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E-voting: securing the franchise Estonian-style

Could e-voting be the answer to the challenges brought on by the pandemic and foreign interference in elections? Estonia with its approach to digital solutions could provide a useful blueprint.

July 1, 2020 - Samuel Kramer - Articles and Commentary

Mobile software development laboratory in The Estonian Information Technology College. Photo: Marko Puusaar (cc) wikimedia.org

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again encouraged calls for the development of digital civic societies. Ever since it regained independence in 1991, Estonia has pioneered various digital citizenship initiatives. This has helped to embed democratic principles within the country, with online voting as the centrepiece. These efforts have proven to be effective. For example, in last year’s parliamentary elections, turnout had increased since the last pre-digital election in 2003. In 2019, 43.8 per cent of Estonia’s electorate cast their ballot online. Estonia’s voter turnout was greater than the 2016 US presidential election’s 56 per cent. Given the restrictions on movement caused by the coronavirus, a gradual adoption of the Estonian e-election model would safeguard the franchise for millions of citizens. It is secure, accessible and constitutional.

Holding elections online would increase electoral security, fulfilling a bipartisan goal to protect the franchise’s integrity. In 2016, “Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states.” Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr acknowledged in the 2018 committee report, “In 2016, the US was unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary on our election infrastructure.” Congress recognises making elections safe requires a serious approach embracing the whole of society.

Estonia’s online voting system is ultimately designed to deliver a trustworthy election. In order to participate, Estonian citizens need to login with their national ID card, after which they receive a downloadable file with their ballot. E-voting does not take place on election day itself. This is to ensure security and to isolate potentially compromised or fraudulent ballots. Estonia also uses blockchain technology to prevent malicious actors from accessing citizen voting data, lending durability to the digital space. The Estonian Election Commission posts instructions on how to access the ballot file on major operating systems and ensure that the file is legitimate. This helps to educate the public on potentially malicious practices. The voter’s identity is removed from the ballot before it reaches the National Electoral Commission, which helps to safeguard citizen privacy. By requiring an ID card and performing security checks, e-voting lessens the potential for undetectable fraud or cyber-intrusion.

Accessibility is another feature of Estonia’s e-voting system which could address the United States’ wide geographical and social voting disparities. For instance, a majority of California’s population identifies as people of colour. In the 2012 elections, however, only 48 per cent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and 49 per cent of Latinos voted compared to 64 per cent of whites. There are many theories as to why this disparity persists, but socioeconomic conditions continue to play a significant role. Estonia’s e-democracy sought to open the political playing field by making voting easier. The country’s digital security measures involve the use of national electronic ID cards, which have been in circulation since 2000. Of course, this could have potentially exacerbated the disparity between those with and without an ID card. However, in 2005, when e-voting was introduced, almost 80 per cent of the electorate had a card. By January 2019, this number grew to 98 per cent of the population. Most importantly, internet access is available in 99 per cent of Estonia’s territory, allowing the overwhelming majority of the population to access electronic services. The digital divide was bridged by offering both electronic and in-person voting, providing every citizen a choice. With a growing proportion of Estonians e-voting, citizens choosing to vote by paper ballot have shorter lines and easier access to voting booths than ever before.

The United States uses state-issued driver’s licences as identification, which are not used at a level that could guarantee wider voter registration. According to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data, 84.6 per cent of all Americans have a driver’s licence and some have a non-driver’s ID. Despite the high rate of car ownership, there remain a number of disparities. For instance, 13 per cent of adults living in a household with less than 25,000 US dollars annual income lack photo ID. This is compared to just 2 per cent of those in households with an annual income of over 150,000 US dollars. In order to solve this, the government could automatically issue all citizens an electronic identity. This would expand upon the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which mandates simultaneous voter registration with driver’s licence applications. A digital identity would provide all citizens a legal presence without depending on a physical card which may be stolen. A review every ten years coinciding with the census would ensure the accuracy of the ID accounts. The automatic provision of a digital identity would facilitate access to voting by removing the physical obstacles to voter registration.

E-voting could use technology most Americans already have, such as a smartphone, as an alternative to downloading an election file Estonia-style. Estonia employs a smartphone programme in addition to existing paper and ID card methods. Estonian smartphones have special SIM cards that are configured to serve as identity markers when using the election app. A 2019 Pew poll showed that 81 per cent of American respondents had a smart phone and that the proportion of digitally-connected Americans is growing daily. Phone-based services would be especially helpful for engaging traditionally underrepresented millennial and post-millennial generations who live tethered to their smartphones.

Either building a new election app in line with existing SIM card technology or designing an ID-SIM card could revolutionise voting and require fewer changes to existing laws or distribution regarding ID cards. SIM cards, used in most smartphones, are removable and thus can be reused or replaced if lost. Given existing technological advances, securing the validity of the elections and breach detection would be easier on a mobile platform. Blockchain security for mobile applications similarly preserves the vote’s sanctity across platforms and isolates the voting app from potentially compromised phone caches. Any such decision by a US administration would entail a transition over many years and modifications to existing technology or practice. However, current internet access capabilities within America make creating a digital electoral space possible.

Most importantly, e-voting is constitutional and already exists in American elections. This allows for a focus on implementation rather than legislation. Historically, privacy and legal concerns prevented a national ID card rollout. These arguments would be renewed in a debate on creating an ID-linked voting system such as that in Estonia. However, Article 1, Section 4 of the US Constitution states: “The times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators.” Therefore, there are no set rules regarding how elections should be conducted. In 1913, Senators could be directly elected following the 17th amendment to the constitution. Before, state legislatures appointed senators.

Federal courts upheld the flexibility of election law. In Millsaps v. Thompson (2001), the ruling stated, “It cannot be doubted that these comprehensive words embrace authority to provide a complete code for congressional elections, not only as to times and places, but in relation to notices, registration, supervision of voting, protection of voters, prevention of fraud and corrupt practices, counting of votes, duties of inspectors and canvassers, and making and publication of election returns.” Electronic voting, at least on a federal level, is a legal possibility.

In addition to a strong legal justification for expanding the in-person voting system in order to accommodate e-voting, it is difficult to ignore the fact that certain jurisdictions have already implemented limited e-voting. The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009 required online voting options for US citizens abroad, namely those serving in the armed forces. Additionally, the Overseas Absentee Voting Act explicitly requires military personnel stationed abroad to receive electronic ballots. Only a few state governments limit that ability.

Some American states already implemented variants of remote voting as part of both acts, with some going beyond sending ballots by mail. West Virginia even decided to use an app protected by blockchain technology. Although it dropped the initial company in March 2020 due to security issues, the state appears to be looking for a different application rather than scrapping blockchain-protected e-voting altogether. Considering blockchain plays a central role in Estonian e-elections, it is important to note that several American states already wear this ‘digital armour’. Existing electronic and app-based voting mechanisms lend e-voting an important constitutional legitimacy.

There is little time to implement an ambitious e-voting plan before the 2020 United States general elections. Building an electronic franchise before another isolating crisis akin to COVID-19 remains critical. Electronic voting, despite the time and effort required to implement it, passes all the necessary safety and constitutional checks. The example of Estonia, where after fifteen years almost half of the country participates digitally in civic life, shows that a new voting mechanism encourages progress. Incorporating e-voting into the American electoral system provides a secure, accessible and legal method for exercising the right to vote.

Samuel Kramer is a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews. He has a Bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and a Master of Arts from Georgetown University’s Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies. He has experience in the public sector, nonprofit research, and due diligence. Mr. Kramer specialises in minority rights in the post-Soviet space and their intersection with the democratisation process.

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