Thursday, March 03, 2011

E-voting in E-stonia

The Estonian general election is coming to a climax, with the election day taking place on Sunday March 6th. Or rather the last election day is on March 6th, because for the past several days, Estonian citizens have been able to vote online. Indeed a record 27.4% of votes have been cast before today- the last possible day to vote online. These e-votes can still be changed, and should a voter change their mind, they may still go to a polling station and this will cancel the e-vote. However very few, in practice, choose to do so. Estonia has broken a new record for the number of voters who chose to participate online, its own record, but also -indeed- a world record.

In the UK, there has been a certain amount of disbelief that integrated voting systems can not be hacked. Yet, it seems strange to me that millions of people in the UK trust the ATM machines of banks to deliver cash or take deposits solely on the strength of a 4-digit PIN. Estonian ID security is much stronger than this, and although there is recognition that no system is perfect all the time, the expectation is that voting online is just as secure as voting in a polling station and rather more secure than voting by post. There is a basic trust in the system, which is why the numbers of online voters has doubled since the local elections last year.

Yet that strikes me as a fundamental contrast between Britain and Estonia: there is an expectation that things will work here, but in Britain, even if they do work, there is an expectation that they will either fail altogether or will be in some material way "sub-standard". This break down of trust is a pretty fundamental problem- and it is corrosive. It undermines individual happiness to a great degree, and it also atomizes society. Although Estonians are regularly recorded as being relatively untrustful and therefore seeming relatively lonely- it is the UK that in practice has the bigger problem.

The election in Estonia is an interesting one. The leading government party- Reform- is a Liberal party, and under Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, it has delivered a responsible economic program. The evidence is that the party will do well. By contrast several parties will not be able to gain enough votes to return to the Parliament- notably the Agrarians who have been hit by scandals and the Greens who have been hit by splits. So the major challenge to the government has come from the the Centre Party- in theory also nominally Liberal, though in practice actually more populist. The controversial leader of Centre, Edgar Savisaar, has faced -apparently well founded- accusations of corruption. Indeed these accusations have become so insistent that even the cosy complacency of the Estonian political class has been forced to face up to the clear implication that significant Russian money has been funding the Mayor of Tallinn and his party.

Then there is the IRL- economically also Liberal, but increasingly they are socially conservative in a country that is- if anything- becoming more open and socially tolerant. I have found it quite odd that obviously liberal personalities, such as the defence minister Jaak Aaviksoo and the former Prime Minister, Mart Laar, have been prepared to make such an issue of things which the Estonian people in general do not think should be in the political sphere. "It's none of their business" is the clear message form Estonians and there result has been a certain estrangement between the different factions of the IRL.

Finally there is a party that- in principle - ought to do well in these elections: the Social Democrats. Yet, their campaign has been rather lack lustre. despite a bright and young leader, Sven Mikser, the party has not it seems made much progress, despite the problems of the Centre Party.

So where does that leave the election result? Clearly there will be a clear-out of several parties, with maybe only four: Reform, Centre, IRL and the Social Democrats making it back. On the other hand, it is possible that several independents, running on a green-allied list may also be elected. Nevertheless, it still seems likely that Reform will probably make gains, while Centre will probably lose seats. The message then is that Estonia will opt for stability and will punish- at least to some degree- the Centre Party. Yet the precise alignment of the new Parliament, and therefore the composition of the government will depend on the voters- and they remain somewhat unpredictable.

However, whatever the final result, the success of the Liberal Reform party remains remarkable: in the face of extremely difficult economic conditions, the imposition of rigorous budget cuts has paid off. Estonia is clearly stronger than it was four years ago- despite the impact of the deepest economic crisis in over 80 years. For that, Reform do seem set to reap the reward. Discipline and focus seem to have earned trust and ultimately votes.

If the UK can not learn from Estonian technology, perhaps it can learn from Estonian policy- that would certainly be my hope when the next British election comes around in 2015.


1 comment:

Alex Macfie said...

There is a big difference between using ATMs for banking transactions and voting online, which explains why there would naturally be a difference in trust. Namely that in the banking example, there is a human-verifiable audit trail: you know if your transaction has been conducted correctly in accordance with your intentions, because the transaction shows up in your bank transaction list after no more than a few days (sometimes instantly). With online voting, there is no such audit trail, because the secrecy of the ballot disallows it. There is NO way of knowing whether a vote has been correctly recorded, or cancelled correctly (the idea of being able to cancel and change one's vote is one that I'm not keen on, but that's another issue for another day). The system might be secure, and might be doing what it is intended to do, but there is absolutely no way a non-expert user can verify this at all, and no way an expert can verify it without violating the secret ballot.

I find it extremely disturbing that Estonians apparently trust computers to record and output voting figures, when for all we know the computers (or, rather, the people who programmed them) could just have made the figures up. The great advantage of the paper-ballot system is its transparency: it is possible to watch the votes being counted and tallied, and irregularities in the process are easy to spot and correct. In contrast, e-voting is a black box: there is absolutely no way that anyone can know that the numbers that the system spits out bear any relationship at all to the votes input into it. This is why I oppose e-voting in principle, and why in some jurisdictions (Germany, Netherlands) it has actually been declared illegal.