Expats push e-voting despite political hurdles

The Swiss abroad want e-voting introduced by 2011

The introduction of e-voting is high on the agenda of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), gathering for its annual congress in Fribourg this weekend.

This content was published on August 22, 2008 - 08:03

Switzerland is at the forefront of efforts to introduce electronic voting and e-government in Europe. But progress is slow because of the country's federalist political system and multilingualism, as well as politicians who fear they could lose out.

The Council of the Swiss Abroad, a senior body within the OSA, is widely expected to approve a resolution on Friday, calling on the authorities to forge ahead with plans on e-voting.

Trials have taken place in three cantons in the past few years and Switzerland is considered a front-runner on e-voting.

"Only Britain, Estonia and the Netherlands are ahead of Switzerland. Other countries such as Germany or Austria have not even staged trials with e-voting," says Robert Krimmer of the Vienna-based Competence Centre for Electronic Voting and Participation.

The OSA has been pushing for e-voting for years, saying the present situation is untenable as ballot papers often arrive late or are sent in the wrong language version.

The federal authorities have said it cannot be hastily introduced in a country divided into 26 cantons and more than 2,700 local authorities, all of which organise and administer ballots.

"It is a bit like in the early days of missions into space. You have to learn to take off before you make trips into the solar system," says Hans-Urs Wili of the Federal Chancellery.


He says it is vital to ensure the security of ballots and to guarantee that voters remain anonymous.

Experts also mention the need for voters to help maintain their anonymity by keeping their computers virus-free.

Another major obstacle is the political structure and linguistic diversity of the country.

"Every attempt to unify and centralise the system – or change old habits - has failed since the 1848 constitution," says Wili.

Any reforms are complicated by the fact that Switzerland has four official languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh – and cantons are in charge of keeping vote registers.

"Every Swiss abroad has the right to documentation in the official languages of his or her canton. In other words, we need an IT system with thousands of links and translations for navigation between the different language versions," says Wili.

Personal interest

It also takes time to centralise the vote registers, a first step towards an electronic log. The cantons have been given two years to streamline the Swiss expatriate files in their communes.

By the end of June 2009 the 26 cantons will decide on the e-voting system of their choice.

OSA President Jacques-Simon Eggly has called on his home canton of Geneva to develop a centralised vote-counting system.

"But even in a pioneering canton there is opposition," he says.

But it's more than the complex political structure that slows down efforts to introduce e-voting.

"Politicians tend to think twice about the impact of a change in the voting system in a structure with so many players and decision makers as Switzerland," says Robert Krimmer, the author of a comparative study on e-voting in Europe.

He points out politicians will naturally want to defend their interests and are therefore only in favour of change if it benefits them personally.

"They don't trust the widespread perception that e-voting has no impact on voters' preferences for a particular political party. Research on the issue has not been conclusive, " says Krimmer.

The authorities aim to introduce e-voting on a federal level by 2011, but 2015 appears to be a more realistic target.

"We have to start modestly if we want to avoid nullifying the result of elections or a nationwide vote because of technical or security problems," says Wili of the Federal Chancellery.

swissinfo, based on articles by Isabelle Eichenberger and Andreas Keiser

Key facts

At the end of last year there were 668,107 registered Swiss living abroad – an increase of 3.6% on 2006.
Almost a third of them are based in European Union member countries, mainly France, Germany, and Italy.
The largest community of Swiss expatriates outside Europe is in the US.
Considerable numbers of Swiss abroad also live in Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Israel and South Africa.

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In brief

The Council of the Swiss Abroad is made up of 160 representatives of the expatriate community and of public life in Switzerland.

The assembly, which meets twice a year, is the senior body of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).

This year's congress, taking place in the western city of Fribourg from August 22-24, focuses on relations with the EU, notably the continuation and extension of the labour accord with Brussels.

High on the agenda of the council meeting are e-voting and planned budget cuts for the bi-monthly Swiss Review magazine.

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Around 80% of Swiss expatriates registered to vote have access to the internet.

Postal voting was introduced in 1992 and the introduction of electronic voting is scheduled for 2015, according to the Federal Chancellery.

The introduction of e-voting is expected to require an investment of up to SFr600 million ($548.5 million).

Trials with e-voting have been launched in three of the country's 26 cantons, including Geneva, with the approval of the federal authorities.

Swiss expatriate voters hailing from canton Neuchâtel were part of a trial last June. A similar test is planned for those from canton Basel-City next year.

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