Digital Divide: Why Finland And Estonia Disagree About Internet Voting

The upcoming presidential election highlights the different directions that Finland and Estonia are taking over casting online ballots.

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File picture of futuristic electronic voting / Credit: iStock

The next Finnish election takes place at the end of this month, when voters will choose the country’s president.

In the 21st century, when so much information and so many services are carried out online, one very important aspect of Finnish society stays firmly low-tech.

A report last month ruled against Finland introducing electronic or online voting any time soon, concluding that “its risks are greater than its benefits”.

“I trust the good old paper and pen” says Jarno Limnéll, Professor of Cyber Security at Aalto University.

“There are some things in Finnish society that should not be digitalized. The election is one of them” he states.

But just 80km away in Estonia, they’ve been voting online since 2005 with no security incidents at all. So why are the two countries going in different directions when it comes to this issue?

Electronic Voting Explained

Electronic voting is a general term, meaning voting using information technology on a computer, mobile device or a separate voting machine.

The polling station may be independent or connected to a data network, and voting machines are currently the most widely used type of electronic voting in the world.

Web voting, online voting or internet voting means that ballots are cast remotely via the internet, a method that Estonia has pioneered and made their own.

Some countries like Australia have standalone machines which record and count each vote. The Australians have been using these machines since 2001, and it’s helped especially people with impaired vision cast their ballots independently.

Other countries like Belgium use a different type of electronic voting. Since the early 1990s, Belgians have been using two systems that record votes on cards with magnetic stripes. The votes go into a ballot box that records the information on the card to count the vote.

Countries like Ireland and the Netherlands used voting machines in trials at various elections – Ireland reportedly spent €40 million on 7000 voting machines, but scrapped the programme after voter dissatisfaction with the process.

Norway did some pilot studies using online and touch screen voting to try and increase voter turn out. But worries over security and ballot confidentiality meant the trials were never expanded.

France used internet voting for citizens living abroad, starting in 2003. But by 2017, it was decided to discontinue this practice due to security fears.

Germany also experimented with electronic voting for several years, but it was stopped by a court which ruled that the method was unconstitutional if it wasn’t open to public scrutiny.

Why Finland Is Against Online Voting

After almost a year of study, the Ministry of Justice working group that has been evaluating electronic voting concluded that while online voting is technically possible, the existing technology is not good enough to satisfy a couple of key concerns.

First, voters need to feel confident that their vote is counted as they cast it, and they probably want to receive some proof of this. However, election secrecy means that the voting system cannot give a voter any receipt.

And secondly, the Ministry felt that there are risks election results could be manipulated by hackers who want to breach election secrecy.

“We keep repeating nowadays that ‘everything that can be digitized will be digitized'” Aalto University’s Professor Jarno Limnéll tells News Now Finland.

“I often ask are there issues in societies or as well as in business that should not be digitized? At this point I think that elections is that kind of issue, to not be digitized. It would also be good to ask what is the problem here, what we are trying to fix when considering e-voting? I think that the current system works well and is reliable to the voters as well as to the candidates” says Limnéll.

The Finnish study also found that online voting wouldn’t improve voter turnout, and would be expensive – approximately €32 million if it was used for 15 years. However the Ministry’s working group concedes that online voting would be a benefit to Finns living abroad; people who live in Finland but are far from polling stations; and some people with disabilities.

Why Estonia Is For Online Voting

Estonia has had a completely different experience with online voting, integrating it as part of the election process for more than a decade.

At first, only a handful of people cast their ballots online. But since then, online voting has been rolled out for local, general and European elections with only positive results according to experts. An estimated 30% of votes are now cast online.

“It’s a normal part of our lifestyle for a long time already, and it’s about trust” says Marten Kaevats, the Estonian Government’s National Digital Advisor.

Online voting has been possible in Estonia thanks to the wide acceptance of e-services. Estonians are simply used to being able to do everything they need online. And the Baltic nation has developed what it thinks is a solid security system based around a personal ID card with a chip; and then a 4-digit plus a separate 5-digit pin number is needed before accessing services – or voting online.

“In digital solutions there is always a risk. You can never say something is unhackable. But it’s also a question of mitigating that risk or making it as small as possible” says Kaevats.

If someone wanted to manipulate the vote, Kaevats says they would need to have the original ID card with the chip, plus know both of the pin numbers of each individual voter.

“That is very difficult to do” he says.

While Estonia hopes that ultimately online voting will increase voter turnout, it hasn’t had a noticeable effect so far. But it has made it easier for Estonians living in remote areas, or abroad, to cast a ballot and turnout there is up.

“Finland is even bigger than Estonia, but in Estonia it is the same with sparsely populated areas and elderly people actively using it” explains Kaevats, and adds that Estonian officials have seen age equality through online voting, with younger and older people turning out in similar strength.

For the Estonian government, it has been important to constantly build what they call ‘digital trust’ and a hacking moment before recent municipal elections caused some concern.

The Estonian online voting system itself wasn’t compromised Kaevats stresses, but hackers were able to highlight a flaw in the chip, which is manufactured by a company in France – a flaw that affected similar chips worldwide, not just in Estonia.

Estonian computer scientists came up with a patch in just a couple of months, and studies found only a very small drop-off in voter confidence in the country’s digital infrastructure.

Finland vs Estonia

Jarno Limnéll won’t be drawn on why Finland rejects online voting while Estonia embraces it, saying only that “in Finland we make our own assessments on a national basis […] we have now come to the conclusion that viable electronic voting systems do already exist, but none of them meets the requirements and that risks would continue to exist even after further development”.

In Estonia, Marten Kaevats calls the Finnish train of thought “absurd”.

“There is a working case study that Estonia represents. There is significant research how safe it is, the dynamics and everything. There are numbers to prove it”.

Finns cast their ballots – with an old fashioned paper and pen – on January 28th. Advance voting is open at certain locations in the weeks before that.