Estonia’s e-governance revolution is hailed as a voting success – so why are some US states pulling in the opposite direction?

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’s e-governance system

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.

Because of this information sharing, election officials know who is eligible to vote and which online ballot they should receive no matter where they live in the country.

A decentralized approach in U.S.

For many reasons, the U.S. system of election management is very different from Estonia’s, and online voting is rare.

Developing and maintaining an e-governance system requires technical, political and social forces to align. Because each U.S. state manages its own elections, and decisions can vary at the county level or below, it is difficult to envision a consistent technical solution. It is also more challenging to coordinate a solution across such a large country and safely implement secure online voting given current U.S. internet voting technology.

Additionally, concerns about federal interference in state matters have prompted political and social pushback on recent election reforms. Public consensus on instituting a nationally mandated electronic ID similar to the one that forms the foundation of Estonia’s internet voting appears unlikely.

Research shows that most Estonians trust their e-governance systems, although there are skeptics. Some critiques focus on perceived security shortcomings.

The internet voting process has also become politicized. In the most recent election, one political party that had discouraged its voters from using online voting – and unsurprisingly trailed its rivals in the online count – challenged the process in court. Its effort to annul internet voting failed. The U.S. witnessed a similar dynamic around absentee ballots in the 2020 elections.

Nearly all U.S. voters vote in person or by absentee or mail-in ballot.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Balancing security, efficiency and access

While the United States’ decentralized approach has its advantages, it also creates shortcomings in security, efficiency and access.

Secure elections means that only people who have the right to vote are able to cast a ballot and that they aren’t improperly influenced in the process. Efficient elections means the process is smooth — voters don’t have to wait in long lines, and their ballots are counted quickly and accurately. And access emphasizes that people who have the right to vote can register, gather the information they need in order to vote, and successfully cast their ballot.

Sometimes changes to voting practices that enhance one of these values – say, security – may create impediments for another – say, access. Requiring a photo ID to vote, for example, may reduce the small likelihood of voter impersonation, but it also risks preventing a legitimate voter who forgets to bring, or doesn’t have, a valid photo ID from exercising their right to vote. Finding an acceptable balance among these values is a challenge for citizens and policymakers alike.

Misinformation derails digital efforts

Several states, including my own state of West Virginia, recently made a decision that I believe undermines all three of these values by making our elections less secure, less efficient and less accessible.

In early March, West Virginia joined Florida, Missouri, Alabama and Louisiana in withdrawing from the Electronic Registration Information Center. ERIC is a multistate, data-sharing effort to make voter rolls more accurate and encourage eligible citizens to vote. The 28 participating states and the District of Columbia provide voter registration and driver’s license data to ERIC and receive an analysis that shows who has moved, who has died and who is eligible to vote but has not registered.

These reports help states clean up their voter rolls, identify incidents of fraud and provide unregistered voters with information about how to vote.

In other words, ERIC is designed to enhance security, efficiency and access. However, over the past year, unsubstantiated claims have circulated that ERIC is being used as a partisan tool to undermine election integrity.

ERIC was established, however, as a nonpartisan information provider with bipartisan support. States that exit ERIC may be sacrificing the integrity of their election process based on unfounded conspiracies.

The U.S. can learn a tremendous amount from Estonia’s e-governance revolution. Estonia faces a hostile security environment with an antagonistic Russia next door. But its integrated systems have helped balance security, efficiency and access in a wide range of government services. With the decision to withdraw from ERIC, some states are in danger of pulling the U.S. in the other direction. Läs mer…

Ukraine’s new wartime unity lays the groundwork for eventual rebuilding, without the complex and stubborn divisions of the past

Once divided, Ukrainians are thinking about how to rebuild their nation and are prioritizing national interests over regional ones.

It’s undeniable that Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine has wrought devastating death and destruction on the Ukrainian people and their country. Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes, with many of them seeking refuge abroad.

Yet despite their incredible hardships, Ukrainians have been united in rallying around their country and their president from the beginning of the invasion, contradicting claims that theirs is a deeply divided society.

Over the years, pundits have asserted that Ukraine is separated into pro-European and pro-Russian parts, socially and politically. Putin went further than that, famously claiming that Ukraine is not a real country and Ukrainians are not a distinct people.

