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Digital ballot box E-voting makes slow but steady progress

Zurich temporarily suspended e-vote trials in 2011, but will re-join this year. 


About 70% of Swiss expatriates will be able to cast their ballots online for the parliamentary elections in October 2015. The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) is disappointed that not all of its constituents will be able to vote electronically.

But the pressure group remains hopeful that every registered Swiss living abroad will be able to vote electronically by the time the 2019 elections are held.

Switzerland is a pioneering country in e-voting. In contrast to Norway, which decided in July 2014 to temporarily shelve online voting trials due to security concerns, the Swiss have continuously expanded their e-voting option.

The number of potential Swiss participants has continued to grow, and the security of the electronic voting and election process has been improved. The next major step will take place this year, when the 14 Swiss cantons participating in trials introduce second-generation e-votingexternal link systems – reaching about 70% of expatriates eligible to vote.

Each voter abroad will newly receive a series of individual verification codes along with the personal election material. For the election to the House of Representatives, for example, there will be one code per candidate.

After a vote has been cast, the system will forward a verification code for the sender to compare against the code on the voting documents. A match confirms that the desired candidate was chosen. Using this method, any possible manipulation of the vote would immediately be apparent.

More safety, more voters

Security experts all agree that this form of individual verifiability makes e-voting intrinsically more secure. For this reason, the government is set to make e-voting more widely available in the coming years.

In fact, some Swiss-German cantons are even planning to extend their 2015 e-voting trials to selected communes in Switzerland itself.

In Geneva, up to 30% of domestic voters are already able to use the internet to cast their ballots.

There is a unique twist to e-voting in another canton in the French-speaking part of the country. Voters in Neuchâtel sign a contract with the canton’s e-government portalexternal link as a prerequisite for e-voting. All voters who have signed a contract are allowed to vote online.

Swiss Abroad Congress E-voting wins ground despite risks and setbacks


The majority of registered Swiss expatriates will be able to use electronic voting in next year’s parliamentary elections, but the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) failed to win access to e-vote for the whole diaspora.

Swiss expats registered in 14 of the country’s 26 cantons will be able to participate in the 2015 elections to the House of Representatives. In 12 cantons they can also help choose the members of the Senate.

“139 of the 200 seat in house will be affected,” says Thomas Kalau, a senior official in the foreign ministry.

The result falls short set by the OSA to ensure that all the registered 155,000 Swiss expatriates can take part.

OSA President Jacques-Simon Eggly deplores the fact that the aim was only partially met.

“Without our efforts even fewer expats would be able to use e-voting,” he says. At the last elections in 2011 only four cantons had introduced e-voting for their expatriates as part of ongoing trials with the technology.

Eggly was speaking on the sidelines of the Congress of the Swiss Abroad in Baden on Saturday.

The introduction of e-voting suffered a setback last year when technical loopholes were found. Security concerns, including attacks by hackers and verification issues, prompted some cantonal authorities temporarily suspended their efforts.

Keynote speakers and discussion panels at the two-day annual event focused on hopes and risks of information technology for the expatriate community.

Business before politics

Otfried Jarren, professor for mass communication and media at Zurich University, highlighted the impact of social media on the system of national democracies.


“Globalisation is not only an important economic phenomenon, digitalisation has also become cultural and communication issues,” he told the more than 300 participants at the congress.

Jarren also pointed out that most social media and the internet as such are primarily designed to serve commercial interests.

“These techniques are by no means aimed at political participation. Neither the internet nor social media platforms turn people into citizens with a political awareness.”


Anja Wyden Guelpa, chancellor of canton Geneva, says the introduction of e-voting has not led to higher turnout in votes. But nor was this the case with the gradual introduction of vote by conventional mail in Swiss cantons since the 1990s.

“Maybe if one day everybody will have the possibility to use e-voting it will boost participation in votes. But researchers say it will take at least a generation.”

Wyden Guelpa does not believe that e-voting will change the political opinion of citizens, because they might be tempted to express their views more spontaneously.

Geneva is one of the pioneering cantons in Switzerland to develop an internet voting application.

Outside perspective

In his speech, Interior Minister Alain Berset underlined the role of Swiss diaspora as a dynamic and innovative community.

He praised them as people who not only understand the world better than many Swiss residents, but who, in some cases, have even a better understanding for Switzerland because they look from a certain distance at the country.

Berset gave an example of his use of the social media, publishing the picture below on his twitter account. It shows the OSA President Eggly in front of the audience in Baden.  


The annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad came after a meeting of the Council of the Swiss Abroad on Friday.

