Estonia is the only country in the world where citizens have used remote internet voting in municipal, national and European elections. Meelis Kitsing offers a brief overview of the last five elections, highlighting key elements of the voting process. He argues that although online voting is faster and cheaper, it doesn’t necessarily work to the benefit of all citizens.

The first possibility to vote online in Estonia was offered in the municipal elections in October 2005 when almost two per cent of all voters (see the table below) – one per cent of the electorate – took advantage of this new system. This experiment was followed by parliamentary elections in April 2007, where 5.4 per cent of votes were submitted online. In June 2009, European Parliament Elections were held where close to 15 per cent of votes were submitted online. In the last municipal elections in October 2009 almost 16 per cent of the votes were cast online. In the 2011 elections to the Estonian parliament, internet votes made up more than 24 per cent of all votes.

Table: Internet Voting in the Estonian Elections (2005-2011)

Source: Created by the author on the basis of data from the Estonian National Electoral Committee

The key element in Estonian internet voting is the national identity card, which can be used in both online and offline environments. The government introduced ID-cards in 2002 to provide a more secure and sophisticated substitute for older online identification methods. Even though the government had issued half a million ID-cards by March 2005, many people did not use ID-cards for online transactions because they used older identification techniques.

As the table above shows, 61 per cent of all internet voters were the first online ID card users in the 2005 elections. The 2007 elections were the first time online users of ID-cards made up 39 per cent. Overall, only 25,000 ID card-owners used their cards online in 2006. In 2009, the number of online users of ID-cards had increased ten-fold to about 250,000. Subsequently, the percentage of first time online ID-card users in the European elections dropped to 19 per cent and in the municipal elections to 18.5 per cent. Internet voting is a story of a typical adoption process where early adopters proved the ID-card to be a reliable way to vote online and conduct other transactions. As more and more people began using their ID-cards for daily transactions (e.g. banking and government services), they felt increasingly comfortable in using the card for voting, too.

The costs and benefits

The data shows that higher turnout is correlated with higher use of internet voting in the municipal and parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, there is no strong evidence that internet voting has led to higher turnout in the elections. Empirically, it is difficult to establish causality between the availability of internet voting and turnout. There are too many variables which may be correlated with higher or lower turnout, and internet voting is just one aspect. Scholars who have used survey data in their analyses have found that internet voting mobilises casual voters and that 10-15 per cent of internet voters probably would not have voted without this option. At the same time, methodologically more sophisticated work, which accounts for substitution effects, has shown that online voting has not lead to higher turnout.

Conceptually, it is clear that electronic voting reduces transaction costs and enhances efficiency in the voting process. Citizens find it easier to cast their vote and they face lower voting ‘costs’. The key outcome of Estonian internet voting is that the provision of online channels for electoral participation removes another barrier by making voting more “convenient” for existing voters.

However, the benefits of electronic voting, such as reduced transaction costs, are only one side of the coin. On the other side, electronic voting also has costs – e.g. reduced civic engagement, privacy and security concerns. Most importantly, making voting cheaper and faster may not be necessary and clearly is not a sufficient condition for encouraging higher participation in elections. For those who do not believe in the electoral process, for whatever reason, the transactional nature of internet voting does not offer any compelling arguments to change their views. For those who consider voting time-consuming and confusing, internet voting may reduce some of the transaction costs associated with voting, but not enough.

Even though 80 per cent of the Estonian population uses the internet, online voting also carries a distributional impact. As internet-connected computers are widespread in many public places and smart phone usage is also on the increase, the question is not so much about access to technology, but about different skill levels in its use. Naturally, older and less educated segments of the population can experience significant barriers in exploiting internet voting. The distribution of online votes does not correspond to the overall distribution of votes. Two main centre-right parties which make up the current coalition government tend to get a significantly higher share of internet votes than the populist Center Party. Unsurprisingly, the beneficiaries of the new system were actively pushing for the implementation of remote electronic voting, while the losers have criticised and highlighted its shortcomings.

Ultimately, an increasing number of Estonians have taken advantage of internet voting primarily because it makes voting faster and cheaper. The Estonian experiment not only benefits those voters, but has also created a real world laboratory for improving our understanding of both the advantages and disadvantages of internet voting.

This article originally appeared at Democratic Audit

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Meelis Kitsing – Estonian Business School
Meelis Kitsing is director of the Center for Free Economic Thought and a lecturer at the Estonian Business School. He earned his MSc in Politics of the World Economy from LSE in 2001.

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