But as the war has unfolded, Ukrainians have proved Putin was wrong. He catastrophically miscalculated, as demonstrated by the fact that the country and its people are now more united than divided.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visit a military facility in southern England.
Andrew Matthews/AFP via Getty Images

We are scholars of contemporary Ukraine. Among other things, our work involves assessing the attitudes of Ukrainians toward their government and how those attitudes have changed over time and across the country. Our survey research, conducted with Khrystyna Pelchar, a graduate student in political science at West Virginia University, shows the depth of this growing national consensus.

A united Ukraine

From the immediate calls to defend the country in the first days of the Russian invasion to the near-unanimous belief in a Ukrainian victory a year later, Ukrainians have been determined to defend their independence and united in the ways they want to rebuild after the war.

Ukraine is a complex country with stubborn problems. Widespread government corruption, a lingering remnant from its time as part of the Soviet Union, is one of them. But the country has moved forward in steps. For instance, the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine’s three-month civic uprising in late 2013 and early 2014, led to then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster for his refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych’s administration also faced allegations of widespread corruption. The country’s acting chief prosecutor accused Yanukovych and his political allies of stealing up to US$100 billion from Ukrainian citizens.

The government that came to power after early elections in 2019 ushered in new rules to bring Ukraine more in line with the European Union’s standards of governance. These included reforms designed to reduce corruption, such as an e-declaration system that required public officials to declare their wealth. Even as Ukraine fends off Russian armed forces, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues the nation’s anti-corruption reforms.

Public opinion polls, including those conducted by the Ukrainian agency Info Sapiens, show major events like the Revolution of Dignity and Russia’s invasion have united Ukrainians. Their monthly polls ask how Ukrainians feel about the direction of the country. After these critical events, there have been substantial spikes in the proportion of Ukrainians who thought the country was moving in the right direction. These are indications of the well-known rally-round-the-flag effect.

In Borodyanka, Ukraine, only rubble exists in a war-torn neighborhood where multistory apartment buildings once stood.
Joel Carillet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

A national vision for the future

Recent polling also shows a dramatic spike in citizens’ approval of their government and an enormous jump in Zelenskyy’s approval ratings. While these rallies in public opinion are not new, what is new is what lies underneath.

The protests of late 2013 and early 2014 were not viewed uniformly across the country. The east and south of Ukraine did not share the enthusiasm that the rest of the country expressed. But by the time of the 2022 invasion, Ukrainians’ attitudes about the country’s direction had begun to change and become more consistent nationally.

The effects of national rallying are apparent in personal behavior as well. The reported use of Ukrainian language has increased since February 2022, notably in parts of Ukraine that have been traditionally viewed as Russian-speaking. While the change is small, the implications are substantial: Ukrainians are behind their language and culture as well as their government.

This growing national consensus extends even further. We included a question on a recent poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, a well-respected survey firm, asking Ukrainians about their reconstruction priorities after the end of hostilities. Regional differences in attitudes about priorities were small. Across the country, people consistently supported rebuilding national defense, housing and energy at roughly the same level, and well above other needs like health care, education, communications and transportation.

Why is this important? Ukrainians in the western part of the country have personally experienced considerably less displacement due to the destruction of housing than their eastern counterparts. Yet, according to our data, instead of placing housing as a low priority, Western Ukrainians view it as one of the most important postwar investments, suggesting that narrow regional interests are not superseding the clear needs of citizens who live elsewhere in the country.

Superficial snapshots in time that made the case for Ukraine’s being a ticking time bomb because of its internal differences have been dramatically debunked as the country has united to fight an existential war of survival. While we are confident that we are witnessing a convergence in national perspectives on important issues, polling in wartime has a number of pitfalls. Respondents might feel influenced by the circumstances and not totally free to render an honest opinion. The question going forward is the extent to which this unity can be sustained as the war continues and through what will be a difficult postwar reconstruction.

We believe that it is vital in any discussion of this conflict and its aftermath to consider not only the hard facts on the ground, but also the attitudes of Ukrainians themselves.

A cemetery in Irpin, Ukraine, holds the graves of hundreds of civilians.
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