Foreigners in Switzerland, who make up about a fifth of the population, can now have a say on federal issues via the internet, although their votes do not count.
Voting on November 28 should be of particular interest to immigrants - one of the issues the Swiss will decide on is whether to accept an initiative launched by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party that calls for the deportation of foreigners who are convicted of crime.
The voting is part of a project called Baloti which offers a multilingual platform for migrants to make their voice heard.
“The basic idea is to allow migrants living in Switzerland to have a say in Swiss politics and also to learn about the direct democracy system here,” Uwe Serdült, a researcher at the Centre for Democracy Studies in Aarau, told swissinfo.ch.
Serdült believes this has a symbolic value: “We give them a voice in a way. They all work here. They pay taxes and we give them a say in Swiss politics. At the same time they can also learn about how it works here.”
Another reason for the project, supported by the federal authorities, is that one day, many of the immigrants will become naturalised and will therefore have the right to vote for real.
The software for the project is called Selectio Helvetica light and was developed and hosted by the e-voting group of the Bern University of Applied Sciences in partnership with Fribourg University and the Swiss E-Voting Competence Center.
E-voting research assistant Oliver Spycher told swissinfo.ch that it was a fairly sophisticated system.
“Every voter gets a voting code sent by email. These voting codes are pre-computed on our server and when a voter wants to register as a voter of Baloti, he indicates his email address and the Baloti servers sign those email addresses if the system thinks this is an eligible voter.
“The email address with the signature comes to our server and if the signature is valid from Baloti, we send that voter his voting code and this allows the voter to cast his vote.”
The software is also intricate because it requires certain operational measures to guarantee the secrecy of the ballot and can be said to be comparable to existing e-voting systems in the real world, for example in Estonia, Norway and Geneva.
Baloti comes in 11 languages and provides neutral information on the issues at stake, with support from the Vimentis organisation, which supplies other unbiased background material on Swiss politics.
But there are a few pitfalls when it comes to language. “Think of ex-Yugoslavia with conflicts between Serbs and Croats and all the different groups there,” Serdült said.
“We have to make sure we don’t use any language that offends in the content we have on the website.”
Baloti’s first test came with September’s vote on the reforms to the unemployment insurance system. In reality they were accepted by 53 per cent of the electorate but 59.6 per cent of Baloti voters turned them down, although there were only 270 valid votes in total.
“We had about 3,000 visitors on the website and only ten per cent really voted in the end. We have to build up trust and confidence in it. It’s not known yet and there’s still a long way to go to have higher numbers,” Serdült admitted.
With that in mind, Baloti is now pushing hard to work with migrant organisations in all Swiss cantons. Serdült hopes that there will be many more users on the website because of November’s foreigners’ vote.
No great difference
“Our main hypothesis is also that Swiss migrants politically do not differ much from Swiss citizens…
“We might be wrong but we think that once we have high numbers on the website we can actually prove that you have as many leftist or conservative or rightwing people among the Swiss migrants as in the Swiss population and this will be interesting to observe in the future.”
Serdült describes the criteria for the success of the venture as “quite cruel”.
“We need votes on the system and visitors to the site. If by the end of the pilot [project] which is at the end of 2011, we only come up with a couple hundred of users, then there’s simply no interest in the website…The Federal Commission for Migration Issues expects to have a couple of thousand voters and that’s in a way our internal goal,” he said.
The word baloti is Esperanto for to vote or to elect. During the pilot phase, which lasts till the end of 2011, migrants can have their say on matters of national importance.
The 11 different languages available are: Albanian, German, English, Croatian, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Serbian, Tamil and Turkish.
The results of the migrants’ vote are published on the Baloti internet site.
The project is being carried out by the Centre for Democracy Studies in Aarau, Neuchâtel University and the Bern University for Applied Sciences. It has received government funding of SFr200,000 ($202,737).
The Centre for Democracy Studies in Aarau has chosen the SH light programme as Baloti’s e-voting system.
Selectio Helvetica (SH) is a project aiming to provide voters with the confidence that their electronic vote is counted as intended, that the final tally
includes all cast votes, that only authorised votes are counted (verifiability)
and that the secrecy of the ballot is respected (privacy).
SH light is a product that satisfies the privacy requirement by combining cryptographic and organisational measures. Remote e-voting systems used by governments currently rely on the same approach.
SH light requires two types of interaction with the voter. Before casting a vote, the voter needs to obtain his personal voting code by indicating his email address. If the vote organiser considers the email address to be valid, i.e. belonging to an eligible voter, the voting provider instructs the voting host to send a voting code to that address.
The same voting code can optionally be re-used in subsequent voting.
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