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Why don't more nations hold elections online? Here's how Estonia has been a lone trailblazer

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A voter drops off his early voting ballot for the 2020 Presidential election at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City on October 30, 2020.
A voter drops off his early voting ballot for the 2020 Presidential election at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City on October 30, 2020.   -   Copyright  AFP
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In the four decades since the internet was born, our lives have been transformed. Everything from learning, shopping, and banking can now all be done with the tap of a finger.

But one crucial aspect of our democratic life remains firmly rooted in the past: voting.

Casting a ballot is still mostly conducted in either one of two ways — by visiting a polling station or sending it in the post.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only exposed the vulnerabilities in our healthcare systems and economies, but also in the way we carry out one of our most fundamental human rights.

Dozens of elections worldwide were disrupted this year because of the pandemic as governments grappled with the best way to keep voters safe from infection.

In the US, where the race for the White House is near its climax, some polling stations opened weeks early and tens of millions elected to post their ballot.

Electronic voting could have ensured elections were not only COVID-safe but also ran as scheduled.

The trouble is, only one country in the world has implemented an online voting system for its entire electorate: Estonia.

Small vs huge-scale fraud

Some local authorities including several US states and Australia's New South Wales region allow online voting but only for certain groups of voters such as the disabled and the military. Many other countries such as Switzerland, Germany, and Norway have carried out trials and continue to experiment but are still nowhere near introducing their own system.

"The reason comes down to it's very hard to convince people that it's secure, especially people who are convinced that it's potentially not secure" Mark D. Ryan, director and head of research at the University of Birmingham's Centre for Cyber Security and Privacy, told Euronews.

"And they have a point," he added.

The tried-and-tested paper ballot is of course, not foolproof. Tampering can happen, but according to Ryan, it is usually "limited in scale".

"Whereas everyone knows that with computers, if you can commit fraud, you can do it on a huge scale and it's hard to detect," he explained.

The issue of external interference in western elections has become preponderant since the 2016 US presidential race with accusations that Russia meddled in to secure its preferred outcome.

Politicians in the UK and France have also accused Russia of trying to interfere in national elections since then.

'Very little to do with technology'

Online voting was introduced in Estonia in 2005. At the 2019 parliamentary election, about 44 per cent of the ballots were cast electronically.

For Marten Kaevats, a national digital adviser to the Estonian government, this was only achievable because of all the work carried out in the decade beforehand.

"For more or less 25 years we've been building a civic digital society and a culture and mindset for this kind of digital solution," he told Euronews.

The small Baltic country of 1.5 million started building its digital infrastructure and educating the population to conduct all administrative tasks online in the late 1990s. In 2001, digital identity was also deployed.

"The key point in order to have a strong internet voting system is you need to have a very strong identity system," he argued.

A system that is transparent, simple to use and that is thus used regularly in order for people to learn to trust it, he explained.

"The main lesson learnt in building a digital society for the past 25 years in Estonia is that digital government has got very little to do with technology and everything to do with building a mindset and culture for trust.

"In order to have this mindset and culture, this takes time. This takes governmental procedures, legal changes and things like that to actually be implemented," he emphasised.

To protect itself from both domestic and external interference in all governmental business, the Estonian system is fully transparent. Every citizen can check at all time who has accessed their private data and why and any misuse is automatically red-flagged.

Data is also spread across hundreds of servers, running on different software.

"As a kind of metaphor, it means we never put all eggs in one basket because the likelihood of that basket that has 1,000 eggs in it falling down is not a question of if it falls down, it's a question of when it falls down," Kaevats said.

"So if I'm a malicious hacker and want to hack into the Estonian system to get everything about me, then I would need to hack into about 150 different servers which are based on very different software and very different security software architecture and I would need to do that within a microsecond," he continued.

'Design from scratch'

All this sounds simple enough, so why wasn't the system replicated elsewhere?

"They're quite a new country, they were able to basically design from scratch," Areeq Chowdhury, founder and director of the UK-based WebRoots Democracy thinktank, told Euronews.

Estonia proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

"One of the main reasons they were able to go further than anyone else is a cultural difference, and because they have that infrastructure in place. The leap isn't as big as it would be here in the UK or elsewhere in Europe," he pointed out.

Another issue compounding academics and researchers is that of identity, how to authenticate it online and how to ensure votes cast electronically cannot be traced back to the individual voter.

"Your vote has to be confidential, that's the vital part of free and fair. That's really hard to achieve and I don't think the Estonians really achieve it," Ryan said.

It's especially difficult in countries like the US and the UK where there is no standard country-wide ID card. But for Chowdhury, the method of authentication could be similar to ones used by Britain's main opposition Labour Party for leadership contests.

"They will send you in the post ID numbers that you then use to authenticate yourself on the system. Similarly in the 2011 census in the UK, again quite sensitive information, quite sensitive data, they sent two individual envelopes with two individual codes you typed online," he explained.

"It doesn't necessarily need to be an ID card, but it would need to be a lot stronger than what we do at polling stations in the UK because people wouldn't trust it," he added.

In pluralism we trust?

But even if all the technological challenges were met, and experts agreed that systems were robust, it would still all boil down to trust.

"In America, you're seeing Donald Trump undermine trust in mail-in ballot despite having no legitimate reason for doing so. Just the accusation kind of undermines the legitimacy," Chowdhury said.

"All democracies are built on that trust in the process. They're actually very fragile and as soon as you undermine trust in the process and how secure it is, that's when you see democracies failing," he went on.

Ryan concurred. "It's easy to cast doubt" especially when it involves a system and technology people cannot necessarily understand. Some could use that to deliberately muddy the waters.

"It doesn't really matter whether they're right or wrong, we all know that these things can grow and doubt can set it," he said.

Both thus agree that to build trust, any online voting system needs to be decentralised.

"I strongly believe in pluralism and having a lot of different options because it means the attackers' job is much more difficult. They have to attack a whole variety of different platforms. The more heterogeneity you can have in your computing environment, the harder it is for an attacker to attack it and dominate it," Ryan argued.

In the US, where the system is already decentralised with each state running its own electoral system, they could also, for instance, build their own online voting platform, which would therefore very likely be different from another. Political parties and NGOs could also have their own platforms. Voters would then decide which one they trust more.

Constituencies in the UK, which already have to independently source their own paper and ballot printing machines, could also run their own electronic voting system independent from one another and then pool the results together.

Pressure is mounting

Both experts think there is undeniably a growing recognition that a digital option is needed.

"I think that there are many pressures. Of course, a global pandemic is one of them, but there are others like the need to modernise things and increase turnout, especially among younger people," Ryan said.

Another pressure mentioned by Chowdhury is the inability for many disabled people, especially the visually impaired, to vote by themselves.

A legal challenge by a visually impaired person was what forced the Australian region of New South Wales into implementing an online voting system.

"The key phrase in human right law around voting is that everyone should be able to vote secretly and independently," he emphasised. But in the UK, "thousands of thousands of people are unable to actually physically cast their ballot in secret" and have to instead rely on proxy voting.

Both think another decade is needed before online voting is rolled out more broadly.

"About 12 years ago, I was saying within 10 years we should have it," Ryan said. "Now, I'm still tempting to say within 10 years."

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