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CPSR Newsletter Vol 19, No 1
Volume 19, Number 1 The CPSR Newsletter Winter 2001

Sweden to Experiment with E-voting by Anders Olsson

As part of a series of small experiments in e-voting, the Swedish government is funding a project to conduct student elections at Umeå University via the Internet. The elections are to be held between April 27 and May 11. The project will use technology developed by US company Safevote [ ], in conjunction with the small Swedish company Vivarto Technologies [ ].

Government Lays Groundwork

Sweden has uncomplicated government elections: a paper ballot in a physical box. Elections are every four years; referendums are rare. Like most older western democracies, Sweden is experiencing a "democratic crisis," and the government is worried, but not so worried that it's prepared to use IT to reengineer the very structure of democracy. Rather, new technology is used to better the facade. However, this is more action than previous governments have taken.

Last year, the government awarded minor sums to all sorts of experiments and projects aimed at renewing or bettering democratic processes. In November, 2000, 66 such projects received grants of between $1,200 and $60,000. The average grant was $15,000. Most of these projects are efforts to make more people interested and active in politics. A couple of funded projects involve e-voting. More such grants will be made this year.

Does this indicate that the Swedish government is determined to do something radical in creating new forms of democracy for the new, IT-based society? In my opinion, probably not. The government hands out small sums to communities, organizations, and companies. Some of these small projects might succeed one way or another, but no big societal player is threatened by any of the experiments and the government has not committed itself to anything radical. A special committee on voting technology (Valtekniska utredningen) appointed by the government published its findings in January, 2001. Among the recommendations was a proposal to try voting via Internet. The committee favored a most cautious approach: small steps and small experiments to begin with and thorough evaluation of each step. Also in January, I authored a report [ ] for the government IT commission on e-voting.

The government wants to look sharp, modern, hip, and active, and is therefore willing to put at least minor sums into experiments of the kind we now see in Umeå. The technical skill for the projects won't be found in the government ministries, though. Sweden has rather small government ministries, but big state agencies. The state agencies are where the specialists work.

In January, the national bureau of Statistics (SCB) reported that 55% of Swedes aged 16-64 said they would prefer to vote via the Internet if this was possible. This got some media attention. Although the survey most certainly was made in a reliable way, it was the opinion of a poorly informed citizenry. Also, the opinion of about 1.5 million people of age 65 and older was left out. But the survey is a reminder that Swedes have a strongly IT-positive approach. For example, Sweden has one of the highest number of Internet connections per capita in the world. So far, the question of e-voting hasn't been widely-discussed in Sweden.

Experiment In Umeå

Umeå University [ ] is a small institution in the far north of Sweden. It prides itself on being "…practical, open and dynamic—not bound by mossy traditions." Markus Hällgren is vice president of the Umeå student union [ ], and is in charge of the Internet-election in Umeå. According to Hällgren, the government is providing $20,000 for the Umeå experiment. Another $20,000 was provided by a state research-fund called KK-stiftelsen and $6,000 by the city of Umeå.

The student union was interested in Internet voting because of the desire to increase voter participation and reduce cost, said Hällgren, who hopes Internet voting will raise voter participation from 10% to 17%. Some students attend classes on campus as infrequently as once a month, and live far from campus. Internet voting will be much more convenient for them, Hällgren claimed. Approximately 12,500 students are eligible to vote in the election. Voters have a choice between voting via the Internet, by mail, or in person. According to Safevote president Ed Gerck, each voter will be issued a six-character "Digital Vote Certificate," essentially a password. "A DVC has only six characters, yet provides a fully secure off-line ballot control structure for voting and auditing," said Gerck. "At the same time, it enforces a set of voting rules and allows for human verification that they are followed. The DVC and the voting rules guarantee that only one ballot will be counted per voter, even though a voter may vote several times in different locations and using different methods."


The Umeå experiment will most likely get some media coverage: it's something new, it's easy to describe, and it may cause some conflict that can be exploited journalistically. I recently discussed the Umeå experiment on national television. Consequently, Internet voting may become more widely discussed. However, wider discussion does not guarantee wider support. During my work with the e-voting report, I have spoken to many people working with different aspects of IT and democracy, including government officials, IT experts, companies promoting e-voting solutions, and students. Not one person I talked to claimed that voting via the Internet would in itself contribute to a better democracy. Everyone agrees that the learning and deliberative parts of the democratic process are far more important and that IT should be used to support those parts.

Anders Olsson <> is a freelance writer specializing in democracy -- especially IT and the legal infrastructure of democracy. He lives in Hasselby, in the Stockholm area.

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