-- by guest blogger Andreas Obrist
(Obrist is a staffer at SHARE, the Swiss science and technology consulate in Boston.)
A series of recent meetings have brought together in Washington, DC and Los Angeles a group of Swiss and American officials to discuss the topic of e-voting. The meetings, involving representatives of governmental and academic communities from both countries, were part of ThinkSwiss, a US-wide program that was already described on this blog.
During a first meeting at the Committee of House Administration -- the committee of the US House of representatives in charge of overseeing the federal elections -- the Swiss federal Chancellor Annemarie Huber-Hotz presented the Swiss e-voting initiative, which was introduced six years ago. Each of the three participating cantons, Geneva Neuchâtel and Zurich, has been testing a different e-voting system:
The Geneva web-based e-voting system has been used so far for 8 votes (real, binding votes) since January 2003. Swiss registered voters already receive their polling cards and voting materials by mail before each election or referendum. The card must be presented when voting at polling stations, or sent with the postal ballot by mail. Citizens who want to cast their vote electronically can access the e-voting system through a normal web browser, entering their polling card number to gain access to the secure electronic polling booth and submit the vote. The key difficulty of voter identification has been solved by a simple scratchable field on the voter's polling card (see image at left). Under a metallic strip there is a secret ID code that the system checks before the vote is cast. Polling cards where the metallic strip has been scratched off are no longer valid for voting at polling stations or for sending in postal ballots. The electronic ballot is encrypted. Two keys are necessary to open it -- which, to ensure fairness, are given to members of the electoral commission from two different political parties that are represented in parliament. Since a voter's identity and her ballot are kept in two distinct files, it's not possible to match a given ballot with a name. Several hacking tests proved the system very safe and reliable.
In Neuchâtel, a cooperation between the canton (the state) and its 62 communes has led to the creation of a one-stop e-counter -- what's called the "guichet sécurisé unique". Using an approach similar to that of Internet banking, the canton's citizens will receive a user ID, password and constantly-generated transaction codes to access the site, which offers a variety of government services. E-voting is one of these features. Before each vote, citizens will receive an additional, specific code that will allow them to cast their electronic ballot on that specific issue.
The canton of Zurich has about 820'000 registered voters; besides the city of Zurich, many are dispersed in smaller communes, some of which with less than 200 voters. Each commune uses its own administration system, manages its electoral register, and counts its votes. Because voting is carried out at cantonal and local levels, the plan is to implement e-voting at local level and have the communes pass on the results to the canton, where they will be aggregated. Zurich has created a canton-wide shared database of voters that will be kept up to date by the communes. The system has been first tested in the election of the students' parliament at the University of Zurich in december 2004. The casting of votes by SMS (short message texting via cell phones) is currently being considered.
Huber-Hotz stressed the fact that Switzerland's objective was not for e-voting to replace ballot or postal voting, but to serve as an additional channel which might increase voter turnout. Michel Chevallier, Chief of staff for the Chancellor of the state of Geneva, explained to a skeptical US side that the solution deployed in Geneva (here is a demo site) is based on the existing voting material and, being completely Web-based, does not require any special installation on the voters' computer. Chevallier stressed several points:
- voting by postal e-mail was introduced in Switzerland over 10 years ago; in some cases, up tp 95% of people vote by postal mail. The Geneva e-voting initiative was modeled on the processes put in place for postal votes, particularly concerning citizens' identification and avoidance of double votes.
- the profile of e-voters is not different from the average voters' profile, for the outcome of their vote has always matched the overall outcome
- younger voters e-vote according to their demographic weight
- no gender digital divide: the online voting behaviour of men and women are identical
- "online voting breaks an invisible barrier that kept many voters away from politics"
- Chevallier expects that e-voting may be generalized to the whole Switzerland by 2012
In the process of developing their system, the Geneva team devised a set of 11 "commandments" of e-voting, basic rules for the success of e-voting initiatives:
- Votes cannot be intercepted nor modified
- Votes cannot be known before the ballot reading
- Only registered voters will be able to vote
- Each voter will have one and only one vote
- Vote secrecy is guaranteed
- The voting application will resist any DoS attack
- Voters will be protected against identity theft
- Number of cast votes = number of received ballots
- It will be possible to prove that citizen X voted
- The system will not accept votes outside the ballot opening period
- The system will be auditable
The second meeting was at the US Election Assistance Commission, an independent agency of the US government that serves as a national resources for administering federal elections and establishing standards for state and local governments. Paul DeGregorio and Thomas Wilkey, former and current chairmen of the EAC, are both strong supporters of e-voting. A very interesting insight, giving the generally negative or skeptical views on electronic voting machines in the US.
A workshop at the Swiss Embassy allowed the Swiss to offer more empirical data gained over the course of five years of trials. The audience was particularly interested in security issues, the confidentiality of the voting procedures, and the possibilities offered to people with disabilities. It was apparent that the main differences between the US and the Swiss position on e-voting comes down to a question of political culture: what some, especially on the American side, looked at as Swiss naivety, others regarded as a carefully thought-through approach that has trust in government as a basis for e-voting.