E-vote trials face high hurdles for elections

First trials with e-voting were launched in 2003 Keystone

Electronic voting on a large scale is not on the cards for October’s parliamentary elections, but limited trials are likely to continue this year.

This content was published on March 5, 2011 minutes

The government will decide in June on the extension of the tests, which are currently underway in about half of the country’s 26 cantons, and among registered Swiss expatriates.

E-voting remains one of the political priorities of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), which represents the nearly 700,000 expatriates living in all four corners of the world.

For some time registered Swiss citizens living abroad have been able to cast postal ballots in votes and elections in Switzerland.

But complaints about the slow, and in some countries insufficiently reliable, service underscore the need for e-voting to give the expat community its democratic rights.

“The mail sometimes arrives here with a delay of a month, making it impossible to participate in Swiss polls,” said Pierino Lardi, who lives in Venezuela.

Postman comes late

The postal service time lag is even more of an issue in elections because of tight deadlines for the delivery of official ballot papers.

A real problem is run-off elections scheduled within three weeks of a first round, according to OSA director Rudolf Wyder, as shown in a new case in canton Bern. (see box: Legal case)

“There is simply not enough time to send out and return the ballot sheets. In such cases the Swiss Abroad are disadvantaged.”

Wyder says e-voting could help to put the expat community on a par with voters in Switzerland and boost turnout, which is currently about 25 per cent among registered expats.

“Don’t ask me to speculate on how much turnout could increase. But I think the sooner e-voting is introduced the better.”


It is not that nothing has been done to promote e-voting over the past decade. About 20 trials of different scope have been carried out in three cantons since 2003 using different systems.

Over the years other cantons have joined the tests, adopting either the models of Geneva or Zurich. Only Neuchâtel goes it alone as its IT system is more comprehensive than elsewhere and comprises not only e-voting, but also e-government services, including tax issues.

By February this year nearly half the Swiss cantons were participating in the trial phase.

The latest tests passed off without incident and “to the full satisfaction of the authorities”, according to the Federal Chancellery, which is charge of overseeing and coordinating e-voting.


But despite the flawless record the trials will be suspended for October’s parliamentary election in all three pioneering cantons.

The authorities in Geneva argue the legal basis is not sufficient to extend e-voting to the elections. They say there is too much at stake at a political level to risk possible court cases.

Zurich quotes technical as well as financial difficulties for online election tests. Neuchâtel for its part says it has no specific issues, but considers it too early to launch into such tests for the elections as special technical preparations are necessary.

“In a vote on a issue it is either yes or no. But things get more complicated in elections, where names can be struck off, or added to the ballot paper,” said Séverine Despland of canton Neuchâtel’s chancellery.

Carrying on

Still, trials with e-voting are set to continue in Neuchâtel at a local level next year as requested by the federal authorities, said Despland.

The Federal Chancellery says tests have not altogether come to an end, and it discounts some media reports as misleading.

“Certain articles in the press raised questions about the feasibility of the e-vote project. But the issue is so complex that any simplified explanation will inevitably lead to misunderstandings,” a statement said.

The chancellery hopes that some cantons will nevertheless be interested in trying out e-voting on a small scale during the elections. The cabinet is expected to decide on applications in the next few months.

The government is keen to pursue its strategy on e-voting approved by parliament in 2007.

“Our aim is to respond to a real need of the Swiss living abroad,” the chancellery added.


First trials with electronic voting took place in communes in canton Geneva (2003) and Neuchâtel as well as Zurich (2005).

By early 2011 several other cantons (Basel City, St Gallen, Solothurn, Fribourg, Aargau, Lucerne, Graubünden, Schaffhausen and Thurgau) had followed suit.

The trials, carried out with different electronic systems, are restricted to 10% of the potential electorate during the period of 2007-2011, according to the government.

Around 177,500 citizens, including 55,000 Swiss expatriates, were eligible to cast their vote over the internet in February’s nationwide vote on gun control.

Just over 14% took part in the ballot using the online system, according to the Federal Chancellery.

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Legal case

Legal complaints have been filed over the delivery of ballot papers for a run-off election for a senate seat in canton Bern on March 6.

The plaintiffs, a Swiss expatriate in France and a representative of the Swiss abroad community, say registered expats received the ballot sheets too late and have been deprived of their democratic rights.

The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad has called for the introduction of e-voting to avoid a recurrence of similar cases.

The justice authorities say they will examine the complaint only after voting day.

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