Something is rotten in the state of America. For a nation that has for so long promoted itself as a global champion of democratic ideals, we have a rather difficult time practicing what we preach. Outdated election mechanisms like the Electoral College and potential interference from hostile foreign powers aside, Americans have historically proven themselves reticent to participate in choosing their leaders.
Turnout for presidential elections hasn't topped 65 percent of the eligible population in the past 100 years nor has it even come close to cracking 50 percent for midterms over the same period. During the 2016 election, just 63 percent of the U.S. civilian voting-age population showed up at the polls, according to the US Election Assistance Commission, with just five states -- Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oregon -- managing to break 70 percent participation. Only 42 percent of Hawaiians bothered to vote.
"If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal," pioneering feminist Emma Goldman once quipped. But it isn't why we vote that has led to such dismal electoral participation rates but rather how. At the start of the 20th century, America replaced its original oral-ballot method in favor of today's anonymous paper ballots. Aside from allowing early and absentee votes, little of our electoral system has changed in the 118 years since. Granted, 32 states as well as the District of Columbia do allow their residents to vote via more modern methods than punch cards -- email, e-fax or web portal -- but only for local, municipal races.
The amount of time we spend electing our government representatives is too damn high. Election cycles last for months with candidates and incumbents often announcing their intentions to run a year or more in advance, then furiously fundraising and courting potential voters in the subsequent run-up. Yet even with all that expended effort, only 55.7 percent of eligible voters (that's 86 percent of registered voters) actually went to the polls in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. But what if Americans had more incentive to vote than simply doing their civic duty? What if, instead, voting were compulsory? It's certainly worked for Australia, where registered voter turnout hasn't dropped below 91 percent since the system was instituted in 1924 and those who do refuse to vote are subject to a minor fine.
This policy has forced candidates to appeal to the whole of the nation instead of pandering to their political base, leading to more stable, moderate leadership over the past 94 years, Stewart Jackson of the University of Sydney told HuffPost in March.
"The original intent, or one of the arguments, for compulsory voting was that it would make elections about policy. We'd stop pleading for people to vote and just talk about policy. You wouldn't have to spend all your time with a get-out-the-vote effort," Jackson said. "Now, we do have campaigns about policy. It's not just trying to appeal to a particular sector to vote. You appeal to everybody. The parties have gotten good at appealing to the middle voter."
What's more, the winning candidates are also afforded a stronger mandate to lead, given that they managed to garner 51 percent of the vote from roughly 90 percent of eligible voters. By comparison, Trump won the support of just 28.7 percent of America's almost 219 million eligible voters in 2016.
Estonia is different. The EU member country, its western border buffeted by the Baltic Sea, is home to 1.3 million people -- roughly equivalent to the populations of Houston or San Diego. It allows its citizens to vote online in local elections as well as parliamentary and European Parliament races. Its i-voting system was floated in 2001 and first implemented in 2005's local elections, where around two percent of the ballots were cast via the internet. And in 2007, Estonia became the first nation in history to allow for internet voting in a national parliamentary election.
I-voting leverages the Estonian national ID card, which is also a smart card. It not only serves as proof of identity but also enables residents to remotely authenticate their identities online and generate legally binding digital signatures.
The i-voting system is a bit different from absentee voting here in the US. Estonians are allowed to vote during the run-up to Election Day, specifically from the sixth day before the election to the fourth. Voters are allowed to change their vote as many times as they like during that period but cannot change or annul their choice via the internet on Election Day itself. That can only be done in person at a physical voting station. Casting your vote there, of course, negates any internet vote you'd cast before, maintaining the "one person, one vote" principle.
There were already a number of factors in place by 2005 that helped Estonia prepare for national internet-based voting. "Estonia perceives new communication technology very positively; the IT sector is strong there, and Estonians are well-acquainted with computers and the Internet," Daniel Bochsler of the Centre for the Study of Imperfections in Democracies at Central European University notes in a 2010 research study. "Large parts of the population have internet access at home, at work, or in public Internet stations." For example, in 2005, more than three-quarters of Estonians declared their income tax via the internet. The mandatory issuance of national ID cards capable of verifying one's identity online helped as well.
However, as Bochsler points out, internet usage in its current form is highly socially selective. That is, certain groups -- largely young, affluent, highly educated males who are likely already regular internet users -- are more likely to benefit from the convenience of online voting. "High education and high income are two of the three factors that correlate most strongly with political participation in North America, Western Europe, and in new EU member states," he points out. So while the process of voting has gotten easier in Estonia, this phenomenon might help explain why voter turnout did not significantly increase between 2007 and 2015, only climbing from 62 percent to just over 64 percent even though the percentage of people voting online grew from 3 percent to 30 percent over the same period.
Of course, the i-voting system has not been without its detractors. In 2014, a team of security researchers from the University of Michigan and the UK-based Open Rights Group published a study stating that i-voting ballots could be changed or corrupted remotely, should one be able to install malware on the system's servers. Both the Estonian National Electoral Committee and Estonian Information System Authority dismissed these claims, arguing that the attack vectors were not feasible in the real world and likely politically motivated given that the study's researchers were connected to the Estonian Centre Party, which has been critical of the i-voting system since its inception.
In 2016, the University of Oxford released its own independent study of the Estonian voting system. It pointed out that while i-voting "may work well for a close-knit society such as that of Estonia," many of its enforcement policies rely on interpersonal relationships and would need to be further clarified and codified should it be scaled up for larger nations.
Would such a system work here in the US? In theory, yes. But first a number of aspects would need to be addressed, including electoral infrastructure, ballot security, public and political will for the plan, and access to the system for all Americans.
In terms of infrastructure, a number of states already allow for some form of online balloting -- albeit only as a means of absentee voting and generally only for military personnel and their dependents under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986. Arizona, Missouri and North Dakota all allow for absentee ballots to be cast via a web portal. Twenty-one states and DC allow for service members to cast their votes via email or fax, another seven states allow only for fax transmissions and the remaining 19 states demand that physical ballots are sent via the US postal service.