Democratic elections usually fulfil two conditions. They have to be free and fair. The upcoming parliamentary elections are going to have one distinctiveness. They will be post-pandemic under one condition, that at the time of the elections, i.e. in October, there will not be a new wave of infections. If this happened, the elections would be pandemic-like. In both cases, to the above-mentioned free and fair elections, the condition of safe elections should be added. It firstly means that the election locations should not become infection locations, Algis Krupavičius wrote in Lrytas.lt.
The most important element of safe elections is the ensuring of safe voting. Elections in Lithuania happen in several stages and at several locations: at first in the municipalities, special locations (hospitals, care institutions, military etc.), at home, and finally, on the election day, in the constituency.
The Central Electoral Commission (VRK) is responsible for the management of the elections and organising the voting. It would have to take care of cosmetic, however, formerly uncharacteristic to the parliamentary elections novelties, such as gloves, medical masks, social distance, disinfection and ventilation of facilities, maybe a rolling schedule of the electoral commission members, and other similar things. It would be good though if faults would be avoided because sometimes the organisation of the elections faces problems out of the blue. This time there will also be some unusual things to be done. Anything more should not be expected from the VRK, because other things, related to the elections, are not in their remit to change. Even if they were, it would hardly want to do that, because the list of VRK activities in this year’s elections will already have been expanded.
Therefore, generally, voting in Lithuania in every case involves contact. For that, the organisers of the elections are preparing. We used to have voting by mail, but it is basically gone. Only the voting envelopes of voters, who participated in the election in special locations in advance or at home in other constituencies are passed to their constituencies through mail.
Therefore, we do not have any choices of means of voting at this time. In the 20th century, the main way of voting in a constituency was normal and that became traditional. However, now the second decade of the 21st century is ending. Therefore, we should not get stuck with the means of voting in the 20th century. As an alternative to voting in the constituencies, the revival of voting through mail could be considered. Poland, where on May 10 Presidential elections should take place, took this direction quickly. We will see if that will happen. Poland did not have time to debate how to vote, because from the beginning of quarantine to the elections, only two months were left. The latest public opinion surveys in Poland show that 47% of the electorate are planning to attend the Presidential elections. That is quite a lot when in both years 2010 and 2015, around 55% of the electorate participated in analogous elections. And generally voting by mail should not be viewed with scepticism. In the USA, five states – Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado, Utah and Washington – vote by mail factually in every election since the year 2014. But for this kind of voting to be applied widely, a well functioning postal infrastructure is necessary. Do we have it currently in Lithuania? There are doubts. Therefore voting by mail is hardly a reliable alternative.
Pandemic, as a force majeure, forced to move most activities during a short period of time to the virtual world. And it is definitely one of the most important symbols and spaces of the 21st century. Schools had to reorient towards working remotely in two weeks. Currently, even lessons for primary school are done online, while in universities, remote life is almost a routine phenomenon. Even the Parliament does part of its committee meetings remotely.
Remote work which spread en masse in many spheres is a new reality. By the way, various remote work surveys carried out even before the pandemic showed that it increases work performance and even strengthens the feeling of happiness. Even more, we use e-services and other e-activities every day. Simply, pandemic or no pandemic, but internet banking is a part of commonplace for most people. The current spread of virtual reality will not disappear in the unknown, and we will come back to the former reality only partly.
In the elections, this novelty is also already present and voting online already exists. It should not be confused with e-voting through electronic voting machines. Safety problems were stated for them multiple times, while in 2007 the Netherlands even declined to use them in the national elections. In the world’s biggest democracy, India, before 2019 parliamentary elections there also were concerns about their usage.
In Lithuania, e-voting question is not new either. Probably for the first time Parliament considered the concept of internet voting in elections and referendums in 2006. After that, it was shelved for a decade and the internet voting was brought back only in 2015. From 2015 to 2018, inclusively, this question would arise in some form in the parliamentary agenda or its avenues of approach every year. However, positive decisions have not been made.
One country in the north of Lithuania is a leader of internet voting, or e-voting, in the world. That country is, of course, Estonia. The progress made on that path is mirrored best by e-voters statistics. During 15 years of e-voting, the number of people using it grew from 9 thousand, or 1.9% in 2005 local elections, to almost a quarter-million, or 43.8% voters in 2019 Parliamentary elections.
