The Swiss Go Against the Flow With Online Voting

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Worries over election hacking have led officials in Europe and the U.S. to consider a return to hand-counting paper ballots. Switzerland, however, is moving in the opposite direction, toward absentee electronic voting. It’s a useful way of keeping turnouts from falling, and the systems can be made secure and reliable.

Since the scare of 2016, when U.S. intelligence services asserted that malicious Russian actors came close to hacking electronic voting systems and even cracked some voter databases, at least one country – the Netherlands – went back to counting paper ballots by hand throughout the tabulation process, not just at local polling stations. Dozens of U.S. states used hand-counting either solely or for backup in the 2018 midterm elections, and the states that failed to do so were criticized for ignoring security. 

Voting may be critical enough to democracies to justify trying to turn back technological progress. But it’s also an area where progress is urgently needed. Turnout in some Western nations, including some where vote results have caused much turmoil lately, such as the U.S. and the U.K., is low, raising questions about the legitimacy of elected officials. Obligatory voting, which turnout-champion Belgium has introduced, is a controversial solution; intuitively, making it easier for people to cast a ballot is more attractive.

The Swiss Go Against the Flow With Online Voting

Recent research shows that electronic voting doesn’t boost interest in elections by much. In Estonia, which introduced e-voting in 2005, more than 30 percent of the vote is now cast online but the total turnout has remained stable – and low. Yet studies have also shown that having e-voting as an option can arrest a decline in turnout: Easy absentee voting is habit-forming

Switzerland relies on direct democracy and holds a lot of votes (last year, 10 nationwide referendums took place on four separate days). Turnout has been falling lately, and is consistently under 50 percent; in some recent referendums, less than 40 percent of registered voters expressed an opinion. Taking out some insurance against voter indifference looks like a reasonable move.

Since 2004, Swiss cantons have offered online voting, but the practice has been limited by law to 10 percent of the total turnout for referendums and 30 percent for constitutional amendments. In December, the federal government moved to end the “experimental phase” and make e-voting available throughout the country as an alternative to in-person and mail-in balloting. The final decision will be made by the end of April.

Technical experts and politicians who worry about security have been pushing back. That’s why the Swiss postal service, responsible for the e-voting system, took the unusual step of announcing an open competition for hackers interested in finding vulnerabilities in the system. The total prize money is 150,000 Swiss francs ($132,000); the biggest bounty of 50,000 francs is reserved for the hackers who can achieve “undetectable vote manipulation.” Smaller prizes will be paid out for less significant breaches. 

The “public intrusion test” will run for a month starting Feb. 25. It won’t, of course, produce a clean bill of health for the system even if no one takes home the big prizes: There is no way to be 100 percent sure about a complex computer system’s security. But subjecting the voting software to such a public test – hackers are allowed to publish the results of their efforts – is a bold decision. An embarrassment would set back the e-voting cause in Switzerland, perhaps even ruin it altogether. 

Swiss politics, of course, are of relatively little interest to state-backed malicious actors like the hacker groups U.S. intelligence services have linked to Russia’s military intelligence. To the Kremlin, Switzerland is less important than European Union member states (say, the Netherlands), where a victory of Russia-friendly forces could be useful in blocking new economic sanctions or even lifting existing ones. Successful meddling in a Swiss referendum would produce less disruption than messing with congressional elections in a U.S. state. That makes Switzerland a relatively safe place to promote e-voting.

Still, Estonia, a U.S. military ally in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, hasn’t had its e-voting system hacked – even though U.S. researchers concluded in 2014 that it was possible. Hacking an e-voting system is a thankless enterprise: There’s little chance that, with reasonable security precautions, an intrusion won’t be discovered. Even if that happens too late to prevent damage, the election will be held again, but the hackers and their state sponsor will face major consequences. 

From a skeptical, anti-establishment voter’s point of view, e-voting hackers are less of a menace than government interference: The voter doesn’t know what happens inside the system. In Switzerland, however, lack of trust in the government isn’t much of an issue: According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 80 percent of citizens express confidence in the national government, compared with 30 percent in the U.S.

Mistrust in the U.S,, however, is a problem to be fixed by other means than sticking to a centuries-old voting technology. The recent technological backsliding may be psychologically justified, but then what about other systems like self-driving vehicles, which are more vulnerable to hacking than election systems? Should they be banned, too? The Swiss authorities are right: Progress cannot be held back forever.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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