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Interview: Remo Gysin Expat Swiss lament government’s ‘lack of leadership’ on e-voting

Man with mobile phone taking picture of screen code

It is crucial for the expatriate Swiss community to have access to a secure e-voting system not take part in votes and elections. 

(Alexandra Wey/Keystone)

What does the factual end of e-voting options mean for the expatriate Swiss community? The president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) expresses concerns and outlines the options ahead of the October parliamentary elections.  

E-voting is no longer an option for voters in Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, following a recent government decision to drop plans for the permanent introduction of online tools and the withdrawals of the two systems in use for an extended trial phase.  

The authorities and IT companies have put forward technical flaws and security concerns amid growing public scepticism about the technology.  

OSA President Remo Gysin

(© Keystone/Anthony Anex)

The OSAexternal link was shocked to learn about the government’s policy change, having invested considerable resources in the promotion of e-voting over the past 16 years, according to its president Remo Gysin.  

The issue features prominently at the session of the Swiss Abroad Council taking place ahead of the annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad on August 17 and 18 in Montreux. Gysin recently shared his views on what happens next. 

swissinfo.ch: More than a month ago, the Swiss government decided to abandon its plans to introduce e-voting on a permanent basis. How much of a blow was it for the expat Swiss community?   

Remo Gysin: The government decision took us by surprise, it was a serious let-down. It’s a shame for our democracy and reflects badly on Switzerland’s ambitions as a hub for technological innovation.  

swissinfo.ch: Why is the option of e-voting so crucial for the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad?  

R.G.: The roughly 180,000 expatriate Swiss eligible to take part in votes and elections receive their ballot papers by post. The envelopes often arrive late – too late – to give them time to study the issues at stake in a vote or to choose candidates in an election. By the time the envelopes arrive back in Switzerland, the votes have long since been counted.  

Info graphic about expatriate Swiss community at end of 2018
(Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch)

The problem of slow postal services exists not only in less industrialised, faraway countries, but it also affects expats with a Swiss passport living in remote regions of neighbouring France, Germany and Italy. 

In other words: E-voting is the only practical channel for the Swiss living abroad to exercise their democratic rights guaranteed by the Swiss constitution.  

swissinfo.ch: The government decision prompted a flood of mostly negative reactions by readers of the Swiss Revue magazineexternal link for expat Swiss and on social media channels. The general feeling is of disappointment mixed with incomprehension. Some argue it also as a ploy to exclude a minority living outside the country that has possibly a more critical view of Switzerland. Do you share these suspicions?  

R.G.: I don’t think the latest decision is part of a strategy to exclude the expat Swiss community from the democratic process.  

The OSA has always had the support of the Swiss government and its administration in the past, also in our efforts to introduce the postal vote in the 1990s. Until recently, both the federal and the cantonal authorities have showed understanding for our concerns.  

Having said that, the political willingness and the financial support to push ahead with e-voting has begun to flag. After 16 years of successful trials with online technology, we expect the Swiss authorities to do better. We want them to be more active, while we acknowledge that the promotion of digitalisation has been quite high up on the government agenda.  

swissinfo.ch: Who is to blame for debacle over the introduction of e-voting in your opinion?  

R.G.: At the heart of the problem is the question about data security and a lack of coordination between the different stakeholders.  

It has not been possible to guarantee beyond a doubt that the systems in use until recently were able to withstand attacks by hackers. Security is paramount and comes before speed when introducing e-voting, also for the OSA.  

Added to this comes the federalist state structure of Switzerland and the many different players: the IT companies as providers of the systems, the cantonal and local authorities implementing the e-vote system, the Swiss government as promoter as well as the citizens as users.  

In our opinion there has been a noticeable lack of leadership by the Swiss government as coordinator, and promoter of a reliable and trustworthy e-voting system to guarantee the political rights. This has been and will remain the key role for the federal authorities in the future.  

If there’s anything to be learnt from the disaster, it’s this: the full commitment of the Swiss government is crucial.  

swissinfo.ch: What concrete steps did the OSA take in the past to promote e-voting?  

