Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Estonian I-voting system in a nutshell

An Estonian voter inserts her ID card for authentication before voting
The immense possibilities that the Internet offers to enhance efficiency in election administration has made Internet voting one of the hottest topics in the world of elections today. And it couldn’t be otherwise, in the midst of the cyber revolution we are living in.

Since 2005, Estonia has been at the world-wide forefront of I-voting. It has carried six national elections (three local, two parliamentary, and one for the European Parliament) in which voters have had the option to either cast a ballot at a polling station using paper and pencil, or to vote remotely using an Internet-based platform.

So far, the success of the system has been evident. No significant or credible hacking or fraud accusations have been made, and the number of I-voters continues to grow sharply as the natural barriers to the adoption of any new technology fade away. In the first elections with optional I-voting (2005), 10,000 people cast a vote remotely. By 2011, that number had grown to 140,000– an approximate 24% of the voting population. Authorities are confident that this technology will continue to gain steam in the near future.

In each election, paper and pencil voting begins 13 days prior to Election Day in certain designated early voting polling stations. Voters can also wait until Election Day and cast a ballot in their neighboring precinct. In addition to the traditional method, casting an I-vote is available for a period of 7 days spanning from the 10th day until the 4th day prior to E-day.

The I-voting process has a similar scheme to that of any traditional voting process. Voter authentication, a crucial first step to avoid voter impersonation, can be done through different means: an ID card (National ID card), a Digital ID (a document identifying a person in electronic environments and involving digital signatures), or a mobile-ID (system based on the SIM card of a phone acting as an ID card and a card reader).

Once the identity of the voter has been authenticated, the voter downloads the voting application from the site www.valimised.ee. After the identity of the voter has been also validated via PIN, the voting process begins. The voter proceeds to choose options and then confirms his/her choices. A notice stating that the vote has been accepted is sent to the voter.

In order to continue improving the service, Estonia is working on a system called Verification of the I-votes. The idea is to detect if any malware has affected the computer used by the voter, and if that malware could have compromised or even changed the vote. The system will also allow voters to verify their I-votes with a smart device (mobile phone or a tablet) equipped with a camera and Internet connection. To learn more about the verification, click here.

Security has always been a concern when it comes to electronic voting. In consequence, different security mechanisms have been put in place to safeguard the I-vote. The vote is encrypted with the most advanced encrypting algorithms available. Also, the voter’s personal data is digitally signed and added to the encrypted vote prior to transmission.

Before processing voting results in the evening of Election Day, the encrypted votes and the digital signatures (i.e. data identifying the voter) are separated to guarantee the secrecy of the vote. Then anonymous I-votes are accepted and counted. The system accepts votes only if they are not connected to personal data. 

A frequently asked question when debates on I-voting begin is -How can you guarantee that the person casting a vote at home is doing so freely?

To mitigate voter coercion, voters are allowed to change their electronic vote by voting as many times as they please. Only their last vote is counted. The voter has the option to log into the electronic voting system again while I-voting is available, or to head to a polling station and cast a vote in person on Election Day.

For sure, Estonia will continue to lead the way in online voting for some time. Its government has been committed to better governance through technology for decades, and in view of the results, it has all the incentives to continue doing so. Paperless cabinet meetings, e-voting, e-health, e-schools, are just some of the initiatives giving this small European nation a very relevant position in the cyber revolution.