On such an important question, the people must have the last word

A conversation with National Councillor Franz Grüter, IT entrepreneur and president of the initiative committee

Current Concerns: I am pleased, National Councillor Grüter, to meet you on this occasion. What motivated you to take over the presidency of the initiative committee?

National Councillor Franz Grüter: It was not just my idea, but from all our people of the committee. We have almost a historically broad-based committee, which is supported by many parties and organisations usually belonging to different political camps.

I have noticed that. It is really an extraordinary diverse composition.

Yes, and we all have realised last autumn that the introduction of the electronic voting system, as planned in Switzerland, would be a high risk. Unfortunately, reality proves us right, so much has happened. Today, we are launching the collection of signatures, so that the Swiss can vote on whether they want to take these risks or not. At worst, it’s about losing confidence in our democracy.

How does the Federal Council, the Federal Chancellery, come to speak of e-voting as completely safe in spite of the many breakdowns and to promote it in such a way?

The whole mobilisation, the wake-up call, to fight against e-voting actually came up when the Federal Chancellery announced about two years ago that they wanted to introduce e-voting extensively in 18 cantons until the national elections in October 2019. At that time, I have asked the Federal Council, when we, the Parliament, could debate whether we approve it and agree with it, and what are the risks. I was told that the issue would be dealt with in Parliament in 2020/2021. I replied: And then it will already have been introduced in 18 cantons. That is when I suddenly realised: They are introducing it through the back door. It has no democratic legitimacy at all. The people must have the last word on such an important decision. Then we have tried it with parliamentary motions, which failed quite close. In the end that was the reason for us to say we are running a popular initiative – because we have seen how centralised systems work, it is too high a risk.

I have read in your argumentary that with e-voting votes could also be manipulated deliberately.

Yes, about a week ago, a world-renowned Canadian IT security expert in an intrusion test, which is currently running at Swiss Post, analysed the source code of a computer programme and revealed that you can get into this system and manipulate it, i.e. change voices without noticing anything. The verifiability that the Post claims for itself is not guaranteed at all. The possibility that elections or votes could be influenced has led other countries like Norway, Finland, England, France, Germany not to introduce e-voting or at least to stop it for the moment (see also “No longer an issue abroad”, argumentarium p. 8).

The purpose of the initiative is simply to protect the democratic vote, which every democratic state has to guarantee.

Yes, we call for a moratorium of five years. Until then a lot can happen, certain conditions can be met. For example, today e-voting is more complicated and more expensive than voting by mail. The documents come by mail and the voters have to scratch their code. Within the next five years, there might be alternative solutions that are decentralised. Communal and cantonal voting offices must be able to check whether the voting results can even be right. If all security conditions are guaranteed, our initiative will allow Parliament to re-enable electronic voting. We leave a door open, but we have to make a stop for now.
Thank you very much, National Councillor Grüter, for the informative conversation.    •

Arguments against e-voting

In times of cyberwars highly dangerous

mw. “In times of ‘cyberwars’, economic wars and increased hacker risks, it is highly dangerous to stick to today’s e-voting systems. Examples from abroad – but also from Switzerland! – have shown that e-voting infrastructures can be manipulated.” (Argumentarium, p. 5; see interview with Hernani Marques of the Chaos Computer Club)

Geneva e-voting system has been hacked

The canton of Geneva had developed a system years ago, which several cantons took over, but after various breakdowns it was taken out of circulation again. Now the end of the system has come:
“In November 2018, hackers from the Chaos Computer Club were able to demonstrate with a simple ‘man-in-the-middle’ attack on the Canton of Geneva’s e-voting system that it is possible without great effort to redirect a vote to a fake server without the manipulation becoming apparent to the voter. The Geneva system has already shown considerable security gaps in the past. […] Although the developers […] reassured us that everything is not as bad as that – the Geneva system will in any case be shut down by the end of 2020 …” (Argumentarium, p. 7).

“Swiss Post’s crumbling e-voting system: Immediately pull the emergency brake!”

The only remaining Swiss e-voting system is currently that of Swiss Post. Swiss Post (i.e. the Federal Council) has invited computer hackers to attack its system. Several thousand hackers are taking part. The test runs from 25 February to 24 March 2019 (swiss info SWI from 14 February 2019). Even before the end of the test phase, the unsuitability of the system had been proven several times.1 It is also striking that Swiss Post is having its software developed by the Spanish company Scytl, which is in US hands (media release of the initiative committee dated 1 February).

More and more cantons are leaving the system

While the federal government wants to push ahead with the nationwide introduction of e-voting, resistance is growing in the cantons: The parliaments of the cantons of Baselland, Uri and Jura and the cantonal government of Glarus rejected a test phase in 2018, while the cantonal council of Zurich decided at the end of 2018 to stop further investments in e-voting. In Aargau and Basel-Stadt, corresponding initiatives are pending (Argumentarium, p. 8).

Expensive and without the alleged benefit

“The voting process in e-voting is not simpler, cheaper or more time-saving. The documents still have to be sent by post. [...] For many citizens, e-voting may be much more complicated than postal voting” (Argumentarium, p. 3). According to the Federal Council’s calculation, a nationwide introduction of e-voting would cost at least CHF 620 million in the first ten years (Argumentarium, p. 6). So much taxpayers’ money for a questionable and unsafe system? And the icing on the cake: the main argument of the advocates that e-voting would increase young people’s participation in the vote did not prove to be true during the test phase in the cantons (p. 6). Quite apart from the fact that our country needs young citizens who learn how to deal with votes and elections in civic education – clicking on something on the computer is definitely not enough.

Trust in democratically taken decisions are central for a peaceful coexistence

“That’s why we say: No experiments with direct democracy – one does not play with popular rights” (Argumentarium, p. 5). Every prudent citizen can only join in this warning call of the initiative committee. The filigree Swiss voting and election procedure can only exist decentral; it must be supported by the population and the organisation of the municipalities. A centralised and electronic system controlled by the federal administration cannot meet the requirements of the Swiss model.

1    see interview with Hernani Marques of the Chaos Computer Club; see also “Serious error discovered in Swiss Post’s e-voting system” in: “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 12 February 2019