Estonia showcases way to fix long voting lines

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TALLINN, Estonia — In his victory speech, President Barack Obama acknowledged millions of voters’ frustration when he said that it was time to fix the long lines at voting stations that have become an Election Day blight in America.

For inspiration, Obama may want to turn to Estonia, a tiny East European nation and staunch U.S. ally that allows its citizens to vote in the comfort of their homes — via the Internet.

Using an identity card and computer, Estonians can log on to an election website and cast a vote. Should they change their mind, no problem: they can log on again and re-submit their vote before a certain deadline. Only their last vote counts.

“It’s a very normal and useful democracy service,” said Liia Hanni, program director at Estonia’s eGovernance Academy, a nonprofit organization that has advised some 20 governments around the world on technology.

In the U.S., many people faced grueling waits to get inside voting booths on Tuesday.

In Hawaii, voters were turned away from nearly two dozen precincts where paper ballots had run out. In swing-state Virginia, people endured up to four hours of standing in the cold to exercise their constitutional right.

The reasons for the delays were manifold, ranging from new ID laws to faulty electronic voting machines, but the anger was heard loud and clear.

“By the way, we have to fix that,” Obama said.

Voting in the U.S. is regulated at the state level, so if online voting were to be introduced, it wouldn’t be a nationwide system as in Estonia, a country the size of Maryland with only 1.3 million people.

A key to the system’s success in Estonia is citizens’ wide acceptance of a digital identity and electronic chip-enabled ID card. Essentially a digital signature, the ID card is also used for checking out library books, paying bus fares, and even keeping track of medical data.

While voting via the Internet, the ID is inserted into a card reader that is plugged into a computer. Identification — but not the actual voting — can be also done through a mobile device via a special SIM card.

Hanni said the system has proven to be very popular, and countries such as Tunisia and Ukraine — and recently the Palestinian Authority — have expressed an interest in adopting Estonia’s remote voting system as a model.

Jeffrey D. Levine, the U.S. ambassador to Estonia, said the European nation’s approach could benefit many countries, but not necessarily the United States.

“For the United States, voting online is very problematic because (of) our lack of national ID cards, lack of some of the prerequisites that Estonia has implemented,” Levine told The Associated Press.

In addition, there’s the “fear of big government,” Levine said. Americans, he said, “are afraid of the creation of a very large national database. We don’t have that yet, and there’s a lot of resistance to it.”

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