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The Riigikogu held a debate on matter of significant national importance “Online elections – a threat to democracy”, initiated by the Estonian Conservative People’s Party Group. Reports were made by Member of the Riigikogu Varro Vooglaid, freedom of information and digital rights activist Märt Põder, Member of the Riigikogu Martin Helme and attorney-at-law Paul Keres.

Member of the Riigikogu Varro Vooglaid stated in his presentation that unfortunately the trust in the elections system in Estonia was very low, and tried to find an answer to the question why this was so. “First, it is to be expected that there will be mistrust when the difference between the results of paper voting and online voting is as large as we saw in last year’s elections. We all remember the situation, I will not go into the details, where first the results of the paper ballots showed one picture, and then came the results of the online voting, which completely changed the picture. If they changed the picture a little bit, if they were to re-play the distribution of parliamentary seats to some extent, that would be expected, they do not have to coincide exactly. But if there is a glaring difference between the results obtained by one electoral method and another, it is perfectly reasonable to ask what is going on here,” he said, and added that due to the extremely complicated regulation, it was also virtually impossible to contest the election results.

Vooglaid pointed out that the process and the results of voting were not verifiable and transparent. According to him, secrecy of voting is also not ensured in reality. “It is not possible to check in reality whether the program running in the server during the elections also corresponds to the source code published earlier. It is not an empty accusation, this is reality.”

Among other things, Vooglaid outlined the reasons why Finland did not adopt online voting in 2017. The first of them was technical. “There is no way to make elections secure if you have to establish connection with every voter’s computer because it would not be completely closed. The system simply works like that.” The second point was related to trust. “If you have a ballot paper and a pencil, it is always possible to go back to the ballot papers. If there should be any doubt about the election results, it is always possible to point to the actual ballot papers in the actual box. They can always be counted again, and sometimes have been counted again. In the case of a computer system, the votes go into a big melting pot. Also, the connection between the voter and the big melting pot has to be cut. So there is really no way of ensuring, in a way that the general public can understand, that no fraud has taken place.”

Freedom of information and digital rights activist Märt Põder said that as he had lost trust in online voting, he did not consider it possible to participate in voting with paper ballots either, and gave an overview of his election observer report of 2023. “The computer system where the private key of the elections was generated and where the votes were later counted originated from so to speak nowhere. Proceeding from the online voting manual, I as an observer asked for the opportunity to check that the system in which this key was generated and in which the votes were then counted was free of malware. I was not ensured this possibility, and I filed an election complaint. And that was the only one of my complaints that was partially satisfied. They said that yes, I should have an opportunity to observe something,” Põder said, and pointed out that he had got that possibility only in November 2023.

“It turned out that in the computer system where this key was generated, the elections manager themselves also did not know what they had installed there. The most important system, the system for the generation of the key and counting of votes, had to be an authentic Windows computer, downloaded from an official MSDN Windows repository, Microsoft repository, and following all good practices. And when we put that disk on the computer and started it, then it turned out that it also had ID card software installed, as well as a Notepad++ text editor, and a disk creation software, none of which is a Microsoft product and part of Windows, which means in regard to this computer and this disk that they had assembled it in the course of their day-to-day operations without logging the activity and without having any evidence of what was on the computer, and they also did not remember what they had installed on that disk. This disk was then used to generate the most important keys of the elections, which can be used to decrypt votes. And the person who prepared that computer had every opportunity to get that key from there, or to manipulate the vote counting, because they could install anything they wanted on that computer, on that disk,” Põder said, and described another four episodes that had aroused suspicions in him.

The next speech was by Member of the Riigikogu Martin Helme, who pointed out that the legitimacy of the government was no longer self-evident or credible for a large part of society. “After all, it would be possible to solve that problem quite easily if the issue was only, as we usually say, in communication. The sceptics, the non-believers should be demonstrated how real observability is ensured in the system, how the identified risks have been grounded, how verifiability has been guaranteed both during the elections and after the elections. An absolute majority of reasonable people would be able to admit with peace of mind that questions have been answered, criticisms have been overturned, they have been able to see with their own eyes that all is actually well.”

Helme noted that this had not been done, and a question arose: why. “Is it because it is not considered necessary? All normal people already believe that everything is well, and only the squinty-eyed fools wearing tin foil caps blabber about something, and there is no need to explain them anything anyway. Or could it be that it is not possible to prove that our online voting system works fairly and correctly, because it does not actually work fairly and correctly? I am afraid it is the latter case. The explanation that nearly 40 percent of the population consists of fools and conspiracy theorists cannot be taken very seriously,” he stated, and said that continuing on that path would lead the state and the people of Estonia to destruction. “It is time to take our hands off our ears and eyes and just give up on online elections before it’s too late,” he concluded.

Attorney-at-law Paul Keres underlined in his report that unlike in the case of paper ballot voting, it was extremely complicated for everyone to verify online voting, therefore the court had special importance, meaning and role. “And therefore, I am of the opinion that, in principle, elections can be considered legitimate when they have been conducted in a lawful and credible manner, and either there are no doubts about they way they were conducted or, if there are doubts, these doubts have been discussed and the court has decided that these doubts are not justified.”

Keres said that he had studied the case law with his colleagues from his law firm, and had found 68 judgments and rulings of the Supreme Court that had been made in cases relating to online voting in different years. “Of these 68 cases, 18 appeals were not reviewed. Nine were not reviewed because the complainant failed to file their appeal to the court on time or the court found that the complainant could not justify how the violation the complaint was about specifically infringed their rights. 49 appeals were denied. 12 were denied because there was no right to file complaint, 10 because the term to file a complaint had expired, and further seven were denied because the court considered the appeal to be too general. One appeal was granted, and the reason for this was that the Supreme Court agreed with the complainant that the National Electoral Committee itself had miscalculated the term for filing an appeal and therefore refused to review the complainant’s appeal. But I can say that it did not reach a substantive favourable solution for the complainant either.” Keres thinks that this statistics means that nearly half of the complaints or appeals have not received substantial attention. “In my opinion, this can be regarded as a serious problem, because actually rather serious doubts that deserve to be considered have been brought to the Supreme Court,” he said, and gave several examples.

Keres found that the procedure for elections should be reformed. Firstly, in his opinion, complaints and appeals that are filed not only to defend a person’s own subjective rights but also in defence of public interests should be allowed. Secondly, calculating the terms for filing complaints should be made simpler and the terms should be extended. Thirdly, Keres thinks that the procedure whereby election appeals are settled by the Supreme Court should be replaced by two-stage judicial proceedings: an administrative court with a direct appeal to the Supreme Court. “The Supreme Court actually does not have the competence to ascertain facts and to assess facts, it is a court that gives legal assessments and final interpretations,” he stated.

During the debate, Aleksander Tšaplõgin (Centre Party), Andre Hanimägi (Social Democratic Party), Hendrik Johannes Terras (Estonia 200), Andres Sutt (Reform Party), Mario Kadastik (Reform Party), Kalle Grünthal and Ants Froch (Estonian Conservative People’s Party) took the floor.

Verbatim record of the sitting (in Estonian)

(Erik Peinar / Chancellery of the Riigikogu)

Video recording will be available to watch later on the Riigikogu YouTube channel.

Riigikogu Press Service
Maris Meiessaar
+372 631 6353, +372 5558 3993
[email protected]
Questions: [email protected]