E-voting, just like any other mean of voting, has both advantages and disadvantages. Among the most important advantages is that the voting process is more available, flexible, because voters can choose the way of voting, and it increases the voters’ activity, possibilities appear to process and present the results of the elections, there are almost no spoiled ballot papers, and the organisational costs are lower. Security (from hackers and viruses to ensuring the secrecy of the voting), the availability of computer equipment and its reliable functioning (however, nowadays it is a far lesser problem, but Lithuania has syndrome of “computer systems breaking down” during the elections), falsification of votes or their purchase (most probably not more than when voting in the usual ways), and educating the voters how to vote are specified as flaws or risks of e-voting.
While e-voting problems cannot be ignored, its advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages. Self-persuasion about the benefits of e-voting probably is not worth doing? Especially when in 2017 European Council adopted extremely comprehensive recommendations for the member states about the standards of e-voting (even 49 of them are named). One or another form of e-voting was used in 2019 by 33 countries in the world. Without Estonia, one of the biggest enthusiasts of this kind of voting is Scotland. There, in 2012 and 2017, on the base of e-voting, local government elections were carried out without any misunderstandings, while its government included this mean of voting in Scotland’s electronic strategy.
Another question – is Lithuanian society is ready for e-voting? In the first quarter of 2019 77% households owned personal computers, 82% had internet access, 81% of 16-74-year-old habitants used internet no less than once a week, while 73% habitants of this age used the internet every day. Finally, the electronic services of a state institution or other public sector institution at least once a year were used by 55% 16-74-year-old habitants. Thus, technical and computer literacy possibilities to use e-voting are obvious. Let one add the coverage of mobile networks, nowadays Lithuania outstrips the 2005 Estonia’s example several times.
What is the public opinion about e-voting? Recently surveys about e-voting were, arguably, not carried out. But in one, done in 2015, 56% were supporting such voting. The majority. Knowing that in recent years the internet coverage in Lithuania grew, one can easily forecast that the number of supporters for this kind of voting did not decrease. On the contrary, it had to grow.
Where are the brakes on e-voting? Probably, first of all, the distracted politicians and their inability to decide. Obviously, pandemic as a force majeure could be a good motivator for changes on e-voting, because Lithuania needs safe elections. However, in the political agenda so far, there is still a question if for three or four more years we will continue debating about e-voting benefits or, eventually, we will have it in the nearest future? By the way, we would not be the only ones, who raise questions about the faster implementation of e-voting. Only six months are left until the Presidential elections in the US, and pandemic there is raging much more than in Lithuania. Thus, the question of safe elections is not of less importance than here. In such context spread of e-voting is suggested as a solution, while three states – Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia – have already taken concrete action.
Some supporters of not rushing to e-voting in Lithuania say, that maybe it is not the right time to change the rules of elections. There is too little time until the voting. And the Venice Commission advises not to do essential changes when a year remains until elections. However, in Lithuania in the year 2000, when only a few months were left until the parliamentary elections, the second round of elections in single-seat constituencies was revoked. This was definitely a terrible precedent.
Speaking of the election rules, essential and non-essential should be distinguished. Essential are the ones, that change the counting of the votes into mandates. Reform in the year 2000 was exactly like that, because instead of two rounds of elections, one was sufficient, while the winning candidate instead of an absolute majority had only to gather more votes than the others. Even reducing the barrier of the selection which was suggested in the last months, even if not much, would have affected the counting of the mandates in the Parliament. If that change could be evaluated as essential is doubtful.
Implementation of new means of voting does not directly affect the distribution of the mandates. On the contrary – new ways on the side of the already existing ones only increase the opportunities for the voters to participate in an election. All of this means more democracy in the process of elections and more opportunities for the voters, because voting in the districts and other places is not revoked. Therefore, adding ways of voting is allowed by the Venice Commission, especially, when because of the impact of the pandemic, the opportunities for the usual voting might decrease only for psychological fears.
Some observe, that despite e-voting as some kind of bike is invented already for a while, and is cycling successfully, Lithuanian voters do not know yet how to drive it. However, without learning, one can not acquire any knowledge. Thus maybe it is already the time to learn to use the e-voting? The visualisation of our lives recently is only confirming that society learns fast.
Therefore, only two unanswered questions are left. Are the politicians ready for the e-voting? Without their consensus, all debates and writings about e-voting will be only empty words. They have to implement the possibility of e-voting in the Parliamentary election law. Concern about the coverage is another question, and it is still debatable. And the second question – if the technical decisions of e-voting, including increased attention to security, are doable in five months until the elections. Where to find their know-how, everyone knows. That is primarily in Estonia. Very detailed, clear and checked. An alternative to everything that is said is to stay stuck in the 20th century.