IGF 2021 WS #254 Democracy and online voting: challenges and innovations

Wednesday, 8th December, 2021 (14:05 UTC) - Wednesday, 8th December, 2021 (15:35 UTC)
Conference Room 6

Organizer 1: Paulo Lara, ARTICLE19
Organizer 2: Rafaela de Alcântara, ARTICLE 19 Brazil and South America
Organizer 3: Thayla Bertolozzi, University of São Paulo / ARTICLE 19 

Speaker 1: Apar Gupta, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 2: Florian Marcus, Digital Transformation Adviser, E-Estonia 
Speaker 3: Rodrigo Silva, Assessor Especialista, Nic.br 
Speaker 4: Meredith Applegate, Program Adviser for Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ - IFES 


Paulo Lara, Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)

Online Moderator

Rafaela de Alcântara, Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)


Elora Fernandes, Civil Society, Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC)


Round Table - U-shape - 90 Min

Policy Question(s)

Cybersecurity practices and mechanisms: What are the good cybersecurity practices and international mechanisms that already exist? Where do those mechanisms fall short and what can be done to strengthen the security and to reinforce the trust?
Ensuring a safe digital space: How should governments, Internet businesses and other stakeholders protect citizens, including vulnerable citizens, against online exploitation and abuse?

The proposal intends to include discussions on how the use of the Internet to register and count votes can generate democratic challenges, such as risks to the confidentiality and the integrity of votes. This goes through the discussion of data security itself on the Internet and the construction of its decentralized architecture, which fits the first policy question (Cybersecurity practices and mechanisms). In addition, the debate also aims to address problems that may be caused by this type of voting system for vulnerable groups, such as the poorest people, women, the elderly and young people, who may suffer violations of rights if it is implemented. Thus, the second policy question would also apply, since there is a need for a discussion on ensuring a safe digital space for all (Ensuring a safe digital space).


16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Targets: The discussion about online voting concerns one of the basic pillars of democracy, which is the choice of representatives of the people. It is closely related to the necessity of building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (SDG 16). This process must be as transparent, secure and auditable as possible, which is why the change by online voting must be discussed through a popular, democratic and informed process with reliable information (Target 16.7). The purpose of this workshop is precisely to contribute to this informed debate, providing the public with concrete elements for an informed decision, ensuring that this process is aligned with fundamental rights and freedoms (Target 16.10).


With the evolution of information and communication technologies and, in particular, with the development and spread of the Internet, online voting seemed to be a key step to be taken in order to make elections more efficient, accessible, participatory, and affordable. Estonia's example demonstrates the realization of this ideal: as of 2005, the country started to offer the possibility of online voting to all its inhabitants. However, other international experiences reveal several difficulties that have not yet been overcome.

Unlike other activities carried out over the Internet, such as interpersonal communication, purchases, and banking transactions, elections have special characteristics. The necessity of the secrecy of the vote as well as its integrity are challenged by the architecture of the Internet, which might not be adapted to such demands. In addition, online voting raises issues such as the need for trust in intermediaries (such as governance bodies, technology companies, and internet providers) and the risk management of external interference due to the lack of technological autonomy, especially in the Global South.

It should also be noted that, in addition to technical issues, this is an extremely sensitive issue, which can put the democratic process itself at risk. Examples such as the crisis that occurred in the last elections in the United States show that voting through uncontrolled environments, such as postal voting, can be critical and generate the possibility of coercion and/or voting purchase.

Bearing in mind this scenario and the great demand for remote voting solutions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which may lead to more initiatives in this sense in the next years, the panel will seek to discuss, through the participation of experts from different sectors, the challenges posed by online voting and, if possible, how they can be addressed.

The debate to be established will take place in three stages. At first, after a presentation of the panel by the moderator for 5 minutes, each of the four panelists will have 5 minutes to present their initial observations on the topic. In the second stage, the panelists will have 5 more minutes to comment on the speech of the other participants, creating a dialogue among them. The first two stages total 45 minutes of debate and 5 minutes will be reserved for the possibility of the panelists to extend their speeches, or for unforeseen issues. The third moment, which will last 40 minutes, will be used for the discussion of the topic with the public, who will be encouraged to ask questions and comments directed to the panelists. Any remaining time of panelists’ speeches will be allocated to the discussion with the public.

Expected Outcomes

Through this workshop, we seek to present and deepen the discussions on reliability, credibility, and security in the implementation of online voting in electoral processes. A first expected result would be the identification of risks to freedom of expression and democracy involved in such processes, considering technological problems still unresolved, economic asymmetry, and lack of access to technologies by the population. In addition, the workshop is also expected to serve as an alert, since online voting may disproportionately impact the most vulnerable people in power relations. Finally, a third expected result is the creation of a space to raise awareness of the need for a qualified public debate on the topic.

In terms of outputs, this workshop is part of an 18-month project, financed by National Endowment for Democracy - NED, which seeks to discuss the impacts of the use of technology on democracy and the Brazilian elections. The financing will start in July 2020, so that in December of the same year, the initial research of the project will have already been carried out, and these can be presented at the IGF. It will also serve as a thermometer of the progress of the project, so that an initial debate on the topic can be carried out at an international level.

After the workshop and based on its outcomes, a publication, an awareness campaign on the theme, and communication products will be developed and then released, together with mobilization activities to be carried out with stakeholders.

The on-site and remote audience can participate in the third stage of the debate, contributing with comments and questions to the panelists. The moderator will organize two or more rounds of comments / questions, alternating on-site and online participation and taking into account the sectoral, regional, race and gender balance. Each participant will have a maximum of 1 and a half minutes for their placement and, after the participation of 3 people, the panelists will respond.

