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Direct democracy The status and stakes of e-voting in Switzerland

computer and passport

E-voting is a reality for less than 4% of eligible Swiss citizens.

(© Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller)

The debate around the introduction of e-voting for Swiss citizens at home and abroad has rumbled on for almost two decades. It’s not likely to end anytime soon.

Brazil, a country of 210 million, manages it. Estonia, which has crafted an identity as leader of all things digital, prides itself on it. In the US, at a time of democratic tensions, some are starting to consider it to boost civic participation.

But in Switzerland, which votes up to four times annually on local and national affairs (citizens also elect parliament every four years, including 2019), e-voting is still far from becoming reality. Why? A brief overview.

How did we get here?

The idea of e-voting in Switzerland has been around almost as long as the Internet; since 2003, over 200 trials have been conducted across various cantons.

Yet though it has remained squarely on the agenda, e-voting has not become a permanent fixture; in the November 2018 votes, 213,000 were eligible to vote electronically – less than 4 % of the registered population. (In Estonia, in 2017, 31% of all votes were cast online.)

Over the years, two main technology systems have been tried out.

The first, a homegrown platform developed by the canton of Geneva, was also picked up by several other cantons before Geneva announced in 2018 it would prematurely discontinue due to high costs.

Swiss Post (also in charge of postal voting) operate the other system, developed by Spanish group Scytl. And despite some criticisms about security and proprietyexternal link, with the Geneva system set to be phased out, Swiss Post’s service is (for now) the only game in town.

Where are we now?

The government, a backer of e-voting (see below) wants at least 18 of the 26 cantons to offer electronic options for the parliamentary elections in October 2019. In the meantime, plans to introduce a permanent system have been put out for consultation.

Parliament is divided on the issue, though in September 2018 it voted down a motion by an opposition group to freeze any further roll-out of e-voting practices.

Undeterred, the opponents (see further below) have launched a people’s initiative to push their idea for a five-year moratorium before the people. They have until summer 2020 to collect the 100,000 signatures needed to force a national vote.

Who is for it and why?

The government is in favour: for one, e-voting is faster than traditional methods, and when done right it’s also more accurate; it cuts down on spoiled ballots; and it offers the possibility of increasing voter turnouts, which are low in Switzerland.

The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad is also pro-electronic: around 750,000 Swiss live in other countries, and those eligible to vote sometimes miss out on the chance to do so due to slow postal delivery.

Swiss citizens in general are also in favour, though many remain worried about security.

Finally, another (counter) argument for the introduction of e-voting is that traditional methods are often not as secure as we’d like to believe. Forged signatures and botched re-counts have occurred in Switzerland in the past.

Who is against it and why?

Politically, it’s not just Luddites, rightists, and gerrymanderers: the group driving the opposition people’s initiative include politicians from the left-wing Greens and the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, as well as some IT experts.

Their major argument is the issue of safety. At a time of international fears around election meddling and fraud, how can we be sure that the system is not hacked or manipulated by outside forces? How can we ensure that votes remain secret?

Opponents also raise the issue of costs, which they say are higher for electronic systems than for traditional paper ballots.

What’s next?

Though public opinion is in favour of e-voting, it remains to be seen how much the security question will weigh if the issue comes to a nationwide ballot in the coming years.

The recent news that a hacker, taking part in an assault competition to test the Swiss Post system, exposed a major flaw will not boost confidence in the inviolability of online ballots.

E-voting in Switzerland has been on trial since 2003, and looks like it will remain so for some time more.

swissinfo.ch/dos

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