LIBE II

Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs II (LIBE II)

Considering the rapid increase in the use of digital platforms with the uptrend of distance-working in the times of COVID-19, what measures should the EU take in order to extend e-voting to all Member States, ensuring its safety, data protection, transparency and accessibility to everyone?

By: Matěj Volf (CZ)

Video link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1RX2IHypXv0QJUgttpw9J5YgMTnOsB8Fb/view?usp=sharing

What?

The level of digitalisation of public institutions and services varies significantly across EU Member States. Estonia is often mentioned as an example of excellent progress in this field. According to the e-estonia portal, in 2019 almost 250 thousand Estonians (around 43% of voters) cast their votes in parliamentary elections via the internet, reportedly saving more than 11 thousand working days to everyone involved in the balloting process — from people who would otherwise have to take a leave to visit the polling place to those who are responsible for counting and transporting the paper votes. However, it is not alike everywhere in the European Union (EU) — while many countries, including Czechia, recently introduced their own forms of electronic identification of citizens, their uses are often limited.

Even though electronic voting is one of the biggest benefits of e-government, it might as well be the one most sensitive to security and transparency. For its success and widespread usage, it is essential that the citizens can trust it and that it achieves at least the same level of security and privacy that the conventional methods offer. Ballots cast by mail have already sparked issues with trust, given the example of the US presidential elections where they were alleged of being fraudulent. These concerns could potentially be even worse with electronic votes, since for many people, digital technologies are something they do not fully understand.

Furthermore, it is important that the e-voting system must be equally available to everyone, no matter their age, socio-economic status, IT knowledge, or equipment.

For further information, visit these websites:

European Parliament Think Tank: Prospects for e-democracy in Europe

e-estonia: Is i-Voting the future of elections?

Why?

As the experience from Estonia shows, the introduction of e-voting can save a significant amount of time for everyone involved in the voting process — voters do not need to walk to the polling stations, the ballots are counted immediately and automatically, and they do not need to be physically transported to central physical storage. E-voting makes democratic participation easier, however both long-term data from Estonia and e-voting experiments conducted in Norway and Switzerland show that this is not enough to incentivise more people to vote in elections.

On the other hand, a United States study suggests that introduction of mail-in ballots does increase overall turnout, yet there are differences in election organisation between the US and EU, so the effect wouldn’t necessarily be the same in Europe. Nevertheless, the usage of digital technologies saw a significant uptrend during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, it could be expected that a similar trend might be observed in the interest in e-voting.

Looking aside from the benefits and public interest in e-voting, there are many concerns that need to be taken care of when implementing it. A simple mistake could easily discredit a whole election, not only wasting money required to organise another vote, but more importantly endangering trust in public institutions. Another substantial aspect is data protection, as ballot secrecy is a fundamental part of democratic elections, however simultaneously, it must be ensured that everyone can only vote once.

For further research, watch and listen to:

BBC World Service - Digital Planet: Is Estonia e-Voting Unsafe? 00:50 - 09:50

YouTube - TLDR News: Why Don’t We Vote Online includes interviews with Estonian experts; please ignore their interpretation of “e-voting vs i-voting” distinction

YouTube - Tom Scott: Why Electronic Voting Is Still A Bad Idea

Who?

  • Member States are sovereign in issuing legislation regarding the election process and means of submitting ballots. They are responsible for maintaining legitimacy of the elections and ensuring that all votes are counted correctly. In Czechia, this agenda is held specifically by the Ministry of the Interior and the Czech Statistical Office.

  • Online identity providers are means of verifying the identity and actions of physical individuals in the online space. They can be government-controlled (often associated with electronic ID cards, but for example the Czech government also offers authentication with a mobile app after you verify yourself by visiting a CzechPOINT), or provided by authorised private organizations. An example of such private system is BankID, provided by an association of private banks, which is widely used in Sweden and slowly introduced in the Czech Republic.

  • The Council of the European Union has a directive in place which specifies the framework of EU citizens’ rights to vote and stand as a candidate in the election process.

  • The European Commission is the executive branch of the EU that periodically publishes a report on the implementation of the above directive. Furthermore, it sets the EU’s agenda and publishes strategies regarding electoral rights, eGovernment and digital transformation in general. While it cannot publish binding legislation regarding national elections, it can provide recommendations to guide and coordinate the Member States in their efforts during implementation of e-voting and related agenda.

  • Research bodies such as European Parliament Think Tank observe various stages of implementations of e-voting and related systems and publish summary studies, potentially setting an agenda for the EU's own implementations.

For further information:

European Commission: Electoral rights of EU citizens

European Commission: eGovernment & Digital Public Services strategy

How?

The story of Estonia shows that widespread adoption of e-government services including e-voting is possible. However, their experience was complex and time consuming — ‘X-Road’, the unified layer where all the data that the e-government services need to access, was developing and deploying since 2001, while in some Member States carrying paper documents from one institution to another is still the norm to this day.

A system that could potentially be implemented widely across the EU is the e-voting system pioneered for citizens abroad during Swiss elections. This project is limited in scope and therefore does not depend on an extensive e-government system already in place. A comprehensive report of the OSCE observation mission deployed during 2011 Federal Elections mentions it being an example of good practices, but despite that it still notes that it “would benefit from improvements in certification, security, transparency and oversight” and security issues are still occasionally being found.

Therefore it is important not to hurry the implementation — as the European Parliament Think Tank concludes in its 2018 study, “there are still many hurdles to be removed, and while e-voting makes democratic participation easier, it can’t single-handedly pay the EU’s democratic deficit.” One of the most pressing obstacles is the unsolved problem of making the system secure, while using technologies simple enough so that everyone can trust and verify that their vote is counted properly. A study analyzing the e-voting trial in Switzerland also mentions the question of “de-ritualisation” of the democratic process, meaning that voters will pay less attention and importance to who they are voting for, since the voting process doesn’t require the “ceremony” of going to the polling station.

Another important aspect of implementing an e-voting system are the financial demands. There are countries in the EU where more than a quarter of citizens do not use the internet regularly. Even in Estonia more than 50% of voters still voted physically in the last parliamentary elections, which were held in 2019, despite the availability of a well-proven and convenient internet voting system. For that reason, it is clear that e-voting cannot fully replace the traditional means of casting a ballot in the near future. Therefore a dual (electronic and physical) infrastructure needs to be maintained.

Food for thought:

  • Which country do you think will be the next one to introduce a stable, widely used e-voting system?

  • Should something be done to motivate more people to use these technologies?

  • Should there be support programmes by the EU to provide the required equipment to those who can’t afford it?

These links might help you start looking for answers:

e-estonia: When will other countries join Estonia in voting on the internet?

Jan Gerlach and Urs Gasser: Three E-Voting Case Studies from Switzerland

LIBE II.mp4

Topic video

by Fakhri Malikov (AZ)