07 August 2023

When Swiss voters head to the polls in October for the country’s federal elections, there’s a good chance that a modest proportion of ballots will be cast online using Swiss Post’s revamped online voting system.

The prospect has been welcomed by many Swiss living abroad. Furthermore, repeated polls in recent years suggest that a majority of the domestic Swiss population also support the introduction of an i-voting system. Yet not everyone is convinced it is a good idea, and it is likely to be a long time before it is rolled out on a large scale.

Reto Vogt, Editor-in-Chief of the Swiss IT news site inside-it.ch/, believes the system offers no real advantages over postal voting, and that it comes at a potentially high cost. “Trust is the most essential thing you can have in voting,” he told Democracy Technologies. “And the people of a state like Switzerland typically believe in the results of a vote. But if they don’t believe it anymore, democracy is lost.”

Renewed Trials

When Switzerland’s last federal elections took place in October 2019, there was no option available to cast votes online. Six months earlier, the government had put an immediate halt to the country’s i-voting trials after a team of specialists published a report revealing major security flaws in the system developed by Swiss Post. The firm subsequently scrapped its system entirely, and began building again from scratch.

In July 2022, legislators cleared the way for the resumption of trials, setting out a new set of security conditions that would need to be met. Following extensive testing of Swiss Post’s new system last year, the go-ahead was given for new trials to take place in May and June 2023.

During the trials, the cantons of Basel-Stadt, St. Gallen and Thurgau made the system available to their overseas voters to take part in the referendum of 18 June. Additionally, Basel-Stadt also allowed some voters with disabilities to use the system. A total of 4,239 people opted to cast their votes online – approximately 16% of those eligible to do so.

Swiss Post continues to run bug bounty tests on its online voting system.

Widespread support among the Swiss diaspora

Online voting is an especially big theme for Swiss citizens living abroad. Of the more than 800,000 Swiss citizens living abroad, approximately 225,000 are registered to vote.

Ariane Rustichelli is the Director of The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), a foundation which has represented the interests of Swiss citizens living abroad since 1916. She told Democracy Technologies that enabling this group of Swiss citizens to stay engaged in politics is vital to Swiss democracy. “Swiss law states that, regardless of where you live, as a Swiss citizen, you have a right to be politically active.” The regular referenda held in the country make involvement more demanding than for many countries. “Since we vote several times a year, the option to vote online is very important to Swiss people living abroad.”

Where online voting is not available, Swiss citizens living abroad rely on postal votes. Yet there have been repeated problems with ballots arriving late, an issue that was only exacerbated by the pandemic.

Statistics show that in the three cantons where e-voting was available in May and June, participation rates among Swiss citizens living abroad were between one and four percent higher than the national average. And when i-voting was last discontinued in 2019, the canton of Geneva reported a decline of nine percent in voting from abroad.

While Rustichelli is keen to emphasise the importance of i-voting to Swiss citizens abroad, she welcomes the cautious approach the country has shown in recent years.

“The Federal Chancellery has always emphasised that safety is far more important than speed. It’s better to go slowly and to stop sometimes, or take a step back before going forwards again. Of course I can understand why some people are disappointed, but for me, this proves that the Federal Chancellery and the cantons prove that they take their responsibility very seriously.”

An unnecessary risk?

Not everyone is convinced, however, that any amount of caution will be enough to counter the potential threat posed by online voting. Reto Vogt identifies two major dangers.

For one thing, i-voting introduces new and unnecessary vulnerabilities into the election process. “In IT security,” he told Democracy Technologies, “you never have 100% certainty that it’s safe. There’s always some tiny thing that can happen, at least theoretically.”

Yet security concerns are not the biggest challenge i-voting faces. Even with a secure system, the issue of public trust could see online voting undermine public faith in the results of an election. And there is no shortage of people willing to exploit this.

“If someone opposes the results of a vote for political reasons, they can argue it was down to i-voting, that there was a malware attack or piracy attack. And nobody can prove the opposite. There is then a risk that the people of the country don’t believe in the election results, simply because a tiny group of politicians who have lost an election claim the result isn’t correct, like Trump did in the States.”

DDOS attacks and data leaks

This issue of trust has not been helped by the recent series of IT-security scandals involving public services and data in Switzerland. In June, several Swiss government websites were subjected to extensive DDOS attacks by pro-Russian hackers. The same month, a ransomware gang targeted Xplain, an IT provider who has contracts with several government institutions, leading to major data leaks on the dark web.

Swiss Post’s i-voting system itself was not subjected to any attacks during the trials. Furthermore, the recent bug bounty revealed no major issues with the system. Nonetheless, public trust in digital services has taken a hit, leading some to speculate about potential ramifications for online voting.

“[These attacks] don’t help to build trust in the government to build digital technologies,” explains Vogt. “People now recognize that data has been stolen from federal governments. It doesn’t help to build trust in the i-voting industry.”

A new beginning?

It remains to be seen how many cantons, if any, end up using the i-voting system in the federal elections in Autumn. If trials do go ahead, the number of people using the system will be small enough to minimise any risk.

Advocates hope that this will pave the way for i-voting to become a permanent fixture in Swiss elections, after the major setbacks of recent years. Whether or not this is a viable option will hinge largely on how much trust the public are willing to put in the system.

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