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Digital Democracy E-voting suffers another setback amid expat Swiss concerns

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For the time being, e-voting will not become a regular option for Swiss citizens to participate in democratic decisions.  

(Keystone/Christian Beutler)

The government has decided to suspend efforts to enshrine electronic voting in Swiss law, but it plans to continue trials using improved systems. The expatriate Swiss community is alarmed by the announcement.

A consultation among political parties and the 26 cantons, as well as a series of technical flaws in the current systems, has led the government to review its policy on e-voting, according to the Federal Chancellorexternal link Walter Thurnherr.

“Opinions are clearly divided. The cantons have come out in favour, but the parties are against,” he told a news conference on Thursday. “This means there is not sufficient support at the moment for the introduction of e-voting on a legal basis.”

Thurnherr added that the series of limited e-voting trials underway since 2004 will continue unless “citizens or politicians decide otherwise”, though he also acknowledged that public opposition has grown since the tide started turning against e-voting two years ago.

Recently, a committee launched a people’s initiative for a five-year e-voting moratorium amid the controversial discovery of technical problems in the two e-voting systems currently in use.

Nevertheless, Thurnherr claimed that the consultation procedure showed “support in principle for e-voting” and that the expatriate Swiss community in particular – which makes up about 10% of the electorate – had great hopes for the technology.

E-votingexternal link would complement the other two options available for Swiss citizens to use their direct democratic rights: the postal vote and going to the polls.

Trial basis

The government wants to continue to use the online-voting channel on a trial basis, according to Thurnherr.

“The cantonal authorities remain free to grant e-voting to a limited number of citizens if the system in use fulfils the necessary conditions,” he said.

The Federal Chancellery has been mandated to cooperate with the cantons to seek a reform of the trials by the end of 2020. E-voting has successfully been used in more than 300 tests over the past 15 years, Thurnherr said.

“The aim is the establishment of a stable trial system of the new generation by strengthening independent controls, transparency, trust, and the increased involvement of scientists,” a statementexternal link said.

Thurnherr added that an audit of the only system currently available in Switzerland, operated by Swiss Post, would be evaluated over the next few months to see whether it can still be ready for the October 2019 parliamentary elections.

The other system previously in use, developed by canton Geneva and used by three other cantons, was shelved for security reasons earlier this month.

Reaction

Thursday's government decision is "wise and logical" according to Ardita Driza Maurer, a researcher in political rights and new voting technologies at the Centre for Democracy Studies in Aarau.

“It takes into account the results of the recent public intrusion tests; the planned introduction of e-voting is adapted to increased security demands.”

In a first reaction, the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad external link(OSA), representing the interests of some 760,000 expatriate Swiss around the world, has expressed consternation and has criticised the government move.

“It amounts to a denial of democratic rights of the expatriate Swiss citizens,” a statement read.

The OSA said it was concerned that the government announcement is the beginning of the end of e-voting altogether.

Last November, the organisation handed in a petition with over 11,000 signatures calling for electronic voting to be made available to all Swiss living overseas by 2021.

Initiative

Meanwhile, the government announcement does not go far enough for a cross-party committee collecting signatures for a people’s initiative that would bring an effective end to e-voting.

“The committee welcomes the decision for a e-vote moratorium. But the temporary suspension is not enough,” the groupexternal link said. Since March it has been canvassing to collect the 100,000 signatures necessary for a people’s initiative.

“The moratorium has to be enshrined in the constitution to ensure that vote tampering can be excluded in nationwide ballots,” it added.

'Make Swiss democracy safe again' How e-voting became a fight for democracy

After years of tests, Swiss e-voting is at a crossroads. The government wants to extend it; a cross-party campaign wants to stop it altogether.

swissinfo.ch/urs with input from Sonia Fenazzi

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