Baltic experts pool ideas for digital governance and electoral safety post Covid-19

Digital and electoral policy experts from the three Baltic states gathered virtually to exchange recommendations on mitigating the Covid-19 impact on election planning and discuss digital solutions, including internet voting (i-voting). 

The panellists – heads of Lithuanian and Estonian electoral commissions, and digital policy advisor to the Latvian president – stressed the importance of establishing comprehensive e-governance ecosystems as a prerequisite to implementing i-voting, drew attention to emerging disinformation and digital campaign manipulation threats, and highlighted the need for extra measures to insulate elections from Covid-19-related risks.

Main thoughts of the panelists and participants:

Aušra Kukelkaitė, Managing Director at Global Lithuanian Leaders network, one of the co-hosts, described the event as a positive opportunity to exchange relevant regional expertise: “The ‘Baltic Bubble’ does not have to be temporary. As a network, working to connect the Lithuanian society and diaspora, we understand the value of cooperation and are constantly looking for innovative ways to infuse international expertise into public discussions at home. We hope that a kind of Baltic Digital Bubble might emerge in the aftermath of Covid-19 – with the three countries sharing more ideas and case studies on e-governance and internet voting”.

Dr. Rimvydas Baltaduonis, Co-chairman of the Parliamentary Commission of the Lithuanian World Community, a co-organiser, highlighted the advantages of internet voting in addressing public health and safety concerns of voters and electoral officials: “The risk of continuing with business, as usual, is a historically low turnout, a weaker governing mandate and a less healthy democracy. The digital precedent is here, similar to any other imaginable activity that has recently shifted online. Robust e-governance platforms and vibrant tech ecosystems position the Baltics well to implement innovative digital solutions, and to cooperate on addressing digitalisation and countering threats such as disinformation on a European level – in cooperation with countries like France, which has approved internet voting in consular elections for citizens abroad as recently as this year.” 

Covid-19: a threat to electoral preparation, an opportunity for digital solutions

According to Ieva Ilves, Advisor to the President of Latvia on Information and Digital Policy, “Covid-19 can be described as a force majeure, but it is also an opportunity. It catapulted the search for digital solutions to the very top of policymakers’ agenda; but it also calls for ensuring democratic responsibilities, such as privacy protection and building a trustworthy digital ecosystem. Latvia’s digital response has been robust: our Parliament has recently gone online with an e-Saeima solution, and the government is among the first in the world to pilot a decentralised Apple-Google solution for contact tracing. In the wider Baltic context, our region is definitely emerging as a digital policy and innovation powerhouse”.

Arne Koitmäe, Head of Estonia’s Electoral Office, highlighted the country’s pioneering experience: “Estonia has been using i-voting for general elections since 2005, with over 40% of voters using it currently – the most popular method. While i-voting does not directly increase participation, it helps keep voters engaged and gives them freedom and flexibility to choose when and where to vote. Our studies show it is gender- and age-neutral, and does not influence people’s political preferences. Finally, the method allows citizens to save time and money – especially convenient for persons with disabilities and emigrants. If the casting of a physical vote takes longer than 30 minutes, the voters are more likely to vote online, which averages three minutes.”

Laura Matjošaitytė, Chairwoman of Lithuania’s Central Electoral Commission, said: “Covid-19 has definitely disrupted traditional thinking around election organisation and overall participation in democracy. Protecting the health of our democracy and our voters alike from another potential coronavirus outbreak and any electoral disturbances is of utmost importance. To mitigate health risks, the Lithuanian Central Electoral Commission is currently preparing new guidelines – including considerations for strict disinfection procedures, temperature checks, mask distribution, social distancing rules and more polling stations for early and election-day voting, in addition to only postal voting in countries, where restrictions or regulations will prevent direct voting in embassies.”

Trust-building to enable digital transformation

Discussing the Baltic knowledge transfer, Koitmäe said: “An important lesson from Estonia: the i-voting system cannot be copy-pasted, nor implemented in a day. Our i-voting system works because it relies on a whole national digital ecosystem, built on our X-road interoperability system which also provides secure voter authentication. In order to build and then maintain trust, one needs to keep the system open, observable and auditable, and security always remains a credible concern.”

Recording of the event:

Ilves also drew further attention to campaign manipulation attempts on digital information platforms as a major issue on a European and international level, emphasising political microtargeting and individual ads: “Malevolent agents can change people’s opinions not only on commercial products, but also on political views – untraceably. The governments alone cannot always know what’s in this black box, as Cambridge Analytica and other examples show. We cannot mirror analogue solutions for digital threats – we need a joint European effort, involving governments, big tech and academia, to do more research and formulate new rules and regulations. For this reason, Latvia has established a structure to cooperate with Facebook and other tech companies, but ‘unknown unknowns’ remain”.

i-Voting in Lithuania

An internet voting bill is currently under review in the Lithuanian parliament, with a parliamentary vote scheduled for June 30. Matjošaitytė highlighted that Lithuania has been debating internet voting for over a decade: “However, it is important to note that election organisation is not a laboratory – we should not conduct experiments that might endanger the trust in elections and the electees. Time and careful consideration are needed to evaluate which technological solutions can best enable proper election organisation. While internet voting might be a viable solution in the longer term, we first need a legal framework and to ensure citizens’ trust.”

“The Lithuanian Parliament is right to debate an i-voting alternative ahead of the October elections, which might coincide with the potential second wave of Covid-19 infections. As this pandemic has highlighted a new issue dimension in elections – physical safety, all democracies should consider digital alternatives to protect the health of their citizens and their governance in the face of the current and upcoming crises,” argued Dr. Baltaduonis.

Election data shows* that the turnout in Estonian elections has not increased significantly after the introduction of internet voting in 2005, but remained relatively higher than the rate in Latvia and Lithuania.

According to a poll conducted during the virtual panel, 50% of participants support internet voting with further 37% supporting the method conditionally. 

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