In 1989, Estonian democracy was limited to a human chain that spanned 600km and two million people from the capital, Tallinn, to Vilnius in Lithuania. The chain was a protest against Moscow by the Baltic states to highlight their continued plight as reluctant members of the Soviet Union, and eventually paved the way for independence and free elections.
Only 14 years after independence, last week Estonia held what is believed to be the first nationwide online election in the world, and it appears to have passed off without a hitch.
Already one of the most web-friendly countries in Europe – leading bank Hansabank estimates that almost 90 per cent of all clients transactions are made over the internet, and the government has promised to make internet access available to every citizen – the Estonian authorities have made this move both to counter growing voter apathy and help increase confidence in their national ID card scheme.
More than 90 per cent of Estonian citizens carry an ID card, with an individual PIN code, to carry out banking or government transactions. Registered voters who had a card as well as a special microchip reader could connect the reader to their home PC, identify themselves on a secure site, cast their vote and then enter their PIN to confirm their choice.
The system was used for the country’s local elections, but the government intends to extend it for the general election in 2007. Citizens were given a three-day window in which to vote, and could change their mind as often as they liked, with the additional option of going to a traditional polling station last Sunday, three days after the online polls had closed.
Each vote cancelled out the previous one, a move which the authorities believe will combat people voting against their will or having their cards stolen and used by someone else. The government assigned police protection to the servers and has made sure that the computer that processes the votes is not connected to the internet.
The system has its flaws of course. Citizens who wish to vote online first have to purchase the microchip reader. At €20 a reader, some observers have noted that it is hardly democracy in action.
President Arnold Ruutel tried to stop repeated voting, saying that it gave online voters a chance to change their mind, something that was denied to those who hadn’t gone online, but he was overruled by the Supreme Court.
And, of a national register of more than one million, fewer than 10,000 opted to vote online.
However, turnout overall hovered around the 50 per cent mark, signalling a steady decline which has horrified politicians in a country which has only just regained its independence after decades of one-party rule from Moscow. It is hoped that if online voting is a success, it will halt this slide as voters will no longer have to leave their living room to have their say.
This scheme, and the ones that will follow across the continent, will remind Irish people of the tens of thousands of unused voting machines, resting at the expense of the Government and the taxpayer in warehouses up and down the country.
The latest word from the Minister for the Environment, Dick Roche, is that it is most unlikely that Ireland’s assembled army of white elephants will be called into duty for the next general election, due at the latest in the summer of 2007. Given that cautious estimate, many people would be surprised if the machines were available for the next round of European and local elections in 2009.
Granted, Estonia has a population a quarter of Ireland, making it easier to run such a system. The number of people who actually voted online tallies with a town the size of Athy. Also, it is still early days – less than a week since the polls closed – and glitches and errors may yet come to light.
But it is important to remember the distinction between the two systems; the Estonians have been voting online on PCs, whereas we merely want to replace pencil and paper with what amounts to an advanced calculator.
Despite the increased ingenuity and global spread of hackers, the Estonian government felt secure that citizens could sit down at home and vote using a global network that is widely perceived to be fair game to any teenager with a smattering of techie know-how.
In this country voters would still be marking their X in the parish hall or primary school as they have since the foundation of the State, just using a more advanced system, and all we have gained so far is embarrassment. Yet we are held up to countries such as Estonia as an economic role model, due to growth that has largely been fuelled by investment from the IT sector.
For some people, the voting machine fiasco was almost inevitable in this country; a committee of unseen alickadoos inspecting rows of grey boxes, perhaps giving them a bash on the side or jabbing a couple of buttons, before passing them fit and ready until the next committee down the line rejects them, and the finger-pointing and buck-passing begins.
Given the cold, super-efficient nature of the Northern Europeans, of course they’d get it right, each dutiful citizen voting with metronomic precision, goes the thinking.
Anyway, isn’t electronic voting a dull, clinical affair? What about the excitement of the count, the convoluted mathematics of the recount, the thrill of hanging around a smoky hall until four in the morning?
But this prevalent attitude is at the root of so much apathy and bemused shrugs when something goes wrong in Irish society. We would do well to follow the developments in this field closely, if only to restore some confidence in the Government’s ability to handle large-scale projects of this nature.After all the recent back-slapping over the success of innovations such as the smoking ban, where we helped lead the way for the rest of Europe and the world, it would be a shame if every time a new country made strides with online voting, we were held up as an example of how not to do things.
© 2005 The Irish Times