Swiss to vote via SMS

Failed British SMS voting initiative isn't deterring the Swiss

Residents of the Swiss town of Bulach are using SMS (short message service) to cast votes on a local measure regarding road speed limits. The SMS voting project will be reviewed by the Swiss government, which could decide to roll out the capability across the country.

About three years ago, Switzerland began to investigate e-voting. "We decided that only the net is not enough these days because especially in Switzerland the mobile phone is very popular," says Elisabeth Prader, the project leader for e-voting in the Canton of Zurich, where Bulach is located.

Her team developed the SMS voting capability, which is now available to residents in Bulach. Just like for any election in Switzerland, the residents received their voting material in the mail but this time they also received a user ID and PIN (personal identification number) for voting via SMS. The letters were sent on October 10 and residents can use a variety of methods including SMS to cast their vote before October 30.

As an extra security measure, SMS voters also have to supply their birth date, Prader said. She said that the SMS process is more secure than paper balloting. "If you want to fail the system, it's much easier to do it the traditional way than e-voting," she said. For example, someone could steal the voting material from letter boxes but it would be easier for them to forge a signature and cast the paper ballot then to cast a vote on someone else's behalf via SMS because of the birth date requirement, she says.

Unisys supplied the programming to set up the SMS voting platform.

Bulach residents won't be the first in the world to vote via SMS. In 2003, some towns in the UK tried SMS to vote, says Alex Folkes, a spokesman for the Electoral Reform Society, a UK group that campaigns for better voting systems. But the effort failed to result in any significant increase in the number of people voting and had potential security problems, he says. "It didn't have a significant beneficial effect," he says.

One of the SMS implementations in the UK ran into trouble when it took several hours for voters to receive a confirmation message that their vote had been received. That caused voter confusion.

Some observers also weren't satisfied with the way voters were authenticated. Citizens who wanted to vote sent a message to a certain number prior to the election indicating that they'd like to vote via SMS. They were then sent a postcard with both their elector number and a PIN number, Folkes says. "Your neighbour or someone else could see this and you wouldn't know," he says. Voters would find out that someone stole their identifiers when their vote wouldn't be accepted because it would appear to have been sent twice. However, people who never voted might never know that their identifiers had been stolen.

Folkes thinks further pilots are unlikely any time soon. "I suspect you won't see any for a good few years," he says.

Prader said that she didn't study previous implementations like those in the UK because the Swiss voting system is very different and as such other deployments were unlikely to be helpful.

Bulach residents will have another chance to vote via SMS in November on a different issue. The Swiss government will examine the results of the trials and may decide to allow for SMS voting around the country, she says.

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