Most of the coverage of Estonia’s election I’ve read has been positive, spinning their online electronic voting as a world first and example of the forward march of technology.
I even did a little research of my own, and found out to my surprise that the Estonian voting authorities even provide a Linux version of their voting software. I’d wager good money that if the UK government had implemented online voting, it would be Windows- and Internet Explorer-only.
I have my doubts about the whole thing, however. I voted in the EU elections when I lived in Belgium, which gave me the opportunity to use one of the Belgian voting terminals. Frankly, I found the whole operation very unconvincing: you select some options on the vintage monochrome screen, which then spits out a magnetic card. You drop the card into a ballot box. The trouble is that you don’t really know that you’ve registered your preference or even that your vote is anonymous: the magnetic card could hold anything or nothing. (The strong showing in the same elections of the Vlaams Belang party, hated by the establishment, did at least give me some confidence that the authorities probably weren’t rigging the vote, however.)
The pencil-and-paper ballot system used in the UK may be old-fashioned compared to the temperamental punch-card contraptions and black-box electronic terminals used elsewhere, but it has the great advantage of being completely transparent in the execution and the counting—and even if it takes a few hours to count, staying up late isn’t a huge price to pay for getting the votes right. By contrast, when there were experiments with all-postal voting, ballots were rigged.
One thing that particulary concerned me about the Estonian election system is the potential for voter pressure:
the Estonian election allows multiple online votes to be cast, with each subsequent vote cancelling out the previous one.
And the system still gives supremacy to paper ballots, so anyone who voted online can also go to a polling station on Sunday and vote in the traditional way, cancelling out the vote they cast online.
If you can change your vote after the fact, then your second vote can be connected to your first one. If this is true, then there is a way to find out how you voted.
I can see why voting technology is so attractive to politicians: it’s shiny, new, and high-tech; they are courted by consultants salivating at the potential riches; most of all, it promises to solve low turnout just by throwing money at the problem. Perhaps I’m just excessively sceptical, but it seems to me that turning elections into eBay isn’t the solution to dwindling voter participation. You may get election results faster, but they won’t necessarily be the right ones.