R.G.: It would require more time and space than we have at our disposal here to list all the efforts made by the OSA to push e-voting in public, in parliament, talking to both the national and cantonal governments and to other players. Be it through personal contacts, by raising awareness, providing information, participating in consultation procedures for legal reforms, lobbying in parliament and among the political parties.  

The Council of the Swiss Abroad – the assembly of expatriate Swiss delegates – has passed three resolutions since 2011, taking our demands to a global audience. A fourth effort is underway and will be discussed at the next session of the council in Montreux.  

Last November, the OSA handed in more than 11,000 signatures collected within a short time for a petition calling for the introduction of e-voting for all Swiss living in countries around the world.  

Two years ago, we used the e-voting system, provided by canton Geneva, to elect representatives from Australia and Mexico to the Council of the Swiss Abroad.  

swissinfo.ch: How many financial or personnel resources of the OSA have gone into the promotion of e-voting over the years?  

R.G.: We didn’t list the work that went towards e-voting separately. But it is safe to say that countless hours and much energy was invested in it. This was all part of the regular budgets of the organisation.  

The brunt of the financial costs was shouldered by the companies developing the systems and by the cantons. I’m not surprised some of the cantons consider filing for financial compensation.  

swissinfo.ch: What do you say to critics who accuse the OSA of having failed utterly in promoting the introduction of e-voting?  

R.G.: Nobody is perfect. But without being presumptuous, I can’t see what we could and should have done differently to avoid the current deadlock.  

Besides, and not to be underestimated, we succeeded in putting this topic on the public agenda, triggering an intense political debate between supporters and opponents, notably the group which launched a people’s initiative calling for a factual end to any moves aimed at introducing e-voting.  

swissinfo.ch: Did the OSA discount the opposition or the technical flaws of the systems in use for too long?  

R.G.: I don’t think so. We have always followed the discussions about security aspects closely over the past 16 years and we invited opponents to present their arguments to the Council of the Swiss Abroad.  

We have been aware of the possible difficulties, but it is not our task to develop a technical system ourselves.  

How come a country like Estonia can introduce e-voting and how come the Swiss banks put into place a system considered secure for financial transactions? But the technology sector of our country, known for its top position in science and innovation, appears to be incapable of making sufficient progress in this field.  

swissinfo.ch: The promoters of an initiative calling for a moratorium on e-voting have begun to collect signatures. But do you find it reassuring to learn that the Avenir Suisse think tank found in a recent study that it is only a matter of time before voting with online tools will be available?  

R.G.: I believe that the initiative is a worst-case scenario for Switzerland’s IT industry and its competitive edge as well as for the country’s democracy and for expatriate Swiss citizens in particular. 

If accepted by voters, it would mean at least five years of technological standstill and an insurmountable hurdle for many expat Swiss to participate in the political decision-making process within the direct democratic system of their country of origin.  

I welcome and share the conclusion of the think tank experts. But it’s a cold comfort. It is not enough to have a solution sometime in the future. We are fighting for the introduction of e-voting in the next few years.  

swissinfo.ch: No e-voting for the parliamentary elections in October means many disappointed and frustrated expats. What now?  

R.G.: In French, they say: reculer pour mieux sauter (take a step back before moving forward). The Swiss Abroad Councilexternal link will discuss a resolution calling on the government to throw its full weight behind new attempts to develop a new e-voting system with improved security.  

We are waiting for the government to present the next policy steps in 2020, in line with a pledge made in June.  

As for the October elections, we appeal to the cantonal and local authorities to send out the ballot papers and the information booklets as soon as possible, using electronic mailing wherever it is an option. This won’t solve the problem entirely, but it can help.  

The contribution of the OSA is two-fold: All the political parties and candidates are given a platform at the congress in Montreuxexternal link to present themselves and their agendas to the expat Swiss community directly. We will also ensure that the information is distributed via electronic media, including in the Swiss Revue but also with our accounts on Facebook and Twitter, to the public around the world. 

'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.


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