How e-voting became a fight for democracy
After years of tests and talks, e-voting in Switzerland is at a crossroads. The government wants to radically extend it, while a cross-party campaign wants to stop it in its tracks.
It’s not easy being the Swiss Post.
First, the internet came along and people stopped writing letters to each other.
More recently, in 2018, PostBus – a subsidiary company operating regional bus services – was mired in a subsidies scandal that led to the resignation of Swiss Post’s CEO, much public scrutiny, and recent calls for privatisationExternal link.
Then, almost a fortnight ago, a debilitating flaw was discovered in the Spanish-designed e-voting system that the postal service is planning to roll out in various cantons for this year’s parliamentary elections.
Now opposition to their e-voting project has jumped another notch: last week, a motley group of tech experts and politicians from multiple parties launched a campaign for a people’s initiative that (if accepted) would impose a five-year moratorium on any further e-voting experiments in Switzerland.
Nicolas A. Rimoldi, the 24-year-old member of the young Radical Liberal party from Lucerne who is coordinating the campaign, doesn’t hold back when it comes to implicating the state-funded body: Swiss Post has dealt with the e-voting bug in an “untransparent” and “irresponsible” way, he says, “downplaying warnings and risks” and “undermining trust”.
Trust and credibility, he says, are what democracy and elections are all about: his campaign reckons that both of these have been damaged by opaque e-voting systems and that it’s time to “make Swiss democracy safe again”.
But why is e-voting such a hot potato now? The first trial of such a system in Switzerland happened in 2003, and various cantonal experiments (around 300 at last count) have continued since.
One reason is that Switzerland has reached a point at which the technology looks set to be scaled up. The Federal Council, always a champion of e-voting, wants two-thirds of cantons to offer it for the elections this October (currently, only about 2% of Swiss voters cast their ballots online).
Of course, this is not guaranteed to happen: the government’s suggestion is just a suggestion, and cantons are free to take up or reject e-voting as they see fit. But Rimoldi says it’s time to stop the slow slide towards e-voting in general.
“After nearly two decades, hundreds of tests, and millions of francs, the system is still not right,” he says. “By now, it’s our duty to halt these developments.”
Another factor is the political climate. With the Mueller investigation in the United States, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, fears about fake news and opinion-shaping bots marauding through our online lives, the issue of election meddling – internal or external – is a big worry for those concerned with the integrity of democracies.
The hacker view
This quality of democracy is a driving concern for Hernani Marques of the Chaos Computer Club (CCC).
Marques is an IT specialist who meets with like-minded hackers and computer enthusiasts/utopistsExternal link in an open, living-space-style office near Zürich’s Hardbrücke station. He is firmly against the government’s e-voting plans on the grounds that the technology simply isn’t up to scratch, as the recent hacks show.
But he says the debate goes deeper than technology, arguing that it has become politicised mainly because “people don’t realise the risks involved”.
Some tend to conflate the use of technology for voting with the use of technology for services like online shopping or online banking, he says – services that appear to work fine. But this is democracy we are talking about, he points out.
“There’s no comparison!”
The status and stakes of e-voting in Switzerland
Indeed, as recent revelations from Canada-based privacy researcher Sarah Jamie LewisExternal link claimed, the current Swiss Post system of “shuffling” e-votes in order to protect the privacy of those who cast them is not fool-proof. Lewis’s research says that tampering, with or without insider collusion (e.g. a rogue Swiss Post employee) could thus be carried out undetected using a so-called mix server.
Marques warns that this could lead to large-scale voting fraud or even large-scale hoax campaigns. Those scenarios are not impossible under current, paper-based practices, but e-voting would put them on an infinitely wider scale, he says.
It’s not just the doomsday scenario of election meddling that irks the anti-e-voters. Other harmful effects on democracy loom, they argue: the sheer complexity of the processes, far from the comprehension of common voters; the effects on turnout rates (they aren’t boosted, Rimoldi says); higher costs, presumably to be footed by the taxpayer.
It has also been suggested that e-voting can exacerbateExternal link the very social disparities that it tries to tackle.
People like Marques feel that the general idea of e-voting is fine but that it is far from ready for implementation.
“Ultimately, we [the CCC] just don’t see how a system can be created to allow for true democratic control,” he says. “Perhaps it will never be, in the sense that it is also universally understandable, and thus trustworthy.” For him, the real hurdle is the guarantee of vote secrecy.
Rimoldi and his Chaos Computer Club agree.
But Swiss authorities do not. In its response to the recent hacker finding, the government urged Swiss Post to work to remove the bug, but highlighted that the results of the hack did not mean that the entire system was rotten; the problem simply lies in detecting whether or not manipulation has taken place, it said.
Spurred by constituencies including many Swiss voters abroad, the government will thus continue to champion e-voting as a way to promote engagement of more voters.
Swiss Post, meanwhile, duly asked Scytl – the Spanish firm contracted to develop the software – to fix the error, while a public hacking contest remains open until March 24 with prizes still on offer (Lewis didn’t receive one as she didn’t enter the competition; she wanted to expose the flaw publicly).
A fight for democracy
So what’s next? As far as Swiss Post is concerned, it’s business as usual. The bug will presumably be fixed, and its e-voting system rolled out wherever a canton asks for it (after the recent discontinuation of a ‘rival’ system developed by canton Geneva, Swiss Post is now the only viable e-voting game in town).
As for the opposition campaigners, they have until September 2020 to gather the 100,000 signatures needed to push the issue to a nationwide vote. Will they manage it? Under current conditions, drumming up support could be tough – surveys have shown that Swiss citizens have been (until now) broadly in favour of e-voting. But this was before recent media coverage around the hacks and roll-out problems.
As for democracy, it is taking centre stage. People on both sides of the debate are convinced that by pushing or opposing e-voting, respectively, they are boosting or safeguarding democracy, respectively. E-voting is becoming a much hotter topic than its early proponents might have expected.
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