Why e-voting is bad for direct democracy

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

Why e-voting? That was the justified question posed in the Current Concerns issue of 2 May 2017. Apart from the serious risk of hacker attacks, there are further fundamental questions involved, and they concern the nerve of our direct-democratic and federalist Switzerland immediately. This is because in our country, voting and election rights are closely connected with the responsibility of the citizens for the state. Swiss citizens are duty-bound to form their opinions about the content of coming referendums, by making use of the media and, even more so, by talking with their fellow citizens, before they cast their votes. There are federal and cantonal plebiscites at least four times a year, and in each case there are several federal and cantonal proposals to be decided on. In addition, decisions in municipal matters are to be made at municipal assemblies, or – in larger municipalities and cities – at the ballot box. Finally, there are government and parliamentary elections as well as the election of other authorities, for example cantonal courts or school authorities in the municipalities.
Who wants to settle all this with a few mouse clicks? Are there powers in the case here that pursue goals entirely different from those they pretend to? Goals of phasing down the political education of the Swiss population by means of digitisation, and at the same time and by the same means mutating direct democracy into a computer game of little effect?
The right of the voting population in the cantons and municipalities to determine their own affairs constitutes the essence of Switzerland’s federal and directly democratic state structure. Encompassed in this is the cantons’ responsibility for the organisation of national referendums, namely also including the federal plebiscites: the cantons determine the cantonal proposals for a specific voting date. They assemble the content of the official voting envelopes, they organise the voting (at the ballot box and by letter). The municipalities provide the polling stations, announce their opening hours, organise the counting of the votes and deliver the results to the cantonal administration. There these are recorded and published (or handed over to Berne in the case of federal votes). The entire procedure is regulated by cantonal and municipal law; and state and municipal authorities have been utterly familiar with it for generations.
“Steering Committee E-Government Switzerland” – neither federalistically nor democratically legitimised
In view of this fine-meshed democratic structure and the tried and tested procedure of these numerous referendums, an electronic control center aimed at managing the very best interests of 26 sovereign cantons and some 2,700 autonomous communities in an all-encompassing data pool seems rather incongruous.
“E-Government Switzerland is the organisation of the Confederation, the cantons and the communes for the expansion of electronic government services. It steers, plans and coordinates the joint e-government activities at the three government levels.” (https://www.egovernment.ch/en/organisation/e-government-schweiz-kurz-erklart/) One of its activities is “Vote électronique: Switzerland-wide establishment of an electronic electoral channel” (https://www.egovernment.ch/en/umsetzung/schwerpunktplan/vote-electronique/)
Latest document: “Declaration of intent for the introduction of the electronic voting channel” of 21 April 2017. The signatories are Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr and Barbara Schüpbach-Guggenbühl leading cantonal secretary (“Staatsschreiberin”) of the Canton of Basel-Stadt and president of the “SSK” (Conference of leading cantonal secretaries) .
So, in addition to the unauthorised Directors’ Conferences, where the cantonal education or health directors think up their ideas which they then try to force on the population of their cantons, there has for a very short time (since September 2016) also been in existence a conference of the leading cantonal secretaries, i.e. of administration secretaries not elected by the people. In Switzerland, the leading secretary of a cantonal administration has, like the communal or town secretary, the important task of supporting the members of the governing or municipal councils as intermediaries and as guardians of the constitutional state and democracy, since these often do this work as a secondary job and have little legal training. And now it is he of all people who is being asked to advocate “the acceptance of the electronic vote” in his canton, and to promote the introduction of electronic voting!
And although in the “consultation on the new planning instrument Vote Electronique” (Report of the Federal Chancellery of February 2017, page 4 – in German) 14 out of 26 cantons voted against an obligation to introduce electronic voting (ZH, BE, LU, SZ, NW, ZG, FR, AI, AR, SG, GR, AG, OW, BL), and at least six cantons are basically critically-minded, the Federal Council announced on 5 April 2017 that it would commence to “take steps towards a paperless vote”. The vote is to be “fully digitized. The distribution of physical documents (ballot cards for plebiscites and elections, polling card, official voting envelope as well as voters’ pamphlet) to the voters may therefore be waived in whole or in part. The Confederation will elaborate the necessary legal and technical prerequisites together with the cantons.”
All this makes a citizen feel quite uneasy! For who is to stay on top of things if there were no vote count of “physical ballot papers” done by living people? If a recount would no longer be possible in an emergency? And if you add to this the growing tendency of some politicians, and even of some of our federal judges, to disregard referendum results, this will certainly make you feel concerned. ...

