E-voting trials to be resumed in new format

Geneva was one of the first to introduce the option of online voting in Switzerland in 2004. But the trials were stopped last year due to serious security flaws and growing opposition. Keystone/Martial Trezzini

The Swiss government has announced plans to relaunch limited trials of electronic voting 18 months after suspending such schemes due to security flaws.

This content was published on December 21, 2020 - 14:31
Urs Geiser with additional reporting by Balz Rigendinger

The aim is to offer online voting with clearer security requirements, increased transparency and closer cooperation with independent experts, all of which should help to regain the confidence of citizens, according to Walter Thurnherr.

Thurnherr leads the Federal Chancellery, the body in charge of administering e-voting for the national government.

“We have learnt the lessons of the previous trial phase,” Thurnherr said at a news conference on Monday.

The federal authorities will only authorise fully verifiable systems which should also allow detection of any attacks by hackers, he added. Experts will continually audit the systems in use, which will be open to public testing with financial rewards under a so-called bug-bounty programme.

Thurnherr said the offer of e-voting was crucial notably for the community of expat Swiss citizens as well as for the younger generation in general and for visually impaired people.

He said the current Covid pandemic had proven the potential of the digitalisation of direct democratic procedures.

Asked about potential technical flaws in new systems, Thurnherr assured that the security requirements are higher, and the risks lower compared with previous offers.

New trials with online voting are expected to begin in 2022. But the maximum number of participants has been restricted to 30% of the electorate per canton, or 10% nationwide.

So far, three of the country’s 26 cantons plan to launch new tests.

For the time being, the government has launched a six-month consultation procedure among cantons, political parties, organisations and institutions.

Since 2004, voters in 15 cantons participated in more than 300 e-voting trials with various systems by public and private providers before the government pulled the plug in June 2019. 

Expat Swiss 

The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), which represents the interests of the 771,000-strong expat Swiss community, has welcomed the new attempt to introduce e-voting. 

“We are pleased to see that the authorities plan to implement precisely the suggestions made by the Council of the Swiss Abroad [Assembly of expat Swiss delegates] in 2019,” OSA director Ariane Rustichelli says.

She called on the authorities to include the expat Swiss electorate in the limited trials and encouraged an extension of the scheme to more cantons which organise votes and elections.

“The goal must be to offer e-voting as an option for all Swiss citizens living abroad for the 2023 parliamentary elections,” Rustichelli said.

Barbara Schüpbach-Guggenbühl, a representative of the cantonal authorities, said it was good to see that the e-voting project is making progress.

She pointed out that the federal authorities will take a stronger role than before, particularly for the certification of online systems.

However, she stressed the financial costs for the new trials and called for a joint solution with the national government.

Opponents of e-voting launched a proposal to introduce a nationwide moratorium for trials, but they withdrew their initiative last June.

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