How can you help decide the future of your country? By voting, of course! Whether at local, regional, national or European level, the party or individual you vote for in an election decides how society is run and the most important issues of our time. Yet, despite the importance of elections, voter turnout has been in decline since the 1970s. What’s the reason for this? Is it too much effort to turn up and vote?
Would you like to be able to vote from home? But if you could cast your vote online from the comfort of your own couch using a smartphone or computer? In Estonia, Europe’s digital pioneer, this has been possible since 2005. There, online voting is a popular option: in the Estonian parliamentary election of 2019, 43.9% of all votes cast were transmitted digitally. Would online elections also be an option in other EU countries? And how secure are digital elections anyway?
What do our readers think? You sent us YOUR questions and comments about digital elections and we forwarded them to the following politicians and experts:
- Patrick Breyer is a member of the European Parliament of the Pirate Party and, among other things, a member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
- Konstantin Kuhle is a member of the German Bundestag and deputy chairman of the FDP parliamentary group
- Dr. Georg Thiel, as Federal Election Commissioner, organises and supervises political elections and election preparations in Germany at federal level, i.e. the Bundestag elections and the European elections
First up, our reader Katja demands:
We need more digital services, for example for voting, like in Estonia. That would make everything so much easier!
Is Katja right in her assessment? What are the arguments for and against online elections? We forwarded Katja’s comment to the Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer to see how he would respond:
Katja, I would absolutely agree that you should get involved in politics online. And it has long been possible, for example, to put draft legislation online so that people can comment on them and exchange views on them. That sort of approach is long overdue.
For sure, it would be more convenient. It’s already possible to vote by mail, but it is totally opaque what happens to your vote digitally. If you could cast your vote digitally online, you cannot understand whether your vote is counted, whether it is counted correctly, whether the other votes are all counted correctly, because it would all take place in one machine.
Ballot boxes are strictly guarded during the counting, which is public, everyone can be there. That would no longer exist if voting only took place digitally in one machine, i.e. online votes could also be manipulated by hackers, unnoticed, so that you might not even notice tight elections have been manipulated by foreign hackers and the results reversed. The risk alone shakes confidence in democracy, which is why the German Federal Constitutional Court has also decided that voting computers in ballot boxes should only be used if a printout of the vote cast is retained and kept so that at least there is that physical proof and it is also possible to recount the printed votes if there are indications that the device has been manipulated.
These requirements cannot be met with online elections, so I’m afraid we have to accept a little less convenience to ensure that our elections are safe…
For another perspective, we also put Katja’s comment to a German liberal Member of the Bundestag, Konstantin Kuhle, who sits with the Free Democratic Party (FDP). How would he respond?
We do need greater digital participation opportunities in many areas. For example, we are currently discussing in the Bundestag whether elections or votes on content in the parties can take place digitally – we have seen with COVID-19 that this is also bitterly necessary in some cases.
I am somewhat reserved about digital elections to parliaments because I fear a situation in which elections cannot be checked and counted again, i.e. imagine that it is not possible to reconstruct the votes cast via a computer or the Internet and then, afterwards, if, for example, problems have occurred, it is not possible to carry out a recount. I am aware that this problem can be solved, but I think it is too much of a risk and I think it would be nicer and more sensible to vote with paper and pen on election Sunday.
However, I would like to say that there is so much that we could do to increase voter turnout. Setting the voting age at 16 is one thing, but there are also other issues. There are countries in Europe that set up polling stations in unconventional places; for example, in underground stations or on the way to work. Now, not so many people work on Sundays but some do, in certain areas. Probably those are the ones who sometimes don’t manage to vote, so there would also be nothing to be said against perhaps widening the opening times of the polling stations a bit and generally making it possible to vote in different places. I think that would help to increase the turnout.
I believe that this would make a good contribution to getting more people to vote, but I just thought of one more thing. I also think that applying for a postal vote could also be done digitally in the municipalities where it is not yet possible to do so digitally. Then you can cast a vote by analogue voting but apply for it digitally.
Finally, German Federal Election Commissioner Dr Georg Thiel also sent us his assessment of online elections:
For voting, a digital process is unlikely to be realistic in the near future. The Federal Constitutional Court has set high hurdles for the use of electronic voting machines – and thus also for voting via the internet. In Germany, the election is public, but the vote must be cast in secret. The counting of all votes cast on the basis of the ballot papers is also public and can be repeated and thus verified step by step. The determination of the election result is therefore transparent and comprehensible for everyone. All this is currently not offered by any voting computer or online election. And in view of the ongoing discussion about cyber attacks, I still consider our tried and tested ballot with paper and pencil to be the most secure solution. This may seem old-fashioned to many, but it is the best protection against election manipulation.
For the election preparation phase, however, the increased use of digital services is conceivable. In some cases, online services are already a reality in the context of elections. Consider, for example, the offer in many municipalities to conveniently apply for postal voting documents online via a QR code printed on the election notification. Such digital solutions will certainly become more common in the future. Of course, the requirements of electoral law must be observed. Not everything that is technically possible is legally permitted or desirable.
Next up, reader NLima told us she also thinks digital elections are a good option. She hopes that they could even be the solution to the low voter turnout:
Voter turnout is traditionally low in European elections. So why not introduce the possibility of remote voting via smartphone apps?
Would online elections lead to higher voter turnout? What does MEP Patrick Breyer think?
Studies show that there is a moderate effect, i.e. a slightly higher voter turnout can probably be said to result from such an online vote. But it is not entirely uncomplicated, because one still has to identify oneself with an electronic identity card and the corresponding equipment, etc.
Compared to the postal vote, it is not that much more convenient. One could also make the postal vote green by, for example, automatically sending the documents to each voter, which would also be feasible. So, I believe that the effect would be very low or limited on the turnout.
I think the reason why many people don’t participate in European elections is that one has the impression that the European Parliament can decide or co-decide rather little. It has, for example, no right of initiative; it can’t even propose its own legislative initiatives. And I think if one would start there and strengthen the European Parliament then more people would also participate in European elections.
On the other hand, a reader with the username “Unten“ is not convinced about online elections and sent us this comment:
There are countries in Eastern Europe that are attacked daily by Russian and Chinese misinformation and cyber attacks.
What is the risk of cyber attacks in digital elections? We asked MEP Patrick Breyer about this.
We know that countries like Russia actually have an interest in destabilising countries, i.e. in causing unrest and internal disputes. And we know that Russian influence have been exerted before elections; for example, before the US presidential elections in which Donald Trump was elected – investigations have shown this. There have also been other cases; in Germany we know, for example, that there is Russian support for far-right forces, including on the part of the AFD.
Of course, it is clear that Putin has a whole cyber-army of hackers. And, if those hackers could directly manipulate election results, then he would no longer have to just rely on misinformation and lies to manipulate the voters but could directly hack the election systems.
We know that hackers from Russia, for example, also attack companies. They even penetrate hospital systems, and have succeeded in infiltrating Iranian nuclear facilities. They have hacked into the Bundestag. This means that even the most highly secured systems in the West are not safe from professional hackers. And this is precisely what we would have to fear if elections were to take place online…
Should all EU countries introduce online voting? What are the arguments for and against online elections? Would digital voting lead to higher election turnout? What are the risks of cyber-attacks on e-democracy? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!