Podcast 🎧 & blog: Internet voters are now the majority in Estonia

08.03.2023 | Federico Plantera

The last time we started with a question “Is i-voting here to stay?”; this one around, we move on from a strong statement. One week ago, national elections were held in Estonia, and more than a few important records have been set. Among these, the highest ever overall turnout, and the highest ever amount of people casting their ballots through the national i-voting system.

In this episode of the Digital Government Podcast, we welcome back Priit Vinkel, Senior Expert on Smart Governance. He worked 15 years in electoral management, of which six as the Head of the Estonian State Electoral Office. On the ins and outs of achieving such a key milestone, and more takeaways from a pivotal record in electoral history.

51% of voters did so through the Internet

March 5th was election day in Estonia, but what happened in the six days before Sunday is the overarching talking point of this episode. During the advance voting days, Estonian voters could cast their ballots via internet, using simply the relevant application in computer and their own electronic ID cards or Mobile ID.

“Almost 20 years since the inception of internet voting in Estonia, in 2005, we saw now roughly 51% of people choosing to vote through the internet. A milestone indeed,” Vinkel begins with.

“We could see it as a normal development, that applies to other digital solutions as well. First, we started with an amount of users in the numbers of a few percentage points. And after 18 years we have reached the pivotal point of having more than half of voters doing so through the Internet.”

An election of records – turnout, i-voters, women

But this was an election of records. And as in sports, records are set to be broken too. “This year’s elections were quite extraordinary for other reasons too. We had a record number of absolute voters, in terms of total turnout,” something that is connected to the Internet voting rate. “And we also have a record number of women elected as representatives in the parliament, 30 out of 101 members,” Vinkel points out. Something to remember now that the timing is just so right, in March, on International Women’s Day.

Of course, Vinkel cares to circumscribe the relative importance of such result. “We can see that i-voting in Estonia, by now, has been normalized as a just another way of voting. But I do hope statistics will show that new voters too have cast their ballots through the Internet. As we said just over a year ago, the stickiness factor is very important – if you vote once in such way, you keep doing so. Looking at young people, this can only be a good and healthy thing for democracy as a whole,” Vinkel says.

Deep dive into Internet voting and the 2023 elections

What are the main takeaways from Estonia’s experience with Internet voting? An expert review, here in no particular order:

  • In terms of sociodemographic background, Internet voters mirror the turnout composition of paper voters. There is no difference in voter’s profile between the two groups.
  • Previous research has shown that trust in government, and in governance as such, determines whether people choose one mode of voting or the other.
  • Polarization in attitudes and opinions within the electorate, and across party groups and supporters, impacts turnout rates more significantly.
  • Higher turnout rates in Internet voting reflect population numbers in different areas of the country, such as in the capital and more populous regions. Where there are more people, there is also more i-voting – simple as that.
  • Internet voting is not politically biased, so to say. It doesn’t affect the ultimate party or candidate choice people will make, but rather represents just another mode of voting.
  • All age groups use Internet voting more or less to the same extent, including older voters.

Thus, net of what we could spot in regional and demographic difference looking at general turnout rates, Internet voting has indeed become an established practice across all spheres and strata of society. A key point to highlight when it comes to democratic processes, ensuring equality of access and use truly for all.

Internet voting abroad, and what’s needed to make it work

The reasons why Internet voting stuck as a practice in Estonia, and not in other countries, are as varied as the number of foreign governments – of all levels – who have been exploring this possibility. Interest in Internet voting has its ups and downs, in Poland, Canada, Switzerland, the UK, Lithuania, Catalunya in Spain and among the recent countries – Moldova –  where eGA began consultations.

“The first and foremost thing to ensure is trust into IT. A form of trust that is also more general, into institutions and the democratic process, that lays the foundation to even address the matter of Internet voting,” Vinkel says.

“The second enabler is strong digital identity solutions. Without anything like that, it would be very hard to achieve the goals that such an ambitious system aims to attain. Trust and digital identity, in this sense, are connected issues. Then, governments need to guarantee access to such services and applications, based on the presence of a good connectivity infrastructure in the country.”

“In my opinion, i-voting should not be the first, or even the second generation of digital solutions implemented. Perhaps, the third. Focus first on the most basic precursors, like digital banking, signature, other services. And building upon positive experiments, and the good experience people have with them, administrations can more easily move on to consider Internet voting,” Vinkel concludes.