We emphasize that, unless the pandemic scenario changes, initially all participants will participate online due to the sanitary situation, which is especially concerning in Brazil and India. However, it should be noted that ARTICLE 19 is an organization present in different parts of the world, with two offices in Europe. Thus, if it is already possible in December, a representative of the organization based in the region will attend the event in person to help moderate the participation on site. In case it is not possible, we will also count on the organization of the IGF to help us organize the participation of people on site.

Besides that, it is relevant to mention that this topic interests in a special manner people from the Global South, who will not necessarily be able to attend the event onsite due to the sanitary scenario. Therefore, we intend to publicize the event comprehensively, in order to also gather a significant online audience to the session.

Online Participation

Usage of IGF Official Tool.

Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Successful online voting experiences in one country do not suggest successful online voting in all countries. Each one has a reality, and some have specific technologies (such as mandatory digital identities) that other countries may not have (yet). The countries also need legislation that subsidizes and matches the needs to protect against specific digital risks (such as leaks, breaching, and privacy issues).

Regional and social differences must be considered. Marginalized people may not have access to the technology to vote online. In addition, one must consider the reality of domestic violence that groups such as women, the elderly, poor populations, and people with disabilities can suffer. Coercion in a domestic (private) environment is hardly identified and can compromise the integrity of the vote.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

For a country to have a successful experience, both aspects of digital maturity and democratic strengthening must be considered. The electoral system must be secure and reliable. The population must trust the system and institutions for the democratic experience to be ensured. Therefore, the government must take the necessary measures to guarantee security, transparency, and access during electoral periods.

Technology does not work alone and there is a need for legitimacy within social dynamics. Therefore, despite the particularities, the common points and contexts must be shared and studied, so that the discussion can increasingly develop in different countries.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions


The panel entitled “Democracy and online voting: challenges and innovations” took place on December 8th, from 14:00 to 15:35 (UTC). This panel's main objective was to debate practices and mechanisms in the context of electronic democracy and online voting technologies, considering how states, private companies, and other stakeholders are dealing with the protection of political participation of citizens - especially vulnerable populations - from the risks of abuse, frauds, and impacts in socio political realities.

The first panellist, Rodrigo Silva (Expert Advisor at Nic.br), approached subjects related to the Brazilian context, regarding technical challenges, blockchain, and e-democracy. In his speech, he emphasised that he believes that internet voting is a feasible alternative and its implementation should be considered in Brazil. However, before this technology can be implemented, the entire voting processes must mature. 

The second panellist, Florian Marcus (Digital Transformation Advisor at E-Estonia Briefing Centre), spoke about Estonia's experience with electronic voting. He mentioned the existence of a mandatory electronic RG for the entire population, which is used for elections. Furthermore, he highlighted that the possibility of this type of voting does not necessarily imply greater participation by the population, but rather that it allows other groups to vote (for example, elderly people who lived very far from polling stations). Finally, he emphasised that the experiment’s success could be related to the fact that the voting type was not imposed, nor was the replacement of paper voting by electronic voting. The adoption of both types of voting, combined with the possibility of voting several times, with only the last one registered effectively being considered valid, would be the reasons that would give credibility to voting over the internet.

Meredith Applegate (Program Consultant for Sri Lanka and Bangladesh at International Foundation for Electoral Systems- IFES), the third panellist, addressed aspects related to marginalised people, especially in regard to disabilities and gender issues. She emphasised that if for one side the remote internet voting can give more access to more groups (in matters of logistics/ if they are part of a migratory diaspora/ in terms of accessibility), it can also lead to violations - especially considering issues of secrecy. She affirmed that votes ensure democracy, but for that to happen, the voting process has to take place in an environment free from intimidation – which may not be the case for votes taken outside polling stations.

The final panellist, Apar Gupta (Executive Director at Internet Freedom Foundation) presented aspects of the Indian context, considering the digital divide and obstacles to the deployment of voting technologies. He indicated that an Indian biometric system already exists, which works with more than one digital database. However, despite the technological apparatus, India does not have a subsidiary legal system focused on data privacy or voting-related data. This lack of legal apparatus generates privacy, confidentiality, and trust issues.

After this first round of debates, the four panellists interacted with each other to discuss the common and divergent points of their presentations. In this exchange, the conclusion drawn was that the use of online voting systems is successful in a specific region does not mean it will be so in another one. There is the necessity of a contextual deliberation, considering whether the population has access to technology, issues of accessibility for vulnerable groups at the time of voting, economic and social conditions, as well as issues related to violence aimed at marginalised populations, such as gender-based violence.

After this stage, the floor was open for questions from the audience, both remotely and in person.

The audience engaged with the discussion in a meaningful manner, who not only asked questions related to the voting experiences shared, but also connected to gender-based violence. Also, some participants reported experiences of their own countries with online voting (such as the case of online voting in Russia).

It can be concluded from this panel that the deployment of technologies should not be assessed apart from each specific context, especially with respect to an electoral process. There is, above all, the need for legitimacy in these social dynamics. Therefore, for a country to have a successful experience, both aspects of digital maturity and democratic strengthening must be considered.

In this sense, the electoral system must be both safe and reliable and, in addition, the population must trust the system and institutions. There must be laws that guarantee the functioning of the electoral process, as well as the privacy, security, and transparency of the data of those involved in the elections. Only then the democratic experience will be guaranteed. For this aim, the government must take the necessary measures to guarantee security, transparency, and access to connectivity during electoral periods.

Furthermore, it is necessary to consider the evolution of this tool at a global level. Thus, despite the particularities of each country, different experiences must be shared and discussed in order to enhance - and even challenge - the development and deployment of such tools  around the world.