Estonia, a small country in northern Europe, reached a digital milestone when the country headed to the polls on March 5, 2023.
For the first time, over 50% of voters cast their ballots online in a national parliamentary election.
As a political science researcher who focuses on elections, I was in Estonia to learn about the process of internet voting. In the capacity of an international election observer, I visited standard polling places and also attended the final internet vote count held in the parliament building.
As someone who also regularly volunteers as a poll worker in the United States, I found the contrast between Estonia’s integrated information systems and internet voting, and the patchwork system operating in the U.S., to be notable. And with several U.S. states withdrawing from the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, that contrast is growing sharper.
I believe Estonia offers America an important example of how information sharing can be used to enhance the integrity of elections.
Estonia has long been seen as a pioneer in digitizing the democratic process.
Internet voting, which began in Estonia in 2005, is just a small part of the e-governance ecosystem that all Estonians access regularly. Using a government-issued ID card that allows Estonians to identify themselves and securely record digital signatures, they can register a newborn baby, sign up for social benefits, access health records and conduct almost any other business they have with a government agency. This ID card is mandatory for all citizens.
Central to the success of Estonia’s digitization revolution is a secure data-sharing system known as the X-Road.
Government agencies collect only the personal information they require to provide their services, and if another agency has already gathered a piece of information, then it is accessible through the X-Road. In other words, each piece of personal information is collected only once and then shared securely when it is needed. A person’s home address, for example, is collected by the population register and no other government entity. If it’s needed by election administrators, health care workers, a school or any other agency, those organizations request it from the population register online.
So, imagine that you are applying for admission to a university, which requires both your date of birth and your school grades. These are stored by two different agencies. By using your ID card, you can auto-populate the application using data that the system instantaneously pulls in from the two agencies that store that information.