ANDY THOMAS: Little Estonia Leads the Way on Voting
Sunday, the little country of Estonia held its parliamentary election -- nothing much of note, except that it is the first country in the world to offer voters the choice of voting via computer.
I have visited Estonia and was duly impressed with its cleanliness, forward progress and attitude toward democracy and capitalism. At the time, about three years ago, Estonia was actively pursuing foreign business and trade.
It is a newcomer into the European Union. Estonians are anxious to rid themselves completely of Russian influence. We were told by folks in Tallinn, the capital, that Russians of high military or civilian rank had second homes in Estonia. Estonia was once ruled by the Soviet Union.
Estonia's population is currently about 1.5 million, comprising 70 percent Estonians and 26 percent Russians and other European mixtures. It is slightly larger than Switzerland.
This Balkan country has been on track for computerized voting since 2005, when it tested Internet voting nationwide, with 30,000 casting electronic votes.
The number of ballots actually cast online for this election was only about 9,500, or less than 1 percent of all voters, but those running the Estonian e-voting project are shooting for 20 percent participation in the future.
All a voter needed was a computer, an electronic card reader, an ID card and a PIN number, and a voter could have voted from anywhere in the world.
E-votes could only be cast during three days of advance voting for these elections. On election day itself, voters had to go to polling stations and fill in a paper ballot.
There has been massive publicity about the new system, including photos of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip voting online from his office on the previous Monday.
E-voting systems, in which people use online machines in polling stations or register to get an e-vote password, have been tried on a smaller scale in many European countries, including in some local elections in the UK and Ireland.
About 800,000 Estonians, or 80 percent of those on the electoral roll, have access to a new e-voting system, the largest run by any European Union country.
It has been made possible because most Estonians now carry a national identity card equipped with a computer-readable microchip. It is these cards that they use to get access to the online ballot.
Online voting has been promoted as a quicker, cheaper way of collecting and counting ballots. Those concerned about falling turnout in elections hope that the convenience of not having to go to a polling station will encourage more people to take part.
The Estonians say their system avoids security problems because people already have their micro-chipped ID cards and know the PIN codes to use them. But there are still fears that an online ballot makes it far easier to influence elections.
However safe the technology, if people do not go to a polling station, it is not evident who is using whose ID card or if a voter is being put under pressure when casting a ballot.
To tackle that problem, the Estonian election allowed multiple online votes to be cast, with each subsequent vote canceling out the previous one.
And the system still gives supremacy to paper ballots, so anyone who voted online could also go to a polling station on the prescribed Sunday and vote in the traditional way, replacing the vote cast online.
In my column of Nov. 6, 2002, I wrote, "The simple solution is to employ computers (for voting). We will have computer voting. Probably not in my lifetime. The resources and tools are in place now. What's missing is the attitude and skill of voters regarding the use of computers."
I have always maintained that if one can use a push-button telephone, one can use a computer. After all, such a phone is really a computer in and of itself. In fact, many Blackberry-type computers are used both as phones and computers, including Internet access.
Big business is already utilizing computer voting for shareholders. Their system should be tried by state and local governments where each qualified voter has a secure identification number with password protection. I've responded numerous times, voting on auditors, board elections and individual issues. It saves the company at least 39 cents and my 39-cent return as well. There are many other advantages, including less administrative time in collecting and counting returns and the process seems to work very well.
Dartmouth College recently inaugurated electronic voting for trustees and the infamous constitution which did not pass. Formerly, alumnae voters had to schlep themselves up to the cold reaches of Hanover, N.H., and be physically there to cast a ballot.
Thankfully I have been proven wrong, thinking I wouldn't see computer voting in my lifetime. Perhaps the rest of the world, including the United States, and even Pinehurst, will wake up to the reality of our electronic age and employ digital voting like little Estonia.
And, by the way, a national ID card for us in the United States could solve a lot of problems.
Andy Thomas lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
More like this story