Meticulous vote count as a hallmark of direct democracy

“For reasons of democratic policy, we cannot afford the slightest hint of a doubt about an electronic vote,” said Erich von Rotz, Administrative Director of the Nidwald State Chancellery and member of the office responsible for the vote (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 11 November 2016). He is so right! And everyone knows that there are no electronic polls “without the hint of a doubt” – at least none have been known to date. By contrast, the joint counting of votes and ballot papers in the Swiss municipalities is almost 100% proof against counterfeit.
There is a voting office in every municipality and every district, and this is responsible for guarding the ballot boxes, for the supervision of the polling stations on voting weekends and for the subsequent counting of the votes and ballot papers. More people, partly members of the different political parties, but also other, independent citizens, participate in this process. Most of them work voluntarily, and if there is a greater need, the administration can call up additional voters. So there is a group of fellow citizens, all with different political opinions, present in the same room, and if necessary, they will keep a close eye on each other. This, as well as the fact that the ballot papers are counted twice, by different people, offers an exceptionally high security factor.
It happens extremely rarely that after this process, some mistake is discovered – for example, a few forgotten ballot papers are found – that is then written up in all the newspapers. If there is any doubt as to the correctness of the result of the voting, we have the right to appeal to a cantonal court against the violation of our political rights. If the vote was close, the court can then order a recount (usually only in individual constituencies). Once the ayes and nays were mistakenly interchanged when being typed into the computer in a certain borough. The citizens who had counted the votes of course became aware of this immediately, and the mistake was fixed.
Now imagine that there are no ballot papers but only electronic inputs – how would we be able to control whether the results were correct? In what way would a recount take place in a case of legitimate doubt? And how might the secret of the vote be kept in this case? As long as “there is only the hint of a doubt”, the already existing experimental electronic voting system in different cantons remains problematic and has up to date been cancelled time and again for security reasons.

Direct democracy is not a computer game!

The hope that namely young people would be more likely to participate in polls and elections if they could cast their vote electronically rather than on paper, bypasses the demands of direct democracy. “Voglio fare il cittadino” – “I want to become a citizen,” says the 18-year-old Ticino youth in Eros Ratti’s splendid civic education teaching tool. The young man gets to work with a great deal of curiosity and zest for action, and the adult uses his experience with democracy to initiate his young fellow citizen into the theory and practice of the Ticino community with great enjoyment, with patience and humour. That is how it should be. We adults, parents, grandparents or teachers, bear the responsibility that the next generations become citizens who want to help shape the unique Swiss model and keep it alive; that they receive a civic education worthy of the name, that they learn to make themselves knowledgeable before a popular vote and so to form their opinion. If we succed in this, how can they have a serious problem with placing a yes or no on a piece of paper?
Yet those who want to reduce direct democracy to half-literate youths in a “4.0 society” being able to click their mouse at the “right” place pursue different goals. These do not include the preservation of a state system designed to serve the common interest, with an active young generation who will not allow anyone to put anything over on them, and who think themselves.
Let us therefore ensure a civic education for our youth, an education which will put up vigorous resistance to goals of that kind!     •

Volunteers tellers – not only in the country (here in the canton of Basel-Stadt)

“250 volunteers count the votes at the Basel government and the Grand Council elections on Sunday. Already on Friday, more than 35,000 election envelopes had already been received, so that a high electoral participation can be expected, according to the head of votes and elections at the canton, Daniel Orsini. The tellers were eligible voters in the canton of Basel-Stadt, which had all volunteered. Some of them have been doing this for decades. It was important that they were working carefully, so Orsini. If someone does not do it in this way, it would quickly be noticed: All the ballot papers are counted several times, so there is at least one double check.”

SRF regional, Saturday, 22.10.2016

(Translation Current Concerns)