In the 2007 Estonian parliamentary elections, all voters could choose to register their vote via the Internet.
Estonia is the only country in the world where universal suffrage through internet voting has been introduced. In other countries, internet voting takes the place of postal voting, for example, for those doing military service or living abroad.
While there are no internationally recognised standards for electronic voting as yet, countries using such technology are developing their own principles and guidelines.
Important elements for discussing standards for equipment, technology and procedures at national level include the following:
- legal framework requirements that are prescribed by election and other national laws, and electoral administration bylaws and regulations
- technical requirements and specifications developed by the electoral administration
- production standards of manufacturers
- information technology standards developed by expert and standard setting organisations.
The cornerstone of the internet voting system in Estonia is a government-issued personal identification document (ID card) which is used to authenticate the voter online. The ID card is a digitally enabled 'smart card' that contains a chip with the voter's digital signature and data.
From the voter's perspective, the system is very simple. Any computer with a smart card reader, which is connected to the internet, becomes a voting station. The voter inserts his or her card into the card reader, opens the elections commission web page, types in a PIN code and casts his or her vote. The process is very similar to online banking systems developed for Estonian banks. In fact, the internet voting system was conceived and developed by the same experts who developed the online banking systems.
Estonian voters moved from online banking to online voting easily. Despite debates in the rest of the world about the security of internet voting, Estonians (so far) trust their internet voting system, mainly because they trust their banking system. However, this trust is based on the incorrect assumption that online banking and internet voting are basically same systems.
The online banking and voting systems have one crucial difference, however. While the banking system was designed to record and track every action and rules out anonymity, voting systems do the opposite: they ensure anonymity. To the surprise of the international election observation mission, Estonian voters, political parties and oversight non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were not sufficiently aware about what internet voting entailed to be able to evaluate and scrutinise the system. This was despite the readiness of the Estonian Elections Commission to educate political parties and watchdog NGOs on the voting system.
Despite the benefits of internet voting and the application of universal suffrage, participation levels in internet voting were still low. Nevertheless, as more Estonians begin to vote through the internet:
- Estonian political parties and NGOs will have to revise their approach and educate themselves about the system so that they are able to assess its security and ability to protect anonymity.
- Proper oversight will be the only way to build voters' trust in the system.
- As we saw in the Netherlands and Ireland, the lost of trust could mean the complete cancellation of electronic voting.
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