Twenty-seven years ago, less than half of Estonia’s population had a telephone.
Today, the country could provide Zimbabwe with an ICT option for mulled Diaspora participation in elections back home: the e-vote.
On Monday at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, the United States, President Emmerson Mnangagwa met Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, and one of the more interesting issues discussed in that engagement was e-voting, or how people can vote for their public officials online.
A day earlier, President Mnangagwa had told Zimbabweans resident in the US that he agreed with the principle of a Diaspora vote, something not presently provided for in electoral statutes, and that he was looking at the logistical issues surrounding this between now and the next general election in 2023.
An official privy to the closed-door discussions said PM Ratas had requested the meeting with President Mnangagwa within the context of seeking Zimbabwe’s support for a rotational seat on the UN Security Council come 2019.
“There is a strong possibility that Zimbabwe is likely to back that bid,” Mr George Charamba – Deputy Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet – said. “But more interesting is that in the course of that conversation, it emerged that Estonia uses e-voting.
“As you know, Zimbabwe has a huge Diaspora and one of its most recurrent demands has been the right to vote. That has not happened as quickly as the President would want because of the logistical challenges of such a proposition. E-voting provides possibilities in this regard.”
Mr Charamba said PM Ratas offered to accommodate a Zimbabwean technical team’s visit to Estonia to learn from experts there, or for the Estonian specialists to come to Zimbabwe to assess the current ICT and legislative infrastructure and architecture and make appropriate recommendations on how to implement e-voting.
The Estonian Experience
Estonia provides an option, not only for Diasporans but also for Zimbabwean voters at home, as e-voting could in the long run reduce the high cost of elections in the country.
But why Estonia? Why not India, or the US, or China, or Japan? Or any other country better known for its ICT innovations for that matter?
Estonia is not ICT backwater, and is in fact the silent pioneer of many innovations. The Baltic Tiger has itself allowed e-voting for about a decade now, after having already given the world file sharing giant Kazaa! online communications systems behemoth Sype, and finance technology colossus TransferWise.
By any measure, Estonia is no lightweight in the area of ICT.
ICT contributes about seven percent of GDP, and its researchers and computer scientists are at the forefront of fields like deep learning, quantum cryptography, business process analysis and bioinformatics.
According to the World Bank, GDP per capital in 2012 was $23 631, and was in 2013 number 21 on the same institution’s Ease of Doing Business rankings.
Projections are that by 2025, GDP per capita will compare favourably with Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway, which are normally classed among the most economically stable countries in the world; and by 2050 could be the most productive country in the Eurozone after Luxembourg.
But it is in ICTs that a silent revolution is ongoing.
Since the mid-1990s, the country has aggressively pursued a national ICT education strategy that has seen Estonia rated by some as the most advanced in Europe in terms of e-government.
In 2007, it allowed online voting, the first country in the world to do so, a few years after the government had declared access to the Internet as a human right.
And how does the system work?
Estonia’s e-voting builds on the national identity card, which has “smart” properties including a secure digital signature.
Of course, the ID card on its own cannot work without the requisite ICT infrastructure.
In short, a person opens the election management body’s website, registers to vote, and then votes by inserting his/her ID in the computer’s card reader.
Votes can be cast for about a week before ballots are physically cast by those who do not want the Internet option.
Further, a voter can cast multiple ballots online. So if you change your mind you go back online before election day and vote for someone else. This invalidates any previous choice.
Even then, on election day one can still go and cast a physical ballot which also invalidates the prior online choice.
In essence, the last choice made is the one that is counted.
Voters can check their choices via mobile phone and verify it as it is added to the national/parliamentary/municipal tally.
But the system has its dangers.
As with anything on the World Wide Web, there is a possibility of hacking, viruses or data leakage.
In fact, in May 2014 a team of international computer security experts said their analysis showed they could change votes and vote totals, and erase any footprints so no one would know what they would have done.
However, the Estonia National Electoral Committee responded saying the criticism was based on theoretical suppositions rather than things people were technically and practically capable of doing.
In the 2017 municipal elections, about 31 percent of Estonia’s electorate voted online – a figure that has remained consistent over the past three polls.