Trip report – Estonia on e-voting, transport and politics

Meeting the Mayor of Tallinn
Meeting the Mayor of Tallinn, Mr Savisaar

At the beginning of February I spent three days in Estonia at the invitation and expense of Mr Edgar Savisaar, the Centre Party Mayor of Tallinn (and Estonia’s first post-Soviet prime minister). My visit had three main aims:

  1. To present some public lectures on my views and experiences opposing electronic voting. Estonia is the only country in the world to allow all citizens to vote by Internet in their Parliamentary elections.
  2. To learn more about Tallinn’s new policy of free public transport for citizens, which had launched on 1st January 2013.
  3. To explore how Estonia does local government and what I could learn from that, to build fruitful links between our universities and partners to support future investment and EU funding bids.

I spent most of the first day with Mr Savisaar including a formal lunch reception with a range of MPs, council officials and academics. Most of them shared deep concerns about the country’s internet voting system. This concern is a minority view in Estonia, especially in the Parliament. I have not had the opportunity to study the Estonian system in detail so cannot comment on specifics, but my friend and fellow e-voting campaigner Barbara Simons has posted her critical thoughts following her own visit and analysis of other reports.

My long held view against e-voting can be summarised as that the very significant risks introduced by the technology are not worth it, and the huge costs do not justify increasing electoral risks, as there are no other obvious benefits. Like the rest of Europe, Estonia has had to trim its national spending, so I found many Estonians agreeing that there were other priorities the money invested in e-voting could be better spent on.

Giving a lecture on e-voting in Tallinn
Giving a lecture on e-voting in Tallinn

Following meetings with officials detailing my experiences as ORG’s e-voting campaigns coordinator, plus sharing some ideas and contacts on how to further the Estonian campaign against e-voting, we went on to my first public lecture. This very well attended event was live translated into Estonian and Russian (there is a significant Russian-speaking population) and was recorded for a local TV station. You can see clips of the event and a follow-up interview here. Footage of the meeting earlier in the day is here and here. (I don’t know if the full video of my lecture will be released online, but it was an evolution of my 2007 presentation of ORG’s election observation which can be watched here)

The next day I had an early morning meeting with Ivar Tallo, a former MP and e-government lecturer, who is a well known supporter of Estonia’s e-voting. We had a good conversation but didn’t settle our differences for and against e-voting! Then with Priit Toobal MP, one of Mr Savisaar’s assistants and a translator we went on a small tour of the country visiting Paide city (right in the centre of the country) and Parnu (a popular coastal summer resort town). I met MPs and councillors in each place whilst also presenting a shorter version of my e-voting lecture.

All the meetings and conservations gave me some interesting insights into Estonia’s advanced e-government infrastructure, the development challenges as population is drawn inexorably towards the capital city of Tallinn along with views and experiences of Tallinn’s free public transport. I learnt from Vice-Mayor Taavi Aas that in January bus usage had jumped about 15% whilst traffic at key central junctions in Tallinn had dropped 20%. Early days yet, but interesting. I also completely ran out of brochures for the Universities of Sussex and Brighton.

With Taavi Aas, Vice-Mayor of Tallinn responsible for transport
With Taavi Aas, Vice-Mayor of Tallinn responsible for transport

I doubt many use it, but I was impressed that the Estonian infrastructure allows citizens to see who (in and out of government) has accessed their identity information with a full log and lets citizens control who can view their online medical data. Citizen-centric data management seems to be an important step towards our digital future. I would urge more investment there than in online voting methods!

I was also interested to learn that local government in Estonia is primarily funded by a share of income tax. So every 1,000 people moving into Tallinn bring in an addition €1m/year from that share. There is also some form of land value tax in use too. Compared to the broken taxation system councils in England depend on, a local share of income tax looks very simple and clear to understand indeed!

On the final day, before leaving, I had a chance to explore the streets of Tallinn a bit more. It’s a small city centre with a fascinating history involving Swedes, Germans, Russians and Dutch colonialism. Also lots of free wifi which doesn’t require frustrating registration forms, just a simple ‘I agree to T&Cs’ button to get going.

Of course one can never fully understand all the nuances in a short visit. But Brighton & Hove has now established some strong links with Tallinn and Estonia for our universities and councils to pursue. We are already looking at some joint EU bids between our councils. Meanwhile the campaign against e-voting continues.

I’d like to thank everyone who helped make my visit go so smoothly including Mr Edgar Savisaar, his assistants especially Oksana Jalakas, Priit Toobal MP, Kadri Simson MP, Taavi Aas, Allan Alaküla, Elena Sapp and many more.

View on part of Tallinn’s Old Town

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