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Digitalizing Democracy: E-Voting in Switzerland

Any mention of Switzerland generally prompts thoughts of watches, cheese, or chocolate- goods for which it is known on a global scale. For the political science community however, it should be recognized for E-democracy, as Switzerland is the world’s leader in online voting technology and usage. Initial trials have proved effective in increasing voter turnout, especially amongst the younger generations. As a result, the Swiss government plans to continue its expansion of the E-voting system. 2013 marks the ten-year anniversary of e-voting within the country; as such the process is not only being improved for use in the next election for local citizens but for those living abroad as well. With the next Federal election coincidentally set at the same time as Canada’s – where in contrast voter turnout has been waning for the last decade – the entire process should be a leading example for the next generation of Canadian elections.

Following steady decreases in voter turnout since the mid-nineteenth century, with the largest reductions in percentage in the later decades, key cantons (provinces) of Switzerland such as Geneva and Zurich began testing of online voting in 2003. This has since been emulated by other cantons, with just over half now committed to e-voting. During this time, voter turnout has been on a steady rise in each of the subsequent elections since 2003; this trend is particularly pronounced among the tech savvy younger generations who feel their government is not only keeping up with the times, but meeting their expectations.

The federal government is hopeful for the future of online voting across the country, encouraging all cantons to test systems or to speed up these tests. Doing this would enable the system to be utilized for as many voters as possible in the next election. 30% of the electorate already has access to online voting as an option along with the traditional method, and 60% of those with access are opting to embrace this more efficient method. By the next trial 50% will have access to the system, which local authorities also hope to use for municipal and cantonal elections; propagating the idea that e-democracy will not only provide effectiveness on a federal scale.

However, not everyone believes that e-voting should be the future path of democracy both in Switzerland or elsewhere. Opposition has brought  forth serious critiques concerning not only the system’s use, but also its safety. Some have gone so far to say that e-voting is a threat to democratic systems, stating caution should triumph over rapidity. Concerns of viruses and hackers attaining access to the system have circulated. Nevertheless the Swiss government is confident it can monitor these risks close enough without having to annul an entire vote. With ten years of development and testing behind the online voting technology, Swiss officials have stated that the calculated risks and possible indemnities are limited, and that overall they are at tolerable levels.

What does Swiss e-democracy mean in a Canadian context?

With a declining voter turnout over the last decade of federal elections, particularly amongst the younger generations, an online voting system would likely be a successful tool in raising citizen participation in democracy. Additionally, increased voting accessibility could also be employed as a way to promote an interest in politics to the young electorate. Cost versus benefit would definitely have to be weighed, but there would be real potential for provincial and local elections to also take place through the e-voting method, much like the Swiss authorities plan to do. A unified election system can only make a country more free, fair and democratic. However with the population of Canada roughly four times that of Switzerland, multiple trials would have to take place on a larger scale for a conversion to e-democracy to take place.

We may not see online voting systems for the 2015 Canadian general election; the Swiss will be tabulating results faster than we can fill out our polling cards. Nonetheless there is real potential for a comprehensive e-democracy system. The young Canadian electorate voiced their opinion in hoards for the Liberal leadership race, choosing a young face to head the party. This does more than demonstrate the willingness of the youth to be politically involved when a vote takes place online; it additionally validates the claim that the next generation is interested in the political system, yet await such modernity in Canada. E-democracy could be the solution.

– Matthew Bienz

Featured photo: Attribution Walt Hubis, Creative Commons, Flickr



About Matthew Bienz

Student of Political Science and Human Rights at Concordia University. Born and raised in rural Quebec, Matthew moved to the city where the political pace is much more to his speed. He joined the Political Bouillon in hopes of fostering the budding journalist within and to become more involved in political discourse. Matthew hopes to engage political science and non-political science students alike in the Canadian system, as well as draw attention to his ancestral Switzerland.

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