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Farewell to the ballot box?

Fears of attacks by hackers remain the biggest worry about e-voting

(Keystone Archive)

This weekend, Geneva is moving a step closer to becoming the first place to introduce voting via the Internet.

As the whole country votes on important national and local issues, 16,000 Geneva students will become electoral guinea pigs, giving the canton's e-voting system its first major workout.

"It will be the first time it has been used in a real-life situation, with a real load on the system. We're pretty optimistic," says Michel Warynski, head of the project.

The test will be closely watched, not only in Switzerland, but also elsewhere in Europe, where e-voting is seen as having great potential for improving democracy. But it is also not without risks.

Cyber-government

Geneva was asked to launch the e-vote pilot project by the federal government, which has thrown itself wholeheartedly into an e-government, or cyber-administration, scheme with which it intends to improve contact between the people and the authorities.

"E-democracy" at the federal level will certainly take several more years, not least because there is not yet any legal basis for such voting.

But Geneva, where such legal provision does exist, is hoping to conduct the world's first binding vote over the Internet in the first half of next year - if this weekend's experiment is considered a success.

More than half of Switzerland's homes are connected to the Internet, and the figure for Geneva is well above this average. It is also the home to many high-tech companies, the world's biggest telecommunications fair and CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, where the worldwide web was born.

It is, in short, the obvious place to conduct such an experiment.

Increased "turnout"

Internet voting has distinct advantages, say its supporters. It is considered an attractive option for younger voters, while at the same time offering disabled people and voters who live abroad a greater say in the democratic process.

Initial research shows that the idea e-voting is gaining in popularity in Geneva, and suggests it could boost participation by up to ten per cent. Seventy-six per cent of people say they would vote more often if voting via the Internet was available to them.

In Switzerland's unique system of direct democracy, people are called to vote several times a year: "The message we've been getting is that the public is looking for convenience," says Claude Bonard, secretary general of Geneva's cantonal Chancellery, which is coordinating the project.

"There is a high desirability among the Geneva electorate for e-voting. We believe turnout could be significantly boosted," says Alexandre Trechsel, deputy head of Geneva University's Centre for Direct Democracy Studies (C2D), which has conducted feasibility studies into the new system.

The last innovation in the voting process - the introduction of postal ballots - had precisely that effect, increasing "turnout" for cantonal referenda from a low of around 20 per cent to almost 50 per cent. Today 90 per cent of ballots are cast by post.

Security concerns

The biggest question marks concern security - preventing electoral fraud through hacking or viruses and guaranteeing the anonymity of voters. To this end, a series of measures are being taken, from special voting cards containing secret PIN codes to an encryption system.

Experts from CERN and Geneva University, as well as experienced computer hackers have been trying to find a chink in the system's armour. None has been found.

The principal weakness is not in the system, but with the user - it is difficult to guarantee the security of individual home computers.

"This is the weak point. We have no control over PCs," Warynski tells swissinfo. He says the system is protected by a public certificate which allows users to check the reliability of their server. "If they are not, they'd better use another way of voting," he adds.

"There is no voting system that is 100 per cent secure - even at a polling booth," Trechsel says.

"We had the same concerns when we introduced postal voting," Bonard agrees.

Virtual forum

Officials at both the cantonal and federal level are very much aware of the digital divide in society and are keen to stress that e-voting will complement other forms of voting, and not replace them.

It does, however, fit in with a wider concept of e-democracy, whereby the Internet gives citizens a new forum in which to interact with their elected representatives.

"We foresee the creation of a virtual public space, with official bulletins and discussion forums," Trechsel says. "The Internet could increase not only turnout, but also the quality of democracy through better information."

by Roy Probert


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