Swiss Abroad furious about missing voting documents

Only documents from cantons Vaud and Valais have arrived reliably, according to feedback from the Swiss Abroad © Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

Tens of thousands of Swiss living abroad are estimated to have either not received their voting documents or received them too late to vote in this Sunday’s nationwide ballot. The reason: Covid-19.

This content was published on September 25, 2020 - 13:20
Matthias Stadler, Auckland

The situation has come despite the Swiss government sending a letter to cantonal governments on July 1, stressing that the early dispatch of documents was “particularly important at present”.

After the pandemic caused the cancellation of the May 17 votes, citizens are being asked to vote on five separate subjects on September 27 including immigration, paternity leave and fighter jets.

Numerous Swiss Abroad have complained on social media about missing documents. Katja Wallimann Gates is a delegate of the Swiss Abroad Council, which represents the interests of the almost 800,000 Swiss who don’t live in Switzerland. She estimates that around 30,000 Swiss Abroad have not received their voting documents or have received them too late.

Wallimann Gates, originally from Zurich, is one of them. “In my 25 years in Australia this has only ever happened twice.”

Some 190,000 Swiss Abroad are on the electoral roll worldwide. If her estimates are correct, just under one in six of them will not be able to exercise their right to vote on Sunday – “and that’s a conservative estimate,” she says.

According to feedback from the Swiss Abroad, only documents from cantons Vaud and Valais have arrived reliably.

The regions affected are those furthest away from Switzerland, she says. “Swiss Abroad in Europe and North America seem to have received most of the documents on time. But in Australia, probably just 9% of the Swiss Abroad who are entitled to vote received the envelope in time [to vote].”

She criticises the authorities, pointing out that because the votes on May 17 were merged with the ones on Sunday, people are now missing having their say twice.

“It’s as though the inhabitants of a city the size of Zug or a small canton couldn’t vote,” Wallimann Gates says. “That’s a distortion of [democracy].”

Whose fault?

The reason for the delay is apparently the chaos in international post caused by Covid-19. More remote areas such as Australia or New Zealand haven’t received any letters or parcels for weeks.

“I don’t understand why the cantons didn’t send the documents earlier, knowing that postal systems were struggling all around the world,” Wallimann Gates says.

The Federal Chancellery, which is responsible for conducting federal votes, has no idea how many Swiss Abroad are affected by the problem. It admitted in a statement that “from time to time there can be problems with the delivery of voting and election documents”.

The chancellery referred to the above-mentioned letter. “The cantons were asked to respond to the difficulty of delivery abroad by bringing forward the date for sending of documents to Swiss citizens abroad.”

Spokesperson Ursula Eggenberger added that “timely delivery depends largely on the quality of the postal services abroad”.

Swiss abroad take part in elections and votes using normal Swiss voting envelopes. The vote counts in the canton in which the voter last resided – so these cantons are responsible for sending the documents. Canton Zurich, as the most populous canton, has entrusted this task to the City of Zurich. Spokesperson Christina Stücheli wrote that the “decisive factors for dispatching the documents are beyond our control”.

She said the lead times were determined by numerous specifications, with the last possible date for parliamentary approval of a bill being “set rather tight”. The time for preparing and printing the documents – and therefore also the earliest possible time for dispatching them – was therefore also very tight, Stücheli said. In short: the cantons’ hands are tied by red tape.

Frustration

This is of little consolation to the Swiss Abroad, many of whom are frustrated precisely because important issues are at stake on Sunday.

By the beginning of 2019 ten cantons and Swiss Post had e-voting systems with which people could vote online, but these have now been put on hold owing to security concerns.

“We Swiss Abroad are dependent on [e-voting], because even before Covid-19 many people received election and voting documents too late,” Wallimann Gates says.

A government task force is currently working on a new system. If and when it will be ready is at yet unknown.

  

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