E-voting to advance slowly in 2011

The federal chancellery says e-voting carries risks Keystone

Cantons Zurich and Geneva have suspended a pilot programme to introduce online voting, a step that has repercussions for the rest of the country.

This content was published on December 30, 2010 - 21:14

The halt, and government-imposed limitations, have frustrated the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (Osa) which says democratic rights are too often held hostage by the vagaries of global postal services.

“It would have been appropriate for these two e-voting pilot cantons to have used the 2011 elections for first voting tests, since tests during nationwide votes have always been convincing,” the organisation said.

Canton Zurich blamed the postponement on technical issues and costs. Canton Geneva authorities are more worried about legal issues and want to avoid court battles.

While electronic voting would cost about SFr150 ($157) per vote in Zurich, Geneva could conduct an online ballot for about SFr15 per vote.

“It would be less than SFr2 if every Geneva expat or resident who could vote via the internet did so,” the cantonal chancellor said.

Subcontracting vs. public management

To explain the difference, Anja Wyden Guelpa highlights the management system in place in Geneva.

“Our system uses open-source software managed by the canton’s IT services,” she said. “That’s the opposite of Zurich, which uses a private company sub-contractor to manage part of it.”

This public management of electronic voting offers all the guarantees in terms of security and transparence, Guelpa said.

“Since 2000 we have successfully conducted 17 electronic votes monitored by a permanent electoral commission, made up of elected officials and experts named by the cantonal government.”

Yet despite the successes, the canton still postponed tests scheduled for 2011. “Before starting internet voting in elections, the canton wants to have a solid, clear legal basis to guard against the risk of court appeals,” Guelpa said.

After each vote, electronic or otherwise, appeals and disputes tend to surface. Electronic voting – even though ingrained in the cantonal constitution by more than 70 per cent of voters in 2009 – demands caution.

The cantonal chancellery also points to restrictions imposed by the federal government.

“In limiting the number of cantonal internet voters to 20 per cent and for all of Switzerland to ten per cent, we aren’t able to get out of the test phase,” Guelpa said.

“And after ten years of conclusive tests we’d like to be able to offer the three options [for voting – at a polling station, by mail or over the internet].”

Cautious government

Contacted by, the federal chancellery issued a statement. “Electronic voting carries risks. In addition to irregularities, serious consideration should be given to rumours of abuses committed abroad that could undermine confidence in electronic voting.”

“According to the cabinet, electronic voting can only be put into general use once all the players – voters, politicians and authorities – are familiar with the new procedures, have accepted them and have confidence in them. The government therefore opted for a careful approach by implementing electronic voting in steps.”

Since other Swiss cantons must rely upon the Zurich and Geneva systems, electronic voting remains on hold. But on an international scale, Switzerland is still a leader in the field.

Three phases

A feasibility study from 2000-2002 leads to the creation of electronic voting pilot programmes.

From 2002-2006, three cantons – Geneva, Zurich and Neuchâtel – begin pilot tests that ultimately show electronic voting is doable in Switzerland. The government agrees to move forward in stages. A strategy is approved by parliament in March 2007.

From 2006 until present, controlled voting tests are expanded into other cantons (hosted by Geneva or under a consortium that has taken up the Zurich system).

In addition to the three pilot cantons, nine others conduct e-voting tests on November 28, 2010. With 12 cantons involved, the number of eligible electronic voters climbs to 193,236. Just 28,912 voters cast their ballots electronically.

Source: Federal chancellery

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