Internet voting in Estonia (iVote)

Published on: 24/04/2007

In 2005, the Estonian National Electoral Committee began a new chapter in electoral administration: for the first time in the world, Internet voting with binding results was applied nationwide. According to law, iVoting should be provided at every election and referendum. The main goal of iVoting is to provide voters with an additional channel to cast their votes in order to broaden accessibility and increase participation. The iVoting project meets the Estonian Government's goal of using technology to make the public sector more efficient and user-friendly. The project takes advantage of the existing remote authentication infrastructure.

Policy Context

Modern technology can contribute to the construction of a better civil society. Thanks to technology, representative democracy can be strengthened by making it easier to hold elections and public consultations. The Estonian Internet voting project serves the government's goal of using technology to make the public sector more efficient, user-friendly and inclusive. In 2002 the Estonian Parliament created a legislative basis for conducting Internet voting and thereby providing voters an additional channel to cast their vote. At the same time all traditional voting methods were kept. According to legislation the new voting method had to be implemented from 2005. In 2003 the National Electoral Committee, responsible for electoral administration in the country, launched the project aimed at developing the e-voting system. In 2005 the e-voting system was ready to use.

The basic policy document for Estonian government in the field of information society is the "Estonian Information Society Strategy 2013”. The strategy takes into account also the objectives and priorities of the EU information strategy i2010. So far, information policy related activities have mainly been focused on the development of ICT infrastructure and the creation of systems necessary for implementing sectoral policies. A leading idea has been that before the implementation of various e-services the key-enablers like electronic identity must be in place. However, in order to increase the competitiveness of the society, more emphasis needs to be placed on the development of citizen-centred and inclusive society, knowledge-based economy as well as transparent and efficiently functioning public administration. iVoting project is a step towards citizen-centred society.

Our case complies with the pan-European eGovernment Action Plan aimed at strengthening participation and democratic decision-making. It follows the principle that information society should be accessible for all to promote inclusion and democracy.

Description of target users and groups

The target group is the Estonian electorate. In parliamentary elections Estonian citizens who have attained 18 years of age by Election Day have the right to vote. In municipal elections citizens of the European Union whose permanent residence is in Estonia and aliens residing in the country on the basis of a permanent residence permit also have the right to vote. Number of voters is about 1 million. For Internet voting user must have an ID card for electronic authentication. The penetration of the new generation's primary identification document is on very high level. About 90% of Estonian residents, aged 15-74, have a valid ID card. Internet voting will not replace the traditional voting with paper ballot in polling stations inside Estonia, but the fact is that voting abroad is one of the most expensive forms of voting; therefore, consideration should be given to replacing some procedures of paper ballots with electronic ones. This change could influence the 37 embassies and consulates organising the elections nowadays, and the central administration in National Electoral Committee. A long-term purpose of the project is to improve the cost efficiency of the electoral administration.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

The Internet voting project involved many actors from public and private sector. Good cooperation between parties, public or private, has been crucial for launching the successful iVote project. The leader of the Internet voting project is the National Electoral Committee ( The main partners have been: the parliament (, which has created and amended the legislative basis for conducting Internet voting; the Ministry of Internal Affairs ( as the maintainer of the population register; the City of Tallinn ( as the organiser of the first public trial run; Certification Centre Ltd ( as the maintainer of the infrastructure necessary for issuing and using the ID card; the Chancellery of the parliament ( ) as the provider of the operational and clerical support to the National Electoral Committee; Cybernetica Ltd ( as the software developer; KPMG Baltics Ltd ( and PricewaterhouseCoopers ( as the auditors; Estonian Informatics Centre ( as the hosting partner and the handler of security incidents.

Besides the main functional tasks the iVote system management is largely focused on the security. The system is only online during ballots and the secrecy of votes is guaranteed by advanced encryption technologies as well as by special operational means. All critical procedures are audited and videotaped.

Multi-channel issues: The case addresses directly the multi-channel issue enabling parallel the offline and online delivery methods. The iVote project provides voters an additional channel to cast their vote. At the same time all traditional voting methods like face-to face procedures are kept. Internet voting does not mean giving up traditional ways of voting. The project offers a complete service from the users’ point of view. Before elections every voter is informed about the timetable and different methods of voting - a voter card is sent to everybody by post. Since voter register is based on the permanent population register, there is no need for additional registration of voters prior to the elections. If a voter prefers Internet voting to the other methods, the main tool for it (and for most e-services in the country) - the ID card - is already used by 90% of voters and can be easily applied for if necessary. Therefore, in most cases no extra efforts are necessary to become an i-voter.

Main results, benefits and impacts

For the first time the new kind of voting was applied nationwide with binding results in October 2005 during municipal elections. Internet voting took place during advance polls from sixth to fourth day before Election Day. The new generation's identity document - the eID - was used for remote voter authentication. Only authenticated persons with the right to vote were able to vote, meaning that a database of eligible voters was put together prior to elections on the basis of the National Population Register kept permanently. Thanks to the centralised register there was no need for additional registration of voters prior to the elections. The target group of the project is the whole electorate in order to widen accessibility and strengthen participation. Internet voting has numerous advantages, facilitating voters to cast their vote from a place other than the polling station in their voting district and widening access for voters with disabilities or those having other difficulties in being physically present at a polling station (for instance voters abroad).