The assembly called on the government and parliament to grant all expats a right to have an account with a Swiss bank. It also adopted a resolution insisting the mandatory registration of Swiss expatriates is enshrined in law. 

Swiss diaspora

Nearly 732,000 Swiss citizens live abroad according to official data from December 2013.

Most of them are registered in neighbouring countries France, Germany and Italy.

There is also large Swiss community in North America.

Some 155,000 Swiss expats have registered to take part in nationwide votes and in elections in Switzerland.

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The cantons themselves decide whether or not to participate in Switzerland’s e-voting trials, while the federal government sets the overall strategy. As the security levels are upgraded, the numbers of voters allowed to vote electronically are increased.

Previously, only 10% of Swiss expatriates were allowed to vote electronically. This will be increased to 30% with the introduction of the second generation of e-voting procedures with individual verifiability using codes. The third generation of e-voting procedures will be introduced from 2020 onward. In principle this means that 100% of voters abroad could then cast their ballots electronically. Registered expatriates eligible to vote amount to 3% of the total electorate.

Progress since 2011

But it is not certain that all cantons will offer e-voting within the next six years, as only 14 out of 26 have signed on.

Some cantonal authorities have cited a lack of funds by way of explanation. Others are sceptical about the security of the existing systems. They want to wait and see how second-generation e-voting technology measures up.

This of course has implications for the number of expatriate Swiss who can vote via the internet. Those who cannot must cast their ballots using conventional post, which can be time-consuming and cumbersome.

However the Swiss abroad who hail from one of the 14 cantons participating in e-voting trials will be able to electronically elect the members of the House of Representatives next year.

As the elections to the Senate, the other parliamentary chamber, are conducted according to a completely different system that varies from canton to canton, e-voting for these elections will be available in only 12 cantons.

“The OSA made a huge effort to make e-voting available for the Swiss abroad in time for the 2015 parliamentary elections, initiating a petition in 2012 that garnered 15,000 signatures,” says OSA co-director Ariane Rustichelli. “The OSA regrets that this is not the case," she adds.

Nonetheless, enormous progress has been made. The 14 participating cantons cover 70% of the approximately 155,000 Swiss abroad who are eligible voters. This is a four-fold increase from the 2011 elections.

Paper quandary

The OSA has set a new goal of having e-voting available to 100% of their constituency in time for the 2019 elections.

But even if all 26 cantons agree to offer e-voting, a flaw in the system remains, namely, the delivery of voting material. Everything – the voting card, ballot and codes – is available in paper form only, so it has to be delivered by conventional post.

“There has been a lot of thought given to introducing paperless e-voting, but the time frame for its implementation is not yet clear," says Thomas Wehrli, leader of the e-voting project in canton Aargau.

Technically, paperless, fully electronic and completely secure e-voting is feasible. But implementing such a system would be an incredibly sophisticated, complex task. Its realisation thus remains in the distant future.

Instead, attention has turned to the possibility of introducing a second device into the process. Completely disconnected from the internet, it would be something like the devices banks provide to their customers for e-banking.

New methods need time

“The choice of a voting technology is always embedded in a political culture," explained Uwe Serdütexternal link, vice-director of the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy in Aarau.

He pointed out that "most communes still hold citizen assemblies" and that the introduction of postal voting – which was then a second option to voting at the polls – needed about 30 years before it became universally accessible.

Canton Basel Country was the first to introduce postal voting, in 1978, while Valais and Ticino, the last two cantons, did not offer it until 2005. "It looks like the administrative and political process for e-voting will also take about 30 years," Serdüt estimates.

Seen from this perspective, it might be that the year 2030 is a realistic time horizon for paperless e-voting to become universal. 

E-voting history

The first electronic voting trials took place in 2003 at a local level local in canton Geneva, followed by tests in cantons Neuchâtel and Zurich in 2005.

Geneva, Neuchâtel and Zurich each have their own systems, which are being continuously refined and further developed. The systems used in Zurich and Geneva are available by contract to other cantons. The Geneva system is used in the cantons of Basel City, Bern and Lucerne, while the cantons of Fribourg, Graubünden, Solothurn, Schaffhausen, St Gallen, Aargau and Thurgau share a single copy of the Zurich system and have joined together in an electronic voting consortium known as Vote électronique.

The four cantons of Basel Country, Graubünden, Aargau and St Gallen did e-voting trials for the first time in the parliamentary elections of 2011. Canton Zurich froze work on e-voting in 2011 to review the state of affairs. It will resume participating in trials from next year. Glarus will join thee-vote consortium, which now includes nine cantons, bringing to 14 the number of cantons participating in the e-voting trials.

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(Adapted from German by Kathleen Peters),

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