Innovation & technology

Neuchâtel – the new e-voting hub

Swiss Post is building a new competence center at its existing IT location in Neuchâtel – and this is where the e-voting system is being developed, thanks to an in-house team of specialists and the newly acquired source code.

Simone Hubacher

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Baptiste Lanoix, Head of IT Neuchâtel
Baptiste Lanoix, Head of IT Neuchâtel. Copyright: Lena Schläppi

“The fact that e-voting is being developed here enables us to acquire new skills, particularly in the field of cryptography. These competencies will be of vital importance to Swiss Post in the years to come,” says Baptiste Lanoix, Head of IT Neuchâtel at Swiss Post. “It’s a huge honour for our Neuchâtel office to be able to bring such a prestigious project to life.” The Neuchâtel location has been in existence for 30 years; it’s now growing (it currently houses 43 employees) and gaining in importance.

Cryptography is a mathematical discipline that guarantees the authenticity, confidentiality and integrity of digital data. Lanoix believes that Swiss Post is a legitimate stakeholder in this market thanks to its renowned reliability: “People have no difficulty in entrusting Swiss Post with an important letter or valuable parcel, because they’re sure that the consignment will reach its recipient. We can do the same thing with our data by using IncaMail to send secure e-mails or taking part in elections via e-voting.”

Errors in source code fixed

Swiss Post has been working on e-voting since 2014. In March 2019, it temporarily took its system out of action, after hackers participating in a public test arranged by the Confederation and the cantons found critical errors in the source code. Its previous system was in use in the Cantons of Thurgau, Neuchâtel, Basel-Stadt and Fribourg. In April 2020, Swiss Post finally acquired all rights to the source code necessary for independent development of the system from its former technology partner Scytl, which is based in Spain. “This decision will enable us to provide the cantons with a solution developed in Switzerland, for Switzerland,” says Claudia Pletscher, Head of Development & Innovation at Swiss Post.

The system is expected to be ready by 2021, and, until then, a team of 12 e-voting specialists headed by Nils Aellen is working at full steam on its development. Aellen joined Swiss Post as an IT architect in 2015 and has been involved in various projects, including Swiss Post’s e-voting. He has hired five new e-voting specialists to work on the development. “We were extremely fortunate with our recruitment, and we still are: cohesion within the team is very good, which is not always a given, especially seeing as the new team had to start their work remotely due to coronavirus. We’ve now been able to move back into the Swiss Post building by the lake, and motivation is high.”

Concerns taken on board

By continuing to develop the system independently, Swiss Post will, as an enterprise affiliated with the Confederation, create the precondition for incorporating the numerous features of Switzerland’s federal system into the development process while better meeting the stringent specific requirements for a Swiss e-voting system. With this step, Swiss Post is also showing that it has understood the concerns expressed about the role of foreign suppliers in the public e-voting debate. “E-voting always involves a certain level of public pressure,” says Nils Aellen. “But this also spurs us on. We discuss it within the team and support one another. The motivation to help Swiss Post make a breakthrough in e-voting is an important cornerstone on the path to success.”

Independent, but not alone

Swiss Post is developing the e-voting system independently, but not behind closed doors. On the contrary: it is increasingly collaborating with Swiss universities of applied sciences, universities and experts. Furthermore, it is also working closely with the IT community. The company is looking to make it as easy as possible for independent experts to critically assess the system and, in turn, to suggest improvements.

Three common assumptions about e-voting and Swiss Post’s responses

E-voting is not intended as a competitor to ballot boxes or postal voting, but as an additional option for citizens to exercise their political will. This voting channel also benefits certain groups of voters, such as Swiss citizens resident abroad or those with visual impairments. Various cantonal parliaments are actively working to facilitate e-voting for their residents. Over 300 successful contests have been held via e-voting in Switzerland over the last 17 years. 15 cantons have offered e-voting to their residents on at least a temporary basis. Even in those places where the e-voting systems were subsequently withdrawn, opinion surveys show that a majority wants e-voting. This is confirmed by research, including a recently published study commissioned by the Canton of Basel-Stadt.

Swiss Post’s new e-voting system is based on the principle of universal verifiability. This kind of system has never previously been in practical use in Switzerland. Thanks to universal verifiability, electoral authorities can verify the votes during counting to see whether they have been manipulated in the electronic ballot box. This verification is comparable to recounting physical ballots.

Swiss Post’s e-voting system is devised in such a way that both are possible at the same time. Each voter receives his or her election and voting documents by mail. These include voting cards with various codes that are required to cast votes electronically. Votes are encrypted digitally. They are not decrypted by the electoral commission until voting day. The system cannot attribute a vote that has been cast to a specific person at any time. This ensures that voting secrecy is maintained. The system can detect with mathematical precision whether a vote has been altered after being cast or if one person has cast several votes. (mc)

written by

Simone Hubacher