countries, the costs are just too high. Even in the U.S., they bought some machines, which cost around three billion dollars but which were, quite frankly, substandard."

The Advanced Voting Solutions WINvote voting machine in Arlington County, Virginia, not in an actual election obviously. Source: National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

"In Ireland, where they use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, the machines were seen to sort of take away from the 'fun' of the week-long period it took to count votes, with candidates being eliminated one-by-one, a bit like on X Factor or those types of shows."

The STV proportional representation (PR) system, also used in the UK, requires voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Estonia uses the d'Hondt method of PR in all its elections.

"The Estonian e-voting system is the most complex, since it does all three stages, ID, vote casting, and counting. So secrecy is paramount. People can cast as many e-votes as they want, which is one way of avoiding coercion or other methods of influence," (since a person who cast an e-vote under pressure – for instance if an acquaintance is looking over their shoulder at the time and commenting on their choice – can later go back and change it).

Possible security problems

"However, although you can vote as many times as you want, eventually there would be some cut-off, where they authorities might come and investigate. This happened in 2011, when a person cast their vote something like 500 times. They probably had some other intention, such as testing the system as they were interested in developing their own software for some other purpose, but nonetheless the police followed it up."

"The numbers who cancel their e-vote to vote at the ballot box are quite small, however. At the general election in March, there were about 120 of them (from 252,000 e-votes cast)."

There is of course, some interface with the private sector, in e-voting, even if we're just talking about the ISP which connects a person so they can vote online. Presumably the fewer companies involved, the better?

"This is where the Estonian ID card comes in. There's just one company which acts as the trust center here at the moment, but there is no reason why there couldn't be more in the future, other than it tends not to be a functioning market. In Germany, there is more than one company involved doing these things, however."

Even if multiple votes are possible, within reason, is there not a danger that the system can be open to error, if not even fraud – historically a criticism made by both the Centre Party and EKRE, in Estonia?

"This is where the 'dark period' between advance voting and election day comes in. Over those three days, the Electoral Commission sees who has voted online, and transfers this information to the home polling station (so they cannot vote on election day-ed.) or to the advance voting polling stations. This period collates things, to ensure noone votes twice or more. There is one central point in Tallinn where the votes are collected and collated. This information then goes to the central election committee, who have all the information by the Saturday, the day before election day. And this goes for all three levels of elections – municipal, national, and European".

Does tech favor youth?

So the advance voting period has both set the stage for e-voting, and maintained its popularity (since you can't vote online on election day). But what about demographics? Another criticism is that e-voting is easier for younger, more tech-savvy people. Older people still have other methods (including an option to vote at home, on election day, by prior arrangement – which necessitates a phone call just a couple of hours in advance), but some parties, notably Reform, tend to do better out of e-voting in any case. Does it not skew things, then?

"Funnily enough, with the municipal elections, when the voting age was lowered to 16, around 80 percent of the youngest voter group chose to vote on paper – simply because they enjoyed the experience and wanted to be rewarded for being politically active."

President Kersti Kaljulaid e-voted in front of students at Jüri High School on the first day of advance and online voting at the local elections, Thursday. Oct. 5, 2017. Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR) Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR)

"Holding online votes on election day would be vulnerable to outages of the system, that is another reason for the advance period and three 'dark days'. In 2011, for instance, a student programmed a trojan horse program which could lock the voting screen and change how a voter had voted. This is not an issue now, though – you can even check via the system, including on your phone, your cast vote and what is recorded."

"Technology clearly is not neutral, so far as people go. Some are more disposed to it than others. At the same time, the alternative methods are so comprehensive, that there is not a real bias towards e-voting. For instance a University of Tartu study showed us that e-votes come into their own if any other method would take more than 30 minutes; it's linked to the transaction costs, in other words. But in Estonia, with polling stations at supermarkets and other high-throughflow destinations – after all most people are likely to go to a supermarket once within a seven-day period – polling station voting is pretty convenient. Different demographics do have their own favorite methods of voting, but you couldn't say that some of these are more available than others."

Quick turnaround of results

"The two most important factors, guaranteeing security and guaranteeing function, are on-point here. The Estonian ID cards are state-of-the-art when it comes to self-authentication. I don't know of any other country which has such a diffused, widespread system that is used everywhere. Yes, there are other countries with ID cards and other systems – Denmark uses a one-time password system, for instance – but these are not as ubiquitous as the Estonian ID card, which practically everyone has, including non-citizens resident here. My home country of Austria, for instance, is only now picking up on mobile ID, and signing documents electronically, but these have been the norm in Estonia for years now. It's a big responsibility to take on, of course, but Estonia has been continuously updating its software, and living up to the standard as a beacon of responsibility, successfully."

A tweet by former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a champion of e-voting, on election night in March stated that the e-vote results ought to be available just after 8 p.m., when the polls closed. Was this a fair criticism?

"Well having observed the process where those results are announced four times, I can tell you that there are some strict procedures to go through. Starting around 7 p.m., at the Riigikogu, everyone in attendance, some 100 people, has to surrender their mobile phones for the duration. There's a 15-20 minute decrypting process to go through, and some administrative procedures including burning the results on to a CD, before they can be announced. The e-vote is legally binding, not an exit poll. Even the people in the room only saw the fact of it, and the numbers, not the result, until it was published to all. But we got them up around half an hour after polls closed, which is pretty good going."

"You also have to compare that with the people having to do the manual count, who will have been at the polling station since early in the morning (polls open at 9:00 a.m. on election day-ed.), then only start the counting at 8:00 p.m.. At least there's no smoking allowed at polling stations, as there can be in some countries!"

Future developments

"The unique thing about Estonia is that people managed to agree on a system quickly, everyone uses it, and it works quite efficiently. There's also the issue of building up a country, since independence, rather than trying to reform something that was already there. They made their own system, too, rather than buying a proprietorial one, and had the right feeling for the right tech, at the right time."

"Since 2007, Estonia has been in the forefront of protecting its internet, with a crisis emergency response team within the Information System Authority (the RIA), and there is a heightened awareness around election time too," Robert says, of Estonia's approach to e-voting security.

But what are the likely developments in the future?

"I think the trend away from voting machines, towards optical scanners, will continue. With machines, people struggle to understand what goes on inside them – this has been satirized on shows like the Simpsons, where the machines were depicted as eating the votes and so on."

"The next step might be the widespread use of electronic IDs internationally. There are already some countries whose IDs are accepted in Estonia, so that is likely to grow.

"Also the administration of the electoral process, with more traditional methods of voting. For instance it would be good to have better support for the electoral administration system, to allow more polling stations so the burden is spread more widely. We could allow for larger, and smaller polling stations too."

"At the end of the day, all of these channels – all the e-voting methods, voting in person, by post, etc. simply make the process easier, make the participation in the celebration of democracy wider. But it's only the candidates and their parties who really make people participate in elections."

***Please note that since this interview was conducted, the rules governing e-voting in Estonia have changed. E-voting can continue right up until the day before polling day - there is now now "dark period" separating advance voting and election day - while voters can change their vote on election day at a polling station, even if they voted electronically beforehand. New electronic voter lists have also been introduced.***

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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