Our citizens are challenging the legitimacy of democratic elections. Digital tools offer a potential remedy. They can modernize our voting systems – and boost political participation.
Finland and its Northern European neighbors teach good lessons.
During the COVID-19 pandemic governments rolled out special voting arrangements such as postal voting, proxy voting, and mobile ballot box voting. Political parties harnessed new technologies to assist their campaigns and reach voters. They leveraged new ways of fundraising and virtual rallies.
These new remote, digital practices must become a permanent part of future elections. In Estonia, 44% of voters in the latest EU Elections cast their ballot online, a new record for Internet voting. Estonian officials say two elements are needed to spread remote digital voting – an electronic identity infrastructure and political will. Estonia’s 1.3 million citizens have been able to vote on the Internet since 2005. It is the first – and still only – nation to offer legally binding general elections over the Internet.
Call it e-Estonia. Estonians can conduct almost every interaction with their government online. With a few clicks, they can get married, pay parking tickets, and receive a building permit.
Of course, change brings challenges. Sophisticated online manipulation can destabilize democracy, reinforcing extremists and election deniers. Furthermore, what works in a small, homogeneous country may be difficult to implement in large, heterogeneous countries such as the US.
Before the Internet, newspapers and traditional media allowed for a single national conversation, making many of us nostalgic for the days gone by when it was easier to tell right from wrong. Many democracies today lack a common debate and narrative and instead face a fragmented information landscape. Democracies have become self-assured, even arrogant, in thinking they can sustain and absorb any level of conflicting and divisive discussion.
Yet the solution cannot be to wish for a return to the analogue past. We must secure an open and transparent online environment even when facing new AI-driven technologies such as ChatGPT. My own home country shows how digital tools can promote pragmatism and defeat propaganda. Finland ranked No. 1 of 41 European countries on resilience against misinformation for the fifth time in a row in a recent survey. Media literacy is part of the national core curriculum starting in preschool.
Successful digital democracy requires a strong infrastructure. Both Estonia and Finland boast strong broadband networks. Finland is one the world’s most connected countries, with 96% of households having access to broadband internet. Since 2010, broadband internet access has been considered a legal right of all citizens and businesses.
Digital tools should be designed to protect citizens against surveillance and cyberattacks. My vision for a democratic digital state depends on trust in society and its institutions creating an expansion of deliberative democracy, which derives legitimacy from public exchanges of thought and arguments between equal citizens, rather than just from the traditional moment of voting. All citizens have a continuous political agency, exercising freedoms of expression and thought, and in doing so online platforms can help.
They can encourage excluded citizens to participate outside of elections, engaging voters in online rallies and policy debates. The Åbo Akademi University in Turku set up a fascinating laboratory bringing together small random groups of citizens to discuss transport planning for the city.
One group included politicians. Another did not. Researchers theorized that the discussion with politicians would lead to division. They were mistaken.
“No trace of differences between the two treatment groups were reported,” the report concluded. “We conclude that politicians, at least when they are in a clear minority in the deliberating small groups, can deliberate with citizens without negatively affecting internal inclusion and the quality of deliberation.”
The unequal distribution of material wealth in society is mirrored by a digital divide, where the poor enjoy fewer opportunities than the rich to participate in digital democracy. In the coming years, we must close the divide in order to strengthen and upkeep democracy. A new age of digital democracy requires that we give everyone equal online access. It means moving beyond encouraging participation in elections. It means building a real digital deliberative space.
Charlotta Collén is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. She is currently the Director of the Office for Research, International Affairs, and Corporate Connections at Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland.
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.