Casting Votes on the Internet: Switzerland and the Future of Elections

By Trechsel, Alexander H.; Gasser, Urs | Harvard International Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Casting Votes on the Internet: Switzerland and the Future of Elections


Trechsel, Alexander H., Gasser, Urs, Harvard International Review


The Internet has had a profound impact on the way contemporary democracies work. Neither processes, such as electoral campaigns, nor actors, such as candidates, political parties or movements, are immune to the myriad challenges and opportunities offered by new media. The same goes for various fundamental institutions of democracy, such as parliaments and governments, which have adopted Internet-based strategies for both internal and external information and communication needs. Since vertical and horizontal forms of interaction among the elected and electors are increasingly impacted by the Internet, it is hardly surprising that one of the most fundamental acts of democratic life--voting--has been technologically upgraded in numerous countries.

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Even prior to the deep societal transformations brought upon by the Internet, votes started to be cast electronically on voting machines, were transmitted to central election administrations by technological means such as telephones and fax lines, and were counted automatically. With the advent of the Internet, however, a more fundamental upgrading of the voting process to remote, Internet-based forms of casting the vote became a topic for many a government across the globe.

After an initial period of rather naive enthusiasm, characterized by announcements of an imminent introduction of remote Internet voting for all citizens, the complexities of these projects became rapidly visible and, in particular, security concerns brought various projects to a halt. Initial trials in the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and elsewhere were stopped during the first decade of the 20th century. At the same time, successful experiences with remote Internet voting took place in two small European countries: Switzerland and Estonia. In Switzerland, three regional ("cantonal") governments (Geneva, Zurich, and Neuchatel) pioneered Internet voting under the auspices of the federal government. In over ten years of experience with Internet voting, ten more cantons have joined the early adopters. In the small Baltic country Estonia, since 2004 a member of the European Union, any citizen equipped with an electronic identification card can cast her vote in local, national, and European elections online since 2005. The continuity characterizing the Swiss and Estonian experiences stands in stark contrast with the "failed" innovations among the first movers. Today, Internet voting is gaining momentum once more, for instance in Canada and Norway.

With this contribution, we aim to track the history, promise, and challenges of Internet voting encountered by one of the two successful pioneers in the field: Switzerland. The Swiss case is of great interest to any student of Internet voting as it is to any policy-maker interested in the prospects, pitfalls, and solutions for avoiding the challenges of Internet voting within their respective contexts.

A Brief History of Internet Voting in Switzerland

Setting the Stage

Switzerland is a federal state comprising of 26 cantons, which have their own parliaments, governments, electoral systems, direct democratic institutions, fiscal resources, and say in most policy areas. The regularity with which Swiss citizens are asked to vote in direct democratic ballots--often four or five times per year--and the simplicity of these votes (yes/no/abstention) made Internet voting a strong candidate for exploration as part of Switzerland's digital agenda. Consequently, the federal government decided in its 1998 "Strategy for an Information Society" to make use of this potential laboratory for innovation and offered cantonal governments the opportunity to take part in pilot projects aimed at introducing, testing, and evaluating forms of Internet voting.

In early 2000 and after the necessary adjustments of the legal framework at the federal level had been made, three cantons--Geneva, Zurich, and Neuchatel--volunteered to become part of these pilot projects and signed contracts with the Federal Chancellery to conduct legally binding tests of Internet voting systems during federal polling. …

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