TALLINN, Estonia — This tiny Baltic republic is breaking new ground in digital democracy. This week, the country nicknamed "e-Stonia" because of its tech-savvy population became the first country in the world to hold an election allowing voters nationwide to cast ballots over the Internet.
Less than 10,000 people, or 1 percent of registered voters, participated online in elections for mayors and city councils across the country, but officials hailed the experiment held Monday to Wednesday as a success.
"Everything has gone smoothly," said Tarvi Martens, a spokesman for the National Electoral Committee.
Thousands of people voted online in Democratic primaries in Arizona in 2000 and Michigan in 2004. The city of Geneva, Switzerland, has held several online referendums, the first in January 2003.
But Estonia is the first to allow voters nationwide to chose their representatives online, experts in Estonia and abroad said.
"They have the perfect population size to do something like this," said Thad Hall, a University of Utah political scientist and co-author of book on Internet voting. "As they have success, people will start to copy their success."
Election officials in the country of 1.4 million said they had received no reports of flaws in the online voting system or hacking attempts.
In the United States, the Pentagon canceled an Internet voting plan for military and overseas citizens in 2004 because of security concerns. Plans for large-scale voting in Britain have also been dropped.
Critics say digital democracy is vulnerable to hacker attacks, identity fraud and vote count manipulation.
"The benefits don't come anywhere near the risks," said Jason Kitcat, an online consultant and researcher at the University of Sussex, England. "It's a waste of money and a waste of government energy."
He acknowledged that Estonia's system was the most secure to date, but said no system was "good enough for a politically binding election."
The former Soviet republic has the most advanced information infrastructure of any formerly communist eastern European state.
It gave the Linux-based voting system a trial run in January, when about 600 people voted online in a referendum in the capital, Tallinn. The plan is to allow online voting in the next parliamentary elections in 2007.
"I believe this is the future," said Mait Sooaru, director of an Estonian information logistics company who cast his electronic ballot Monday at the start of a three-day period allowing online voting.
"I believe I was one of the first ones to get a vote through," he said, adding that he faced no glitches or difficulties. "It was easy and pretty straightforward."
To cast an online ballot, voters need a special ID card and device that reads the card and a computer with Internet access. The reader costs euro20 (US$24). Some 80 percent of Estonian voters have the ID cards, which have been used since 2002 for online access to bank accounts and tax records.
Election committee officials said the ID card system had proven effective and reliable and dismissed any security concerns with using it for the online ballot.
Arne Koitmae, of Parliament's elections department, said Internet voting would make it easier for people in remote rural locations, who may live far from polling stations, to vote. But the larger purpose is for Estonians to become familiar with the ID card system, he said.
"It's important to understand that e-voting is just one of the applications that can be utilized with the ID-card," Koitmae said.
Even in Estonia, however, the system has its critics.
Internet voters were allowed to vote multiple times during the three-day period — only the last vote counted. President Arnold Ruutel had tried to stop that practice, saying it gave Internet voters opportunities to change their minds that other voters did not have.
Ruutel was overruled by the Supreme Court, which approved the municipal election guidelines.
Election officials said only 9,317 people out of 1.06 million registered voters opted to vote online. Estonians were also given the option of voting by mail and in person on Sunday.
Koitmae said many ID card users still lack the reading device, which explains the low turnout of online voting.
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