Internet Voting for Expatriates: The Swiss Case

Published on: 03/03/2015

In 2008 the first Swiss canton introduced internet voting for expatriates, complementing the trials involving residents initiated back in 2003. More cantons soon followed, and as of this writing, expatriates from 12 out of the 26 cantons can vote online. This paper focuses on the second phase in the Swiss i-voting roll-out involving expatriates. We address three questions at the core of the internet voting research agenda. First, the popularity question: to what extent do expatriates make use of the new online voting channel? Second, the ‘who’ question: what is the profile of the typical expatriate i-voter? Finally, the turnout question: did the extension of internet voting toexpatriates have an effect on electoral mobilisation? Our findings indicate that the online channel is very popular among expatriates, both when compared to other trials in Switzerland and internationally. Leaving aside i-voting’s comparatively high popularity, familiar patterns seem to replicate in the expatriate trials. Expatriate i-voters tend to be young, male, and there is some evidence of an upper-class bias. Thus, use of the online channel by expatriates seems also driven by the digital divide. Finally, similarly to the residents' trials, we find some evidence that i-voting does not affect electoral mobilisation.

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Policy Context

By now, Estonia and Switzerland can be considered the two leading internet voting countries– if for somewhat different reasons. Whereas Estonia is the first and, thus far, only country to have fully generalised online voting (Alvarez et al., 2009), Switzerland boasts the highest number of online voting trials. Unlike in Estonia however, the Swiss internet voting roll-out has

remained piecemeal and at an experimental stage, far from full generalisation (Mendez, 2010; Mendez & Serdült, 2014). Switzerland’s record number of i-voting trials is owed largely to its unrivalled high number of referendum votes (Serdült, 2014).

Nevertheless, the Swiss i-voting roll-out has been continuously evolving. Historically, it can be split into two phases: a first involving trials in three pilot cantons (2003-2007), and a second extending internet voting to many Swiss expatriates (2008-). A third phase is already being planned, involving further local trials. In this paper, we focus on the second phase involving

expatriates, thus extending and updating our earlier reviews (Germann et al. 2014; Serdült 2010).

Specifically, we address three questions, all at the core of the internet voting research agenda. First, the question of i-voting’s popularity. Drawing on freshly collected data that documents the use of the online channel in Switzerland’s i-voting trials, we explore the popularity of internet voting among expatriates. To put things into perspective, we compare our findings with the trials involving Swiss residents and make some references to the international experience. Second, we address the ‘who’ question: what is the profile of the typical expatriate i-voter? The introduction of internet voting has been accompanied by fears that i-voting might cater primarily for the resource-rich and thus favour the already privileged. A number of studies found empirical support for this contention, but few looked at the expatriate case. We extend the focus to this segment of voters by discussing the existing evidence and conducting a novel inquiry into the expatriate i-voter’s profile using survey data from Switzerland’s 2011 federal elections. Finally, we investigate the turnout question: did the extension of internet voting to expatriates have an effect on electoral mobilisation? Existing studies – at least the more sophisticated ones – have generally found that i-voting did not affect electoral turnout. But none have yet looked at the expatriate case (apart from the suggestive

evidence reported by Lutz, 2012). Drawing on registration rate data and a difference-in-differences design, we conduct the first study of i-voting’s mobilisation effect on expatriates. Opportunities for research on i-voting are increasingly limited. Against earlier cyber-optimism, the majority of countries that experimented with i-voting in the early 2000s have now abandoned the idea, including the United Kingdom, France and the United States (Kersting & Baldersheim, 2004; Mendez, 2010; Mendez & Serdült, 2014; Trechsel & Mendez, 2005). Recently, Norway also stopped its programme after two technically successful pilots in 2011 and 2013. Trials continue, for instance, in Canada, Australia and of course Estonia (Pammett & Goodman, 2013), but apart from

the latter they remain restricted to the local and sub-national level. This should make the lessons that can be drawn from Switzerland’s expatriate trials all the more valuable, especially as more countries may eventually rediscover their appetite for bringing elections to the digital world. The paper is structured as follows. The first section gives a brief overview of Switzerland’s ivoting roll-out. The second section addresses the popularity of the online channel among expatriates. Sections three and four, in turn, investigate the profile of expatriate internet voters and i-voting’s mobilisation effect. The conclusion sums up the main findings and provides a short outlook of future developments in Switzerland’s i-voting roll-out.

Description of target users and groups

Expatriate and residents voters

Description of the way to implement the initiative


Technology solution


Main results, benefits and impacts

In June 2008 the first canton made i-voting available to its expatriates. Other cantons quickly followed and as of today, expatriates from 12 cantons can cast their vote online. Focusing on the recent extension of Switzerland’s i-voting roll-out to expatriates, this paper investigated three questions at the core of the internet voting research agenda: i-voting’s popularity, the profile of online voters and its mobilisation potential.

Our findings indicate that i-voting has been very well received by Switzerland’s expatriates. With the exception of Neuchâtel and Geneva, the online channel has already become the expatriates’ preferred mode of voting where it is available. Moreover, expatriates who tested the new channel seem to remain loyal to it. Finally, there is an upward trend in usage, even if there are some signs that this trend is slowing down. This is in contrast to the much lower usage rates in the trials involving Swiss residents and also in the trials in countries like Estonia and Canada. Leaving aside i-voting’s comparatively high popularity, familiar patterns seem to replicate in the expatriate trials. First, expatriate i-voters tend to be young, male and upper-class. Thus, use of the

online channel seems driven by the digital divide, similarly to the residential context. The only factor that is specific to expatriates is that expatriates in more distant places appear more likely to vote online, presumably because of problems with postal delivery. Second, i-voting appears not to affect electoral mobilisation among expatriates, similarly to other trials. However, for reasons of data (un-)availability, we had to focus on registration rates and could not consider actual turnout rates. Thus, this finding comes with a caveat: since registration is not the same as participation, it is possible that the introduction of i-voting had an effect on turnout among expatriates, but not the registration rate. Moreover, it could be that the effect has yet to kick in, for example, because many expatriates are not yet aware of the possibility to cast their vote online. If not, this will at least reassure those

who fear that i-voting will necessarily lead to unequal mobilisation (e.g. Alvarez & Nagler, 2001) – as well as those who are sceptical about the expatriates’ say over matters of their home country.

Despite the persistence of the digital divide and the potential lack of a mobilisation effect, the expatriate trials can still be considered a success story, at least from the perspective of the advocates of a general introduction of i-voting in Switzerland. Contrary to the residents' trials, the expatriate trials proved to be basically uncontested. The generally beneficial experience and high usage rates in particular have helped create a positive story paving the way for the further development and generalisation of the online channel. In 2015, the transition to the second generation i-voting systems is set to begin, which will make online voting more secure and add to verifiability. More cantons are preparing to offer i-voting to expatriates for the federal elections in

October 2015 and, in what will become the third phase in the Swiss roll-out, four non-pilot cantons (Argovia, Grisons, Solothurn and Thurgau) will begin with trials involving residents in 2016. Thus, Switzerland is set to continue on its piecemeal road to internet voting, moving closer to a possible general introduction.

Return on investment


Track record of sharing


Lessons learnt

See the document

Scope: European


Type of document
General case study