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Online voting: can Estonia inspire France?

On Sunday 5 March 2023, the Estonian parliamentary elections took place with a particularly high turnout of 63.7%. Although this turnout is almost the same as in 2019, this election marks a new record for the proportion of votes cast online. Indeed, more than 51% of Estonians voted online this year, compared to 44% in 2019. While the French legislative elections have failed to convince more than 50% of voters to go to the polls since 2017, reaching an all-time low of 47.5% in 2022, the question of the link between the impossibility to vote remotely and the abstention rate is raised.

A gradual adoption of online voting

The vote, which started early on 27 February for citizens wishing to vote online and ended on 5 March, the day of the paper ballot, allowed the Reform Party (ERE) to come out on top by a wide margin (31.24% of the vote), ahead of EKRE (16.05% of the vote) and the Centre Party, EK, (15.28%). As these results were more or less expected, two elements stand out from this election: a turnout of 63.7% and a majority of votes cast online (51%). As Estonia is a parliamentary system, Estonians do not vote directly for their president and gather during the parliamentary elections in order to bring their favourite candidate to parliament, so that a government can be formed through a process of coalition. In France, we can see from the abstention rate that legislative elections bring together fewer voters than presidential elections. However, does this mean that the difference in abstention rates between the French and Estonian parliamentary elections is linked to an underestimation of the issues by the French?

More than 50% of Estonian voters opted for e-voting in 2023

This year, 51% of voters voted online, a new record. The number of e-votes has increased in every election since 2005.

More than half of the votes to renew the Riigikogu (Estonian parliament) were cast online. Is this a sign that voting needs to be made more convenient for French citizens, to make them want to vote again? Since 2005, when online voting was first introduced in Estonia, the share of online votes in the total number of ballots cast has been growing with each election. This growth seems to be based mainly on a gradual gain of trust by citizens in a system that has so far not shown any considerable flaws (no reported cyber-attacks, for example). For its part, the government has not particularly needed to promote it in order to encourage online voting, but it does provide comprehensive information on the subject on its e-Estonia website. This phenomenon is also accompanied by an increase in the number of voters, 615,009 this year, a first since 1992.

The reason why this impressive increase is not reflected in the evolution of the abstention rate is due to a change in the way the turnout is calculated. In Estonia, voters are divided by place of residence into 12 electoral districts. Before 2021, Estonians who were permanently resident abroad were registered in one of the 12 electoral districts, usually the last one where they had lived before leaving Estonia. The Estonian Ministry of the Interior then made a statistical separation between voters on Estonian territory and those residing abroad for each district. The turnout was then calculated on the basis of voters on Estonian territory only, as voters abroad were considered too few. In 2021 all lists for each electoral district were merged into one electronic list. Thus, all Estonian voters appear on the same list. As the new list no longer distinguishes between Estonian and non-Estonian voters, the new calculation includes them all. As the turnout was usually low among Estonians abroad, it was expected that the new calculation would result in a lower turnout. Despite this, the turnout in 2023 is equivalent to that of the previous parliamentary election, which was obtained with the previous method of calculation. The adoption of online voting by Estonians abroad partly explains this increase in the number of voters.

How is online voting envisaged in France?

French legislation stipulates that French citizens living abroad can vote online in consular and legislative elections. During the 2022 legislative elections, French citizens living abroad were therefore able to vote from their computers, albeit with great difficulty for some. Indeed, many technical failures were reported by voters, such as a failure to send codes (necessary to finalise the voting procedure) in the Nordic constituency, which simply prevented them from voting. The Ministry of the Interior's website for voting was also inaccessible for several hours, just before the polls closed. These multiple failures have reassured the most sceptical in their distrust of this voting method. For its part, the Ministry of the Interior announced that 17.32% of registered voters chose to vote online, while only 5.1% of them chose to go directly to the polls (in the first round). It can be seen that the possibility of voting online is attractive and has real potential, which can only be exploited if the necessary technical resources are made available.

In Estonia, the question of reliability is taken very seriously and most of the constraints have been anticipated. To the French concern about the risk of infringing on free choice by abandoning the confidentiality of the polling booth (vote buying, blackmail, social pressure, etc.), Estonia responds by allowing voters to change their minds, by voting several times during the same election (each vote cancelling the previous one) or even by voting at the ballot box directly, which cancels out the Internet vote. Among all the other fears that one might have, the one of technical failure has not really crossed the mind of Estonians, who have long since taken the digital turn, trust in a computerised system that they know well and already use on a daily basis, for all types of administrative documents. However, do not think that this voting method is not contested in Estonia. The latest example is the Estonian far-right party EKRE, which is challenging the legitimacy of the results announced on 5 March, citing an unreliable and unsound system. This attitude shows the disappointment because the party did not obtain the expected results in the elections, but also because more than 2⁄3 of the voters of the leading Reform party voted online, whereas more than 70% of EKRE voters opted for paper.

Liberal parties received the most electronic votes

More than 60% of the ballots cast for the Reform Party and Eesti 200 were online votes, while voters in the centre and EKRE turned to paper ballots.

Can online voting really solve the abstention problem?

The ability of a society to accept the transition to e-voting depends essentially on its ease and habit of living in a digitalised world. This represents a first obstacle for French society, which is experiencing a real generation gap in its ability to use digital technology on a daily basis. This transition to digital technology is not instantaneous, since it took more than 15 years for half of Estonians to decide to vote online. The other problem that France will have to solve if it adopts widespread online voting will be that of security, and it will be necessary in particular to be able to guard against possible attacks by foreign powers or groups. These are major issues that, once resolved, do not guarantee a decrease in abstention. Indeed, a Belgian study has shown, through several case studies (including Estonia and France) that Internet voting has not reduced abstention. At most, it was able to reduce the number of invalid votes in Estonia. The increase in mobilisation during the Estonian elections can be explained by multiple factors, such as a strong interest in politics linked to the particular position of Estonia in the context of the war in Ukraine, but also, perhaps, a different relationship between elected representatives and citizens.

It is hard to imagine that the French would suddenly decide to mobilise to vote on the pretext that it is possible to vote from home. The problem seems to come from elsewhere, and probably from a generalised disinterest in politics. This disinterest has several facets; a feeling of powerlessness and the impression that voting alone does not make a difference, a misunderstanding of the role of elected representatives and the importance of democratic representation, or a pure and simple disgust with a political system that is regularly the subject of controversy. Just as we see the practical value of this technology, particularly for citizens living far from polling stations, it seems that the abstentionist phenomenon in France will not be swept away so easily, but that it will instead require great efforts on the part of the political sphere in order to restore meaning and appeal to the act of voting.

Arthur Fertier

Intern at CAdFE



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