Focus On: Estonia’s Parliamentary Election

Feb. 26, 2011, 5:11 p.m.

On March 6, Estonians will vote for the 101 members of their national parliament, the Riigikogu. Most opinion polling shows the ruling Reform Party (ER) is likely to hold, or expand its seat total after votes are counted.

Internet Voting
This election is notable in that it will be the second national poll to utilize internet voting.   Although voters can formally go to the voting booth on March 6, they have the option of voting online from February 26 to March 2.  Internet voting is an innovative concept, but one that has attracted skepticism and criticism.   Two points of contention are whether this method actually increases turnout and whether it maintains adequate security.

Internet voting’s impact on turnout

While internet voting was obviously designed to increase voter participation, no expansion of the electorate is ever without controversy.  Different parties have different bases of support and efforts that are viewed to only benefit some parties are susceptible to criticism.  In the case of internet voting, there have been questions about the system's fairness, given that internet voters are more likely to be younger and better educated than the general electorate.   Despite these concerns, it remains to be seen if internet voting has so far had any verifiable impact on voter turnout.  At first glance, it would appear that the procedure was causing more Estonians to cast ballots; turnout has increased over the past several elections.  Whether this increase, however, was a result of internet voting is not established.  In a study by Daniel Bochsler, the author examines differences between the 2003 and 2007 parliamentary elections, and finds little evidence that internet voting was driving new voters to the polls.  Instead, he concludes, internet voting was merely giving previously engaged voters another method to cast their ballots. (( Bochsler, Daniel, Can Internet voting increase political Participation? Remote electronic voting and turnout in the Estonian 2007 parliamentary elections.   Centre for the study of Imperfection in Democracies, Central European University.  Prepared for presentation at the conference ‘Internet and Voting’, Fiesole, 3-4 June 2010. ))

Ballot Security

There are two main concerns with regards to security, the first being how an internet voting system can avoid vote-buying.   The ability to vote from a computer, at any location, denies a voter the privacy offered by a traditional voting booth.  To address this problem, Estonian officials came up with an innovative solution:  an elector can cast as many internet votes as they like in the allotted timeframe, but only the last vote will count.  In addition, an elector may still cast a paper ballot on election day, which will void all previous votes cast through the internet. This setup destroys the incentive for a vote buyer to purchase a vote, as they have no guarantee that the voter cannot simply change it at a later time.

To ensure security during the electronic voting process, voters in Estonia are required to possess several pieces of equipment.  This includes an electronic ID card, and two pin codes used to sign an electronic signature on their ballot.  After confirming their vote with an electronic signature, the vote is sealed in an electronic “virtual” envelope, which bears personal information about the voter.   When vote counting begins, the inner encrypted votes and the digital outer envelopes with personal data are separated. The outer envelopes are discarded and the electoral commission counts the anonymous encrypted votes.   In addition to internet voting, the 2011 election will be the first that allows voters to cast ballots through their cell phones that contain specially designed SIM cards for verification ((Estonian National Electoral Committee, http://www.vvk.ee/index.php ))

Electoral System
The Riigikogu is a unicameral chamber with 101 seats, elected through an open list proportional representation system.  After voting for a party list, voters may cast a candidate preference vote, which will determine list order for seat allocation purposes.  The country is divided into twelve multi-member constituencies with districts having anywhere from six to thirteen seats. In general, it is believed that in open seat systems, small district magnitude, like those in Estonia, lead to more party unity, and less candidate centered races.  This is due to the fact that in smaller districts, candidates on the same party list have less incentive to differentiate themselves. (( Carey, J.M. & Shugart, M.S.  Incentives to Cultivate a Personal Vote: a Rank Ordering of Electoral Formulas, Electoral Studies, 1995 ))  The advantage of this system is that it is associated with less corruption than other variants of proportional representation. (( Chang, E.C.C. & Golden, M.A. Electoral Systems, District Magnitude and Corruption, British Journal of Political Science 37, pp. 115-137. 2006 ))

Estonia has a complex method of translating votes into awarded seats, with mandates being awarded in three separate rounds.  In the first round of vote counting, seats are given to individual candidates who garner the same or more votes than the simple quota in their electoral districts. In the second round, seats are allocated based on the performance of party lists.  This means that each party is awarded seats based on their share of the vote in the district.  The number of preference votes each candidate received determines candidate order.  In the third round of counting, all remaining seats are distributed between the national candidate lists that receive at least five percent of the national vote.

Russian Speaking Population
Out of Estonia’s population of 1,365,367, over one hundred thousand are either citizens of another state, or hold no citizenship at all.  It is the latter population that has created tension in the country. Speaking Estonian is a requirement for citizenship, which creates an obstacle for the Russian-speaking population who are not allowed to vote or run for office.  The Estonian government has made attempts to remedy this through the promotion of Estonian language classes. (( OSCE, Estonia, Parliamentary Elections Needs Assessment Mission Report, 10-13 January 2011. http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/estonia/75216 ))

Political Climate
There are currently six political parties who hold seats in the Riigikogu: the Reform Party (ER), led by Prime Minister Andrus Ansip; the Centre Party (K); Pro-Patria Union -Res Publica (Res); the Social Democratic Party (SDE); the Greens of Estonia (EEE); and the Estonian People's Union (ERL).   The country is currently being governed by a minority coalition of the Reform Party and the Pro Patria-Res Publica Union.  Together the two parties hold 50 seats – just one short of a majority.  The Social Democratic Party was originally part of the coalition before leaving in May 2009.

Most opinion polling shows the Reform Party is likely to hold, or expand its seat total in the next election.  The Estonian People’s Union and the Green Party are polling below five percent, and look unlikely to retain representation in the next parliament.  (( http://poliitika.postimees.ee/?id=387374 ))   The ruling coalition remains popular, despite passing difficult legislation last year.  Most notable was a package of controversial austerity measures, which increased the country’s already high unemployment rate.  (( Bloomberg, Estonia’s Joblessness Hits Record 19.8% on Austerity, March 14, 2010http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-05-14/estonia-s-joblessness-hits-record-19-8-on-austerity-update2-.html )) The government can point to several success stories, however, including gaining OECD membership earlier last year.  Most recently, Estonia became the newest member of the Eurozone, having converted to the Euro in January. ((France 24, Estonia switches to Euro becoming 17th Eurozone member, December 31, 2010. http://www.france24.com/en/20101231-estonia-switches-euro-becoming-17th-eurozone-member))  The transfer was considered smooth, although only a slight majority of the population was in favor of the switch.

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