(00:40) Why Can’t We Vote Online?
We’ve grown accustomed to sharing such vast amounts of information digitally. Many of the transactions we conduct online every day would have terrified us just a handful of years ago. Banking from your phone, applying for loans, managing credit cards, applying for jobs, renting out your home to strangers, and filing taxes.
So why can’t our voting systems work in the same way?
If this question has ever run through your head, you’re not alone. No surprise, there’s a lot to it. Many people will say it’s next to impossible –at least in the US–in the near future. There are many ways to look at it, and in just about every conversation about online voting, eventually, one country comes up: Estonia.
(01:24) Examining Estonia
With a population the size of Philadelphia, Estonia is known for its vast wilderness, black rye bread, having absolutely no one famous born there, (go look up "Famous Estonians" and you will see what I mean. No one you have ever heard of. No offense Estonia but you need to pick up your PR game), and the option for every citizen to vote online since 2005.
Today, we’re going to talk about how Estonia built its current system as well as the most significant obstacles preventing the United States from doing something similar.
We’ll also discuss whether the real question should be “Should we want to vote online?,” rather than “Why can't we vote online?”
(02:06) Estonia’s Digital Society
Bordering Latvia to the south, Russia to the East, and the Baltic Sea to the north and west, Estonia has become known as “The Most Digitally Advanced Society in the World.” In fact, 99 percent of all public services are available online: driver’s licenses applications, obtaining permits, paying taxes, opening a business, and yes –voting, all happens through one digital tool.
Since the voting system was first introduced in 2005, the country’s acceptance of it has only grown stronger. In fact, it has flourished. No major vote recounts, no hacking scandals, and in the most recent election, 46.7 percent of all votes were cast online, bringing down the cost per vote by an estimated 50 percent.
Is it a glimpse into the future about how governments will operate? Is it something that only works on a small scale? Or are the threats too extraordinary, too uncertain, and potentially catastrophic, that it should be avoided like the plague?
(03:04) Keeping Ballots Secure
Ballot security is far and away the number one issue plaguing the voting process. Keeping who you voted for a secret so that no one can coerce you into voting for a candidate is imperative because secrecy keeps the coercer from knowing if you were compliant.
The anonymity of voting is also one of the simplest ways to understand the differences between things like financial transactions and voting. Fraud protection systems that help make online banking and tax filing possible depend specifically on linking your activity to your identity. However, in voting, that connection is completely severed, so the technical challenge is turned on its head. There’s also the question of motivation, and the differences between the government wanting your money and wanting you to vote, but we’ll put those questions aside for now.
(03:49) How Does Estonia Protect Anonymity?
So as we play our game of “Keeping up with the Estonians” We wonder how they keep every ballot a secret? It helps to look at the system as a whole. According to Anna Piperal, "The central idea behind this development is transformation of the state role and digitalization of trust. Think about it. In most countries, people don't trust their governments. And the governments don't trust them back. And all the complicated paper-based formal procedures are supposed to solve that problem. Except that they don't. They just make life more complicated." (Anna Piperal, TED talk, 2:46)
(04:37) The Digital Identity system
When Estonian officials talk about their digital society, they describe three design principles that have guided it since its early development in the 90s. The first is to guarantee privacy and confidentiality. At the center of the technology is the digital identity system, and a digital ID card. Every citizen is issued a digital identity that must be verified before any services can be accessed. We spoke with Florian Marcus, a digital transformation advisor at the e-Estonia Briefing Center, who showed us just how simple it is to vote in Estonia.
If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “End of story? But I have so many questions.”
Estonians says those two pins are what prevent someone from being able to vote fraudulently if they had your digital ID card. But again – what about keeping
my vote anonymous? Florian Marcus stated that: "Encryption effectively means that you can see in the source code how we encrypt our stuff, but to decrypt it, you don't need to have found a particular line in the code. Instead, you would need a lot of brute computing power to decrypt that key. And the truth is that the encryption that we use these days would take all the different supercomputers in the world combined several years just to crack one sort of transaction".