In 2005 municipal elections 9317 voters voted electronically (0.9% from eligible voters). Four years later the turnout was ten times higher - over 100.000 i-voters (9.5% from eligible voters). The significance of iVoting has grown rapidly as in October 2009 44% of all advance votes were given over the Internet (accordingly 7% in 2005).

Research and our experience indicate that a new additional voting channel does not necessarily have an immediate effect on voter turnout. It takes time to change people’s attitude and behavior towards a very important and traditional act like voting in elections. In order to increase iVoting participation the electronic use of ID card needs wider acceptance. However, the fact that in the second trial the number of Internet voters in four years (2005-2009) has grown more than 10 times shows that the new voting method is attracting more confidence. Taking into consideration some developments and activities in the country aimed at widening the electronic use of ID card, the number of i-voters in the coming elections is expected to grow even further.

Critical success factors of the Internet voting project have been launching costs. If there had not been a national population register or an authentication system using ID cards, the Internet elections in Estonia would have been very costly. Thanks to following the concept that the public sector IT systems must function as an entity, government economised a great deal of financial resources. There was no need to develop an extra authentication system or a voters register purely for elections. In the 6 years from development phase to double full-scale implementation the Electoral Committee has spent less than € 500,000. After the first implementation in 2005 the costs of establishment of the new voting methods made up about 20% of all electoral costs. In last elections 2009 the implementing costs were significantly lower making up 5% of all electoral costs.

In long term the iVote implementation costs will not significantly rise and consideration may be given to replacing some procedures of paper ballots (like most expensive voting method - voting abroad) with electronic ones. In 2009 the period of advance voting in paper was shortened and the period of iVoting extended. Thus, thanks to the iVote project some changes have been made already and they have impact on the electoral costs. If in long term the advanced voting in paper will be entirely replaced with advanced Ivoitng, it would have significant effect on the costs as the number of people involved with electoral organization will decline.

Technology is becoming an integral part of the democratic process and the iVote project is a good example of it as a fruit of public-private partnership which takes full advantage of established technology. The sustainability of the project is guaranteed by law on the one hand and by growing participation rates on the other. The final conclusions about the voters' acceptance and participation cannot be made before the Internet voting has been carried out for a longer period.

 Innovation: Internet is a new channel for voting, applied in recent years. If the aim is to promote representative democracy and to act in accordance with the constitutional principle of universal suffrage in elections, electoral administrators must provide contemporary means of voting which comply with the principle of free and fair elections. Internet voting serves as an instrument to stop the decrease in voter turnout by holding the interest of voters and attracting younger generation. Estonia is the first country implementing legally binding Internet voting in political elections. The uniqueness of the case also lies in its technical solution: using a nationwide remote authentication system. Estonia has the largest functioning public key infrastructure in Europe, maintained on the national ID card, which allows considerable improvement of the security and functionality of IT solutions in public as well as in private sector. If generally the principle of putting the customer first is widely accepted, in electoral administration the implementation of this principle is often controversial. It is crucial that the transparency of elections remains a basic principle of elections even if the electronic means are put to use. The technical tools are not as understandable for every observer as pen and paper. Still, the transparency of elections can be guaranteed also with the new tools but the attitudes should change. Technology changes the direct means of participation, but not the nature of democracy itself. We should therefore seek a compromise between old traditions and new solutions. Casting the vote via Internet could be regarded in the future as a public service in an information society.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Track record of sharing

Since there are only a few examples of Internet voting used in political elections the interest towards Estonian solution is exceptionally high. Since 2005 the representatives of the National Electoral Committee have presented their experiences at numerous conferences and meetings all over Europe. The participation in the work of international organizations like the Council of Europe and OSCE has been a common ground to share the good practice internationally.

As Internet voting in Estonia is a unique experience, the National Electoral Committee in cooperation with the Council of Europe has carried out several scientific researches on its influences on users. The results of the studies concerning the iVoting are available on the website of the Council of Europe.

One important part of the practice-sharing is the presentation of the existing and functioning public key infrastructure enabling to use national eID for different electronic services. Since the issue of putting key enablers like interoperable authentication tools in place is a priority also on the pan-European level, the representatives of the National Electoral Committee have invested a lot of effort into presenting the Estonian approach as the Estonian eID is the cornerstone of the iVote project.

Lessons learnt

One of the main purposes of the case is to strengthen participation. Internet voting has many advantages by widening access for voters. As an additional voting channel Internet voting does not have an immediate effect on voting turnout. It takes time to change people’s attitude and electoral behavior. The foundation laid by state for the development of information society in previous years serves as a good basis for the elaboration of new services. Thanks to the good foundation i.e. functioning infrastructure and national registers, launching of new e-services has become quite a routine by now and does not call for major investments. In Estonia we can clearly state that having national public key infrastructure with digital signature and authentication in place serves as an absolute necessity for creating an efficient e-country. Internet voting is just part of a whole concept of e-Government and it induces people to come closer to the existing e-services and technology. For instance i-voting has considerably impacted the electronic use of the ID card. In 2005 elections over 60% of the Internet voters used their ID cards electronically for the first time.

Scope: Local (city or municipality), National, Regional (sub-national)