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Internet voting a success in two European countries

Posted on 12 February 2013

Internet voting has gone from private and military trials to mainstream politics in two European states. Professor Alexander H Trechsel discussed the Estonian and Swiss examples in a February seminar.

“Can introducing the internet as a means of casting votes lead to distortions in the political sphere? How neutral is this new technology?” Trechsel asked during the ‘Internet, law and politics’ seminar on 4 February.

Fears that e-voting would affect the outcome of elections was a key reason that trials within the US Army were shut down in the early 2000s, Trechsel said. A similar debate was happening across the Atlantic in Switzerland: “The left said the internet was just for rich people; rich people have access to the technology and are voting on the right, therefore it could be our death knell. The right said that the internet was a new thing for young people, and the young people are more on the left, so it’s not good for us.”

But whereas citizens in the US are still not able to vote online, the practice has been rolled out across Swiss cantons and was enshrined in Geneva’s constitution in 2009. The other European success story – Estonia – is remarkable owing to its political past. “Estonia was leapfrogging, going from a Soviet republic in 1989 to one of the most advanced democratic systems, in terms of the way they handle votes, in only 16 years,” said the professor, who led a Council of Europe-funded team researching e-voting in the country.

In both Estonia and Switzerland e-voting was introduced in part to tackle the problem of a decline in turnout, described by Trechsel as “one of the major problems of democracy”. Although the two countries differ greatly in their political history and structure, both states had a modern electoral administration, high levels of internet penetration and political will, which Trechsel said made them fertile ground for e-voting. Furthermore, “both cases were clever – they involved social scientists from the beginning, something other early movers [which failed to implement e-voting following trials] didn’t do. Their international work was very important; both the Swiss and the Estonians were very active in setting international standards”.

Voters can now use a card – or also a mobile phone ID in Estonia – to cast their ballot over a set period of time. Estonia rolled out e-voting in 2005 and by 2009 nearly a quarter of all votes cast were online, while the canton of Geneva in Switzerland says e-voting is now stable at around 20 per cent, a decade after the first binding e-votes were cast.

In Estonia, Trechsel found that around 16 per cent of e-voters said they probably would not have voted had internet voting been unavailable. “In 2009 this turnout loss [overall] would have been 2.6 per cent, so it’s a small effect on turnout. It’s very clear a convenience factor is important,” he said.

Another vital sign of a successful e-voting system is trust, Trechsel said, explaining that the Netherlands had to abandon the practice after its electronic voting machines were hacked, calling into question the reliability of the new technology.

Trust was found to be imperative not only in the technology but also the wider voting system: “You cannot see internet voting in separation from the entire system and functioning of the voting administration. If the voting administration is not properly functioning, there’s a high risk of internet voting not functioning either.”

Trechsel pointed to Italy, which will hold a national election on 24 and 25 February, as an example of a European state not yet ready to introduce e-voting due its “track record of electoral fraud”. Despite this, he saw potential for e-voting becoming a means to monitor elections and combat corruption. Overall the diffusion of internet voting is rising, with trials currently underway in Canada and Norway.

(Text by Rosie Scammell)