Election Universe

Has Estonia beaten an e-voting record?

October 18 2013, 20:45



It has according to an article on the website belonging to ERR, Estonia’s public broadcasting organisation, called Record broken in final hours of E-voting

By 2:30pm on 16 October, 121,104 people had voted online in the country’s municipal elections.

That’s 16% of the electorate, surpassing 2011’s figure of 15.4%, and not all the results were in at the time of posting this story.

So the pattern seems to be that every year more and more Estonians choose to cast their vote online, although the majority still prefer to visit a polling booth.

Before we go any further it’s worth pointing out that people using the phrase e-voting to mean two different things. Sometimes e-voting means automated voting. Obviously in this case it means voting online.

Why vote online? Arne Koitmäe, a member of the secretariat of Estonia’s National Electoral Commission, pointed out in a 2007 interview with Wired:

“The goal is to make things easier for people, to increase participation…”

But as she went on to say: “No one has managed to prove that e-voting actually raises participation, so that remains unanswered. But this gives people another possibility.

And that raises two important points worth remembering:

1. We don’t know if online voting increases participation.

2. But it does people give another option, if, say, they think they may struggle to get to a polling booth on election day.

So just as it’s important to discuss some findings concerning online voting and participation, it’s also fair to say that online voting may be a useful option to offer people in conjunction with a solid automated system. Far too often, people force either/or decisions, when the wise choice could be a combination of several different solutions.

What, then, about the concerns how online voting effects behaviour? Well, in a paper entitled Optimising electoral ergonomy, Michael Bruter and Sarah Harrison at the International Centre for Electoral Psychology (ICEP) cite a six-country experiment they claim proves how negative the impact of e-voting can actually be on the turnout of first time voters.

The study found e-voting actually decreased turnout in first time voters, instead of boosting it.

It also found that young voters felt less happy, less enthusiastic and more worried when using e-voting, compared to using polling stations.

But the authors admit that every country is different and more research needs to be done. And the topic of electoral ergonomics – how different ways of voting effect behaviour – is a subject we’ll cover more thoroughly in another post.

For now, let’s go back to Estonia and that Wired article from 2007. Because it makes some interesting points about online voting and security – as well as electoral security in general.

“You trust your money with the internet, and you won’t trust your vote? I don’t think so,” said Tarvi Martens, project manager for the country’s e-voting project.

There’s also the point that’s never made in one-sided articles about security issues surrounding e-voting and automated voting – that paper voting itself has its problems.

University of Utah assistant professor Thad Hall, one of several U.S. researchers who visited Estonia to study how e-voting affects political campaigns, argued that paper voting systems too are riddled with potential problems.

He reminds us that people can disrupt physical voting stations. They can steal absentee ballots, or fraudulently submit them. Long lines can produce the equivalent of denial of service attacks.

Talk to Smartmatic CEO, Antonio Mugica, and he’ll tell you there are around 30 ways to mess with a manual election.

And of course we’ve seen problems in the United States with confusing and mismarked paper ballots, contested recounts, and poorly designed voting machines.

So it’s clear that no system is perfect, although with zero discrepancies or hacks in 2.2 billion votes and 3,500 elections, we do wonder what’s wrong with our own Smartmatic brand of automated voting. So perhaps we’ll cover that in a future blog post.