Geneva: An ongoing success story for online voting

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Switzerland online voting Geneva

As a general rule the Swiss like voting as much as chocolate. In every Swiss canton, the electorate is called to the polls from 4 to 6 times a year. This is the result of their political system defined as semi-direct democracy. It is only natural to assume that this situation provides an excellent field for the implementation of online voting. The canton of Geneva has indeed been one of the pioneers in this effort. In the last 10 years, online voting has been provided to the Geneva citizenry for 28 electoral events. Actually in one of those ballots back in 2009, the Geneva citizens approved by a majority of more than 70% the adoption of internet voting into the cantonal constitution. Yet internet voting remains an optional channel of casting a ballot along with traditional polling stations and postal voting.

For the cantonal government of Geneva, it was not a question about ‘whether’ eVoting should be introduced. They focused quite early on ‘how’ eVvoting could best serve their political system and they had a major advantage to begin with: the Geneva citizenry genuinely trusted their public administration authorities. Postal voting had already paved the way, but the major challenge was not to comprise that trust through the introduction of a new channel. To do so, the administration developed a set or procedural security measures devolving responsibilities between five different administrative entities who have to collaborate and depend on each other to initiate and run an online electoral event, one of them actually being a police IT security officer.  They also went a step further and developed their online voting system in-house; and they have been quite open about how they did.

With regard to security, end to end cryptography is used. Votes are encrypted in the voter’s PC and are not decrypted before being stored in the eBallot box. However in the Geneva system, votes are briefly decrypted to allow for a coherence check, before being re-encrypted and re-stored in the ballot. For identification purposes, voters receive a single use voting card via the post. This is a numerical ID which carries a randomly-produced one-time voter ID number and PIN. To provide individual verifiability and to validate their ballot, voters must type this information into the system, but also give two shared secrets: their birth date and municipality of origin. Fraud is therefore only possible with the citizens’ active collaboration. The system is currently being further developed to provide universal verifiability.

In practice online voting in Geneva has been well accepted. On average, 15% to 20% of all residents’ votes are cast online. Surveys also show that 12% of voters would not have cast a ballot without the online voting channel, while 30% to 40% of all internet votes come in during the last 36 hours of any given election. Therefore, online voting enables participation of late voters. Additionally, the number of registered expatriates went up by more than 20% after online voting was introduced, while the average share of expatriates’ votes cast online reaches up to 50%.

All things considered, the public administrators of Geneva have developed a solid system that serves their electoral needs as well as their political system. They provide a fine example of a custom made solution for internet voting and they should be complemented on their consistency in pursuing wider democratic inclusion via electoral innovation.