Digital voting at last! The Social Election 2023
Mr. Weiß, before we get to the topic of digital voting, a question first: What actually is the social election and why should one cast one's vote in this election?
Many people are not aware that the social security system belongs to the insured, i.e. the citizens. And those who pay or have paid contributions should also have a say in the future of pensions and health. This co-determination takes place through elected representatives in the so-called social parliaments of the social insurance funds. And why is it important to elect them? It's very simple: if you are not satisfied with a decision made by your health insurance company, you can lodge an appeal. This ends up in the so-called appeals committee and who sits there is decided by the citizens in the election. If, on the other hand, you apply for a pension and need advice, an advisor from your pension insurance company is indispensable. And here, too, it is your elected representatives in the social parliaments who appoint these advisors. As you can see, it does matter who you vote for in the social elections.
After years of wrangling, it has been determined that the 2023 social election will be the first Germany-wide model trial for digital voting. What were the central motivations behind this decision?
To make this pilot possible, the federal government under Angela Merkel passed the 7th Social Code IV Amendment Act. If we look back at the debates surrounding this decision, I think there are two things to note. Firstly, what we do not want is to replace traditional voting. To be quite clear: the traditional way of going to the polling station will continue to be the preferred way of voting. Online voting is an alternative to postal voting and is being tested as such. This is exactly why the social election is a good choice, as it is traditionally a postal vote. In addition, we want to see whether digital voting can mobilise more citizens to vote. Currently, we assume that perhaps ten percent of eligible voters will use the digital option. It will be exciting to see if we can reach this figure and thereby also achieve a higher voter turnout. Regardless of whether we succeed, the pilot project is important per se, as democracies must spare no effort to improve voter turnout.
In the digital age, it seems difficult for many to understand why people have not been able to vote digitally for a long time. What are the main challenges of online elections?
There are electoral principles that we have to live up to in online elections. Let's take the principle of universal suffrage, for example. This principle states that all German citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote, irrespective of their gender, income, religious denomination, profession or digital competence. Accordingly, we must ensure that online elections are as barrier-free as possible. Another challenge is the secret ballot. In the course of voting, we must not only ensure that every citizen who casts a vote is also entitled to vote, receives confirmation of his or her vote and that all votes can be verified afterwards. These requirements must be implemented in such a way that it cannot be determined retroactively who cast their vote and how. We must also ensure that no vote is counted twice, even if a voter casts his or her vote digitally and by postal vote. And finally, of course, the security of the election against cyberattacks and manipulation as well as the technologically flawless functioning of the voting platform are essential. To guarantee the smooth running and security of the elections, we have cooperated closely with the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) and worked with the Estonian company that also organises digital voting there. As you can see, what sounds so simple ultimately harbours a whole series of pitfalls when it comes to implementation.
Are there already initial findings from the preparation of the pilot project that you can take with you for the future?
Oh yes, there are. Take, for example, the requirement that we must uniquely identify all eligible voters when they participate in the online election. This would be relatively easy to solve if all eligible voters had their digital ID card activated. In fact, however, only a minority of fellow citizens have already done so.
Consequently, we had to set up another, three-stage identification procedure with recourse to the insurance card. In order to counteract the lack of use of the digital identity card, which, by the way, is a problem for almost all digital services of the state, we urgently need an information campaign. Such a campaign must show what the digital identity card is actually useful for. Because it's clear that you can only have it activated if you know what the benefits are.
And what will happen with digital voting after the social elections?
The coalition agreement of the current federal government already states that online voting will also be established for works council elections. Beyond that, however, there will certainly be a discussion on where online voting can be used in other elections. I don't expect that after this pilot project, online voting will be made possible immediately in all elections in Germany. I think it will be a step-by-step process. I think it is more likely that, in addition to the works council elections already mentioned, it will possibly be enshrined in law as an option for elections to chambers of commerce, such as the Chamber of Industry and Commerce or the Chamber of Crafts. As a next step, I could imagine online voting being tried out in local elections. Digital voting in state and federal elections will probably be the last step in a development. But all these are political questions that have to be answered by politics and society. As the Federal Election Commissioner, my focus is not only on secure and flawless voting with a view to tomorrow, but also on evaluating the pilot project and building up expertise.
And how do you intend to ensure this?
In order to build up expertise and to adequately evaluate the pilot project, we will have it accompanied and evaluated by external experts. In addition to the already mentioned question of higher voter turnout and our experiences from the preparation, the focus will also be on the correct conduct of the election. On the other hand, we will hold expert talks afterwards and discuss the findings with election law experts and election organisers. I am sure that we will not have answered all questions one hundred per cent after this pilot project. But if we don't start with a pilot project and learn lessons from it, we will never be able to advance the issue of online voting in Germany.
Mr Weiß, thank you very much for the interview!
The questions were asked by Sebastian Weise, expert for Digital Democracy in the Analysis and Consulting Department at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.