Switzerland: i-voting and direct democracy

The story of internet voting in Switzerland started with first legislative preparations in the year 2000 and is maybe more turbulent than you would expect from this country –but more on these meanders and ups and downs later.

Let us first have a look where Switzerland stands regarding the actual use of internet voting for binding political decisions when compared internationally. Estonia –with an electorate of 885’000 entitled to vote electronically and a user rate of 46.7% in the latest elections in 2019– has had the most encompassing experience so far. Switzerland can eventually claim to having had the ‘most frequent’ usage. From 2003 to 2018, more than 300 referendum votes or elections took place, over time involving more than 150 municipalities.

Internet voting was first available in the Canton of Geneva, later on it was expanded to other cantons and eventually to Swiss nationals living abroad. Due to the strongly decentralised Swiss political system even for national votes, the cantons are in charge of implementing all matters related to elections and referendums, including internet voting. The national level provides for an umbrella law on political rights, a very detailed ordinance on internet votingi as well as a body of supervision (Federal Chancellery). Cantons are completely free to offer the digital voting channel or not. However, from a public management point of view, internet voting is very much a joint undertaking involving the cantons, the already mentioned Federal Chancellery as well as private vendors and academia.

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The most notable difference with internet voting compared to traditional voting is the fact that it is a form of remote voting, taking place in an uncontrolled environment where, strictly speaking, there is no guarantee of vote secrecy. Swiss citizens living in a constituency offering internet voting receive all necessary credentials via regular mail about three weeks ahead of the voting day. For the authorities, who exactly is voting from home via the internet is impossible to detect. Whereas such procedures are not imaginable in many countries, it is already the norm in Switzerland because of postal voting. Gradually, Switzerland changed from mainly voting at the ballot box to postal voting, which already brought about a change in the political culture before internet voting started. Nowadays 80-90 percent of votes are cast three to four times a year by dropping an envelope (in many but not all municipalities with a pre-paid postage) containing the signed voting card and the ballots into a yellow letterbox of the Swiss post. The generalisation of postal voting in all cantons took roughly thirty years, and we should therefore not expect the introduction of the electronic voting channel to happen overnight either.

There is of course a political debate on the pros and cons of internet voting, temporarily a very agitated and heated one. Interestingly, the debate cuts across the political spectrum with representatives of the left wing Greens and the national-conservative Swiss Peoples Party most fervently being against it. Surprisingly, most youth sections of political parties also called for a halt.

The discussion typically crystalizes around the topic of cyber and data security. Technically, the options to make internet voting safe enough exist, but in real life things can get messy. In case the user is guided onto a fake website (phishing) he or she might not notice and give credentials necessary to identify and validate the vote away to third parties. Since trust in the voting procedure and in the final result is the most important currency in elections the shear doubt arising because of potential hacking can already be devastating for a democracy. At least initially, an internet voting system also creates additional costs and thus a financial burden to tax payers.

On the pro side, we can note that internet voting helps to reduce erroneous votes due to complicated election procedures. It also allows Swiss citizens living far away to exercise their political rights. Compared to postal voting, the voter receives direct electronic feedback, as a confirmation of the individual vote having arrived at the digital ballot box (individual verification). At the final stage (which is not implemented yet), votes would be published on an electronic bulletin board allowing independent third party tools to check whether the votes were also correctly counted (universal verification).

Despite the fact that internet voting is a debated issue among experts and politicians alike, representative surveys show a large part of Swiss society rather or completely in favour of internet voting, overall in the range of 70 percent. The younger generation, people living in less densely populated areas but also in urban areas are typically rather supportive and open for the digital voting channel. However, people answering these surveys did not necessarily have the opportunity to make use of internet voting because most of them live in an area or canton in Switzerland where it is simply not available.

When we look at actual use of internet voting based on vote register data, for example in the Canton of Geneva, we can see that citizens of 40 years and older are the most faithful users. This result came quite to a surprise to us.

In general, unlike in Estonia, in Switzerland user rates are not that high yet when we look at municipalities with internet voting. Even though a relatively large part of the population initially tested internet voting out of curiosity (in the 30%-40% range), half of them abandoned it soon after and reverted to postal or ballot box voting. Whether this is due to the quite frequent interruptions, lack of convenience compared to postal voting or distrust in the Internet in general is not clear and would be quite costly to find out. One would need to contact a large number of citizens until a big enough sample of internet voters would be at hand to come up with a sound scientific analysis. In Switzerland at least, with postal voting fully implemented, it also became clear that turnout would not necessarily go up because of internet voting. Our analysis actually shows that turnout did not even rise for younger citizens below 25 years old.v

Currently, internet voting in Switzerland has been put on hold. Instead of offering two thirds of all cantons the digital voting channel for the upcoming general elections this October, as announced by the Federal Council in Fall 2018, none will have this opportunity. How did this come about? The implementation history of internet voting is a tricky one. Many of the cantons, especially the three initial pilot cantons Geneva, Neuchâtel and Zurich, each with their own respective technical solution, occasionally stopped offering the digital channel because of legal and operational problems. There is no space here to go into detail. However, the first major big blow to internet voting occurred shortly before the national elections in 2015 when the technical solution developed by a private vendor for Zurich, used by a consortium of eight cantons, did not pass the security audit. The public domain internet voting system propagated by Geneva was discontinued in 2018, mainly due to a lack of financial resources which would have been necessary for updating the system to the newest technical standards. Finally, the only remaining system, originally developed by the Canton of Neuchâtel in a public-private partnership with private company Scytl, now run by the Swiss Post will not be available for at least some time either. A public intrusion test on the future system of the Swiss Post also offering universal verification revealed some serious flaws and negligence in the code also affecting the actual system in use. The Swiss Post therefore decided to discontinue the old system as a preventive measure and to only fix the new system, eventually offering it again in 2020. In addition, opponents of internet voting launched a citizens’ initiative and are currently collecting signatures asking for a five-year moratorium as well as for a system even lay people can understand. The latter requirement would de facto mean the end of internet voting in Switzerland.

To be continued …

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