Internet voting: the Estonian system

by Paolo B. Maligaya, NAMFREL Senior Operations Associate

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.2, No.22

Out of the estimated 11 million overseas Filipino workers, only half a million registered for the 2010 elections, and only about 26% of those who registered actually cast their votes, a very low turnout indeed considering that around 80% of Filipinos turned out to vote in May 2010. Filipinos abroad decry the difficulty of access to voting centers to register and vote, as well as the difficulty of taking time out from work to travel for these activities. The Philippine government also does not allow all Filipino overseas workers to vote by mail; personal appearance in Philippine embassies and consulates is a requirement. Most significantly, Filipinos abroad are also being required to submit an affidavit stating that they will return to the country within 3 years after registration to resume permanent residency, an impractical and absurd requirement that further discourages most overseas Filipinos from participating in our elections entirely: the penalty for not following this stipulation is disenfranchisement and even jail time. The Overseas Absentee Voting Act of 2003 would need to be amended to repeal this

With the start of voters registration for overseas Filipino workers on November 2, and in recognition of the significant number of potential voters abroad, there has been talk of the possibility of allowing Filipinos abroad to register and vote through the internet. While it may be easy to say that all it takes to vote electronically is a computer and an internet connection, the country might not be equipped enough to handle internet voting at this time.

Consider the experience of Estonia, the country most successful in implementing internet voting. Estonia was the first nation to hold legally binding general elections over the internet in 2005. Internet voting, wherein the votes are encrypted and are transmitted through a secure system, is meant to supplement, not replace, the traditional method of voting. It was declared a success by Estonian election officials.
The Estonian internet voting system utilizes the country's national ID card -- mandatory for all citizens 15 years and older to have -- which is used as a national identity document as well as a smart card that can be used for transactions with the government. By March 2007, over 1.08 million cards have been issued (the country's population now stands at 1.34 million). It should be noted that while the national ID is mandatory for Estonia's citizens, and is being used in government transactions, the country has been cited as one of the top five countries in terms of privacy from government surveillance, and has also topped the State of World Liberty Index in 2009.

To vote, voters would need to insert their card into a card reader installed in their computers, then access the webpage for voting. For the 2011 parliamentary election, mobile phones were also used in e-voting, through SMS and the use of the ID card's PIN; a computer with internet connection was still required though to complete the process.
In the Estonian system:
- Internet voting is available during an early voting period (tenth day to sixth day prior to the main Election Day);
- Voters can change their electronic votes an unlimited number of times during the prescribed period,with only the final vote to be tabulated;
-  It is possible for anyone who votes using the internet to vote at a polling station during the early voting period, invalidating their internet vote;
- However, it is not possible to change or annul the electronic vote on the main Election Day. The list of voters who voted electronically are sent to the polling stations, and those who had already cast their votes electronically are not allowed to vote again.
In 2007, 30,275 Estonians voted through the internet during the general elections. For the 2009 local municipal elections, 104,415, or almost 10% of registered voters, used internet voting. In the March 2011 parliamentary elections, 140,846 citizens (or 24.3% of those who voted) cast their votes electronically. The total number of voters who voted was 580,264 (out of 913,346 voting-age citizens).

The Estonian system is not perfect though. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), in their report on the 2011 parliamentary elections in Estonia, raised some minor concerns on the technical aspect of the internet voting system (Read the report here:  http://www.osce.org/odihr/77557). One student had also sought that the results of the election be nullified due to an alleged flaw in the election software that could block votes given to certain candidates. The complaint was rejected though by Estonia's supreme court.

It is clear that the Estonian system of internet voting could not be wholly adopted for the Philippines at this time. The country lacks a national ID system, due to the high cost of having one and the strong opposition from the public. The Estonian voting population is also very minuscule compared with the Philippines'. Estonia is one of the smallest member-nations of the EU (1.34 million population) and has
the highest GDP per person among former Soviet republics. The country also has a strong egovernment program, with strong emphasis on the use of modern technology in government operations. Most significantly, Estonia is also ranked highly for press freedom, economic freedom, democracy and political freedom, and education. The education system of Estonia gives much emphasis on modern technology; the creators of Skype, Hotmail, and Kazaa all came from Estonia.

However, despite limitations, the Comelec and other concerned agencies are encouraged to do their best in seeking the best way to enable overseas Filipinos to cast their votes, in the least amount of effort and in the most cost-effective way possible.

For more information on electronic voting in Estonia, go to the Estonian National Electoral Committee's excellent website (http://www.vvk.ee/?lang=en) that gives details on the process.