The Insider’s view of Swiss e-voting
Voting via the internet is a key element in Switzerland’s e-government strategy. The authorities have decided to proceed with this project with caution. Corina Casanova, Federal Chancellor of Switzerland says the introduction of e-voting is taking place step by step, and the watchword is “security before speed”
Switzerland is the home of direct democracy. Citizens have extensive rights to have their say at all three levels of the state: the Confederation, the cantons and the communes. Not only can they elect their representatives to parliament, but they also vote regularly on specific issues. Another characteristic of Swiss democracy is that the means of participating are constantly changing and developing. Since 1994, all those eligible to vote in national elections and other votes have been able to do so by post. Postal voting has proved extremely popular and is now by far the most common method used.
E-voting is a logical extension of postal voting. Instead of receiving the required documents in paper form, filling them out and sending them back or placing them in the ballot box at the polling station, citizens should be able to vote by computer if they so wish. E-voting also takes account of social developments and represents an important step into the digital future for the Swiss political system. Under the Federal Council’s e-government strategy, businesses and members of the public should be able to carry out all their most important transactions with government authorities online. The option of voting via the internet is a key element in this strategy.
The advantages of electronic voting over postal voting or going to the polling station are obvious. Sending the documents and completing the ballot papers online is more efficient than doing so by conventional post, in particular for voters living abroad. Persons with impaired vision can also exercise their voting rights more easily and independently at their computer than if they have to complete a ballot paper or indeed go to the polling station.
E-voting allows errors on ballot papers to be identified and thus prevents invalid votes from being cast. And lastly, e-voting is a response to the needs and preferences of an increasingly digital society. For these reasons, the Swiss authorities have set themselves the goal of providing their citizens with the chance to participate in the political process by voting online.
Security before speed
However, e-voting is not without its risks. If anyone gains unauthorised access to the voting systems, they could obtain data on the voters or in the worst case even manipulate the results. Although abuses cannot be excluded in postal voting, with e-voting the potential damage is greater, because a hacker could potentially manipulate all the data in the system.
In order to take account of these risks, the Swiss authorities have opted for the gradual and carefully controlled introduction of electronic voting. E-voting still remains in a test phase, in which the number of voters who can access the electronic voting system is limited.
The legal regulations on e-voting are being constantly evaluated and amended to take account of political and technical developments. Currently the issue of verifiability is the focus for these modifications. It must be possible to verify whether the votes have been transmitted, recorded and counted correctly. The authorities’ credibility is an essential element in any democracy. Voters must have confidence in the security of the e-voting system if it is to gain political and social acceptance. Even though the authorities have set themselves the goal of introducing e-voting across the board, they have still accorded security a greater importance than the speed at which the system is introduced.
Starting 15 years ago
Alongside direct democracy, federalism is one of the most important features of the Swiss political system. The cantons extensive autonomy has also had an influence on the introduction of e-voting. The Confederation issues the legislation and authorises the use of electronic voting systems. However, the cantons are free to decide whether to introduce e-voting and if so, what system they wish to offer their citizens.
The e-voting project was launched 15 years ago. The first trials were held at national votes in 2004 and 2005 in three of the 26 cantons. Since then, the system has been gradually expanded. In 2008, legislation came into force on the phased introduction of e-voting in the cantons and for Swiss voters living abroad. It quickly became clear that the Swiss abroad gained particular benefit from and had a special interest in voting online. At present, three different e-voting systems are being used.
In the referendum on 14 June this year, 14 cantons offered the option of electronic voting; 12 of these only offered it to voters living abroad, while two made the offer to a limited number of voters in their cantons. In the first 12 cantons, more than half of those who chose to vote did so electronically. In the two other cantons, the online turnout was considerably lower.
Before every ballot, the cantons must submit a new application to use e-voting. In mid-August, the Federal Council unfortunately had to refuse authorisation for one of the three systems to be used in the national elections on 18 October of this year. An external audit revealed a previously unrecognised defect in the system for protecting voting secrecy. Technically, this problem can be solved, but not in time for the system to be used in the elections.
In the short-term, the decision is a setback for e-voting in Switzerland, but in the medium to long-term, it will prove beneficial, because it increases the authorities’ credibility. They have demonstrated that they do indeed regard security as more important than speed.