Estonia i-voting: what the world’s most digital republic teaches us

Forget absentee voting: in Estonia, it is just a click away. And they have been doing it for 18 years now. Other countries, such as Canada and Switzerland, have tried to introduce their versions of Internet voting with little success. For the first time since Internet voting was introduced in Estonia, more digital votes were cast in the general election on 5 March 2023 than paper ballots. The Baltic country introduced i-voting in 2005 as part of a project to develop e-government and digital services at all levels of society, which means that since then, residents can open bank accounts, sign documents, submit taxes and many other things directly on the Internet.

The only limited service is filing for divorce. The high level of participation in the elections reflects the trust the Estonian public has in the integrity of voting: “All our elections – local elections, national parliamentary elections and European elections -, have digital voting components, and now that digital votes have overtaken traditional votes, this says a lot about our trust,” explained Erika Piirmets, digital transformation consultant at ‘e-Estonia’, enthusiastically.

“We have political parties that are against i-voting and we are discussing this very issue in Estonia. We need to be aware of the concerns, share more information and be even more transparent, to show how safe the system is,” he said. Other countries, such as Canada and Switzerland, have tried to introduce their versions of Internet voting with little success. Erika Piirmets believes that Estonia has been extraordinarily successful because of the robust electronic identity systems that everyone uses, which is one of the building blocks of i-voting.

How can people vote on the Internet in Estonia?

Voting via the Internet in Estonia can be done from a computer, with voters duly registered on the electoral roll using their ID card and a card reader, as well as PIN codes for security. Voters must first download a voting application, insert their ID card into the reader and verify their eligibility to vote and district. Once logged in, they view a list of candidates and select their preferred one. They must enter a PIN code to verify their vote with their digital signature – and that’s it! Once voters have voted (this is done before election day), they can always change their minds by voting in person on election day, with a physical paper ballot cancelling the previous i-vote.

EU elections in Estonia, what i-voting in the world's most digital republic teaches us
e-stonia vote

One of the reasons perhaps why i-voting has been so popular and successful in Estonia is because it introduced digital systems at a time when less thought was given to the security and integrity of the systems. So, over the years, without a single proven case of i-voting fraud, Estonian voters have become very used to it. “We implemented the services so far ahead of time that people were probably not aware of the security problems that would result,” explains Erika Piirmets. “Right now, if we were in the same situation and tried to make e-voting available, I think there would be more resistance, because people are more aware now that these systems could be vulnerable to hacker attacks, for example,” added the “e-Estonia” consultant.

A natural digital divide

Who uses i-voting, and who doesn’t? Is there a digital divide in Estonia, in terms of age or mother tongue? “e-Estonia” states that there is still a gap between both i-voting and digital service in general. Still, there is no obvious ‘pattern’ on whether older people, for example, avoid technology. “People have their own personal preferences, on how they want to use the digital service, and we can’t therefore draw a single profile-identity sketch of who is a voter. It’s impossible,” explains Erika Piirmets. The Estonian authorities, however, have not yet released information on any attempts to attack the voting system during the 2023 elections.

Antonino Caffo has been involved in journalism, particularly technology, for fifteen years. He is interested in topics related to the world of IT security but also consumer electronics. Antonino writes for the most important Italian generalist and trade publications. You can see him, sometimes, on television explaining how technology works, which is not as trivial for everyone as it seems.