E-voting comes of age in Italy with Venice independence referendum

The website aimed to replicate the system used by Norway in its 2011 municipal elections

A successful online poll to measure support for the independence of Italy's northeastern Veneto region has demonstrated the sophistication of the area's IT businesses and the maturity of e-voting technology, according to the man who organized the unofficial referendum.

A remarkable 2.3 million people, out of an electorate of 3.7 million, last week responded to the question "Do you want Veneto to become an independent and sovereign federal republic?" according to the organizers.

Plebiscito.eu, a coalition of Venetian nationalist groups backed by local IT businesses, said a resounding 2.1 million, or 89 percent of those voting, had answered in the affirmative when the weeklong online poll concluded on Friday.

"It was a considerable achievement and a source of professional pride for the Veneto technology sector," said Gianluca Busato, an IT entrepreneur from Treviso and the prime mover behind the Plebiscito.eu initiative. "The success of the vote demonstrates that online voting has come of age."

The word ballot comes from the Venetian word "ballotta," the "little ball" used to elect the Doge, who ruled over the Most Serene Republic of Venice for more than 1,000 years. Nostalgia for a glorious past when Venice controlled the sea-lanes of the Mediterranean and impatience with the modern Italian state, which takes away 21 billion euros (US $29 billion) more in tax than it returns to the region in services, fuelled the secessionist sentiment given expression in Busato's online ballot.

Past eruptions of Venetian nationalism have veered between the tragic and the absurd. In 1997 eight secessionists were arrested after occupying the bell tower in St. Mark's Square, backed up by a homemade tank.

Last week's poll was a more peaceful affair, with citizens clicking on a mouse to express their preference. Some 257,000 people, or just under 11 percent of voters, clicked to register a "no," while 6,815 votes, or 0.29 percent, were deemed invalid.

Overshadowed by the independence referendum in Crimea and dubbed an illegal farce by the mainstream Italian media, the vote provided a resounding endorsement for Venetian separatism that is likely to worry central government authorities in Rome.

A preparatory study for the online referendum found e-voting had worked with varying degrees of success in at least 18 countries, pointing out that online referenda were standard practice in Switzerland and that Estonia had been allowing its citizens to cast Internet ballots in parliamentary elections since 2005.

"Estonia provided the juridical inspiration for our project, while Norway was the model in terms of technology," Busato said in a telephone interview. Plebiscito.eu aimed to replicate the system used by Norway in its 2011 municipal elections, while also offering the option of a telephone vote for the less computer-savvy members of the community, Busato said.

Voters received a unique ID number through the post, enabling them to cast their ballot online, digitize their referendum choice on the phone, or -- in the case of the elderly or those without a PC -- go to polling stations to receive assistance in casting their online ballot from local volunteers.

"There was a high level of voting using smartphones and tablets, around 35 percent, while only about 5 percent made use of the telephone vote," Busato said.

Busato insists that scrupulous measures were taken to avoid fraud and the process was overseen by several dozen independent observers, headed by an ex-ambassador from the Republic of Georgia.

The general thrust of Busato's referendum was confirmed by an opinion poll conducted at around the same time and published Tuesday by La Repubblica newspaper. The Demos poll found around half of those questioned had voted in the referendum or intended to do so and 80 percent of them supported the idea of independence for the Veneto region.

The surprising success of the poll has generated expressions of interest from three other Italian regions -- Friuli, Sardinia and Sicily -- and from another European region interested in pursuing a campaign for independence, Busato said. "It's our intention to assist European regions that want to mobilize for independence," he said.

Busato, who is owner and CEO of an IT company called Digitnut Srl, said Repubblica's findings confirmed the validity of his own numbers. "The results show that online voting is fit for purpose and could be used for other referendums and consultations of other kinds as well," he said. The inventors of the "ballot" look set to continue their role as pioneers of the instruments of democracy. Whether they will achieve independence from Italy is another matter.

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