i-Voting – a 21st Century Imperative. The Example of Estonia

People have always voted. Because it is difficult to make decisions that influence a community life without being able to accurately quantify the preferences of the members of these communities. In ancient Greece, citizens used pieces of broken pottery to scratch in the name of the candidate in the procedures of ostracism (exclusion for a period of 10 years). As many as 6,000 votes were needed to exclude an individual. The same procedure and number of votes were applied to potential new citizens. In ancient India, palm leaves were used for ‘municipal’ elections. The palm leaves with candidate names were put inside a mud for counting. The ballot term comes from the word ‘ballotta’, which actually means a small ball for voting, used in the polling system of the Doge of Venice (since 697 AD). The first use of paper ballots appears to have been in ancient Rome in 139 BC.

After more than 21 centuries, the mankind continues to use paper ballots, even though much of the data transfer in the world is digital, the volume of data increases in geometric progression, and every individual on this planet has the hypothetical possibility to connect and exchange data instantly with any other individual or institution, using only his/her mobile phone. The mankind is now going through a principled metamorphosis where distances no longer play a decisive role, and the data is shared in a split second, anywhere. Short-term or permanent migration is a common process, and modern communication technologies connect people with their own country and the institutions it represents, much simpler, cheaper and faster. People are no longer highly dependent on their place of residence and increasingly demand more open and transparent public services.

The right to vote is one of these services, as well a supreme right

Speaking of the parliamentary elections in the Republic of Moldova or the EP elections held in Romania, hundreds of thousands of people being outside these countries did not exercise their right to vote due to long distances to the polling station, the high travel costs and the small number of polling stations, limited human, financial, and technical capacities for organising elections, bureaucratic procedures or participation restrictions. Tens of thousands of people have waited hours in front of polling stations without managing to vote. For these reasons, the adoption of the i-voting meets the needs of the modern democratic world, being a 21st century imperative.

What is i-voting?

I-voting is a way to vote electronically using a special electronic device (EVM), installed in polling stations, or remote voting via the Internet, without the physical presence of a voter in a polling station. The first method (EVM) is used in national elections in Brazil, India, Venezuela, some regional elections in Canada, Finland, USA, Peru, Argentina, etc. The second method, that I’ll describe below, is used nationwide in all types of elections (local, parliamentary and EP) in Estonia, 10 cantons from Switzerland (and for Swiss citizens living abroad) and will be launched in Lithuania in 2020. 

How i-Voting works in Estonia.

Estonia is probably the only country in the world where 99% of the public services are available online 24/7 (except for marriages, divorces and real-estate transactions). Thanks to a safe, convenient and flexible digital ecosystem, Estonia has reached an unprecedented level of transparency in governance and built broad trust in its digital society. i-Voting allows votes to be cast via the Internet, from anywhere in the world where there is an Internet connection. A computer with an Internet connection, an Estonian ID-card (mandatory for all citizens), or mobile ID (downloaded on the phone) with valid certificates are needed for that.

Both ID-card and mobile ID have a 4-digit ID for user access to the i-voting system and a 5-digit code used for digital signature authentication, which is also used for the final authentication of the i-Vote.

i-Voting is organised by the Estonian Electoral Office in cooperation with the Information System Authority. Before the beginning of voting, the State Electoral Office prepares the i-Voting system and discloses it on the Electoral Office website. Electronic voting is open twenty-four hours during the seven days of advance voting (from the tenth to the fourth day before election day). To vote, this application needs to be downloaded from the Office’s website to the user’s computer. After downloading, the user enters the electronic election system using the 4-digit code on the ID or mobile-ID. Once the system recognised the user, the integrated system connected to the population register databases recognizes the citizen’s or resident’s eligibility to vote (local, parliamentary, or EP elections) and on the basis of the user’s residence, displays the lists of candidates for that district. Once the user chose the party or candidate for which he/she wants to vote, the vote is encrypted, and the system requires the application of the 5-digit digital signature code. The entire voting procedure takes on average 2 minutes.

After the digital signature is applied, the encrypted vote is forwarded to the vote collecting server and the user receives a vote confirmation along with a QR code that sets the exact time when the vote was forwarded to the collecting server. i-Votes are encrypted, using an up-to-date crypto-algorithm. The precise specification of the algorithm is determined by the Electoral Office every time before elections. A vote is encrypted with the help of two encryption keys: for the public application and for vote-opening application. The latter can only operate with the help of several keys distributed to the members of the National Electoral Committee.

In order to avoid third parties influencing a user’s voting option, multiple voting is possible. Only the last i-Vote cast is taken into account, and earlier votes are annulled. As an additional security measure, vote cast on a ballot paper in a polling station on the election day or during the advance voting (4 days) will annul the earlier electronic votes. Before election day, the voting district committees receive the lists of voters who have voted electronically, to avoid double voting. The i-vote of the citizens who vote by ballot paper is automatically annulled.

Counting of i-Votes and verification of results.  The procedure is public, and members of the National Electoral Committee are present. The personal data are separated from electronic votes (a system of 2 electronic envelopes is used). An i-vote contains only the election identificator, and a candidate registration number. I-votes are publicly opened, using a set of different access keys. Access to the keys is distributed between the members of the Committee, and the voting results are entered into the election information system. The results of electronic voting are not published until the closing of the traditional ballot boxes, so as not to influence voting options.

After the counting of i-votes, the integrity of i-Votes is checked via a second recounting, the electronic votes being mixed in such a way that the decryption of both the input and the output would give the same result. Auditors and observers can check the anonymity and correctness of voting.

Level of participation in i-Voting. The system was first used at national level in the 2005 local elections, 11 elections being organised so far. The share of i-Votes has steadily increased in all types of elections, starting with 1.9% of the total number of voters in 2005, and culminating with 47.2% at the latest EP elections (May 2019). The scheme below shows the percentage of i-votes (KOV – local elections, Riigikogu – parliamentary elections, EP – European Parliament elections).

The reasons for adopting the i-Voting are obvious: it deletes geographical boundaries, citizens can exercise their voting rights wherever there is an Internet connection, without being forced to travel long distances, incur financial expenses or lose the time. The largest participation of the citizens with the right to vote in elections directly increases the representativeness of the elected ones. Once the system is in place, i-Voting is cheap and fast, the financial and human costs involved in the process are small compared to the high costs that are unavoidable for organising traditional voting. The i-Voting is safe and can be quantified at any stage if appropriate securing and encryption technologies are used. An i-Vote will never disappear. i-Votes help reducing electoral fraud and there is much less risk of manipulation. We can be sure that most democracies will use i-Votes in the future. Why don’t we start implementing it right now?

ARTICLE by Victor Guzun, professor of international relations at TalTech University (Estonia), manages a consulting company and participates in international projects as an independent expert. He served as an Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to Estonia, as a Director of the Department of Foreign Relations and European Integration of the Ministry of Transport and Roads Infrastructure, professor of geopolitics, Deputy Director and professor at the French-Romanian Lyceum ‘Gheorghe Asachi’.

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