Europe Wary of Internet Voting

TALLINN, Estonia ~ European nations remain wary of letting voters use cyberspace to exercise their democratic rights, and despite a string of test runs elsewhere, only Estonia has cast a vote in favor of the internet ballot.

Experts remain divided over the use of technology to replace the plain old polling booth or postal vote.

Wholehearted supporters, who are often the very officials running e-voting programs, see the online ballot as the way of the future.

Others have their doubts, saying that the internet will never be more than a bolt-on option to traditional methods.

The Netherlands has just repeated its experiment of 2004, when expatriate voters were first able to vote via the internet in European parliamentary elections.

This time, overseas Dutch had their chance in last Wednesday’s national elections. Some 17,000 of the 30,000 eligible voters signed up to do so.

The Baltic nation of Estonia is a pioneer – it’s the only country in the world to offer formal e-voting for its 920,000-strong electorate.

Estonians were able to cast their first mouse-click ballot in local elections in October 2005, and will get their next chance in a parliamentary poll next March.

Ivar Tallo, director of Estonia’s E-Governance Academy, is convinced that internet voting will soon be widespread.

He pointed to the rapid rise of online tax declarations – in 2000, only nine percent of Estonians chose the internet option, but the figure had jumped to 82 percent by last year.

“It’s not a surprise that new e-services are not used immediately. To attain this, we must fight against the conservatism which lies in us; it’s difficult to change our habits,” said Tallo.

E-voting experiments across Europe had proven that the technology works, said Michael Remmert, who runs internet projects at the Council of Europe.

“E-voters are satisfied and feel that e-voting is responding to their modern lifestyle,” said Remmert.

“But so far, popular demand hasn’t been very strong,” so governments don’t see the need to make the leap, he added.

Britain and France have already held large-scale e-voting tests, but most other countries are still at the drawing board.

Jordi Barrat, an expert from the University of Leon in Spain, said the wariness can be explained by the lack of transparency of the internet.

“With e-voting, we are forced to trust the technicians,” he said.

“In spite of a lack of control, e-voting could be accepted by society because of its advantages,” if they are seen as outstripping the downsides, Barrat added.

Some countries see the Internet as a solution to falling turnout.

In Switzerland, weary voters are called regularly to the polls several times a year for referenda, which are the core of the Alpine country’s system of direct democracy.

Swiss authorities see e-voting as a way to fight voter fatigue, in the same vein as the postal ballot, which helped boost participation by 20 percent when it was introduced in the 1990s.

Geneva, one of federal Switzerland’s 26 states, has organized experimental e-ballots in eight referenda since 2003.

Lawmakers there are scheduled to debate a bill next year to formally launch internet voting, although opponents have expressed concerns about the risk of virtual ballot fraud.

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