Many Swiss citizens chose to live abroad either to study, work or as pensioners. The motives behind this choice are numerous. In recent years, the number of Swiss citizens abroad increased by 2% per year. In 2016, this figure even rose to 2.9%, representing 21,784 individuals, while the number of national voters increased by only 1.1%. A long-term assessment, initiated in 1999, shows that the group representing Swiss living abroad has increased more than twice as faster than the national group (see chart).
The size of the canton of Neuchâtel
In the future, Swiss nationals living abroad will have a greater impact on referendums and elections. According to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), at the end of December 2016, from the 774’923 Swiss registered abroad, 160’453 were listed in an electoral register. The size of this electorate is approximately equal to the electorate of the canton of Neuchâtel. The magnitude of the representation of Swiss living abroad in a political body was discovered for the first time when, in 2015, one of their representatives was elected to the National Council. Notably, the revision of the Federal Law on Radio and Television was accepted thanks to the votes of the Swiss living abroad.
For the Swiss abroad, access to the polls remains difficult to this day. The right to vote for these citizens, was only introduced in 1975 – four years after women’s suffrage. Prior to this, the Swiss living abroad had to return to their homeland in order to vote and thus prove their “commitment to the people and their country”; this was considered discriminatory given the high travel costs. It was not until 1991, with the introduction of voting by correspondence, that a substantial improvement was observed. But this method has its flaws – as postal delivery can be relatively slow. However, the democratically acquired right to vote and the eligibility of the Swiss abroad must also be guaranteed.
The importance of E-Democracy
These developments give rise to questions such as: how to enhance the integration of the electoral group to direct democracy? The right to universal suffrage and secret ballot goes hand in hand with a democratic state, thus giving its citizens the freedom to choose to go to the polls. The obstacles for voting are in any case higher for Swiss nationals living abroad than for Swiss residents: first, they must register to receive the election and ballot papers, and then, their desire to obtain information must be bigger than the residents’, the latter being exposed to facts and figures daily through local news, campaigns and promotional material.
In this case, digitization can create new opportunities: E-Democracy (or electronic democracy) is the implementation or facilitation of democratic processes using digital information and communication technologies. The subcategories of E-democracy are e-participation (all forms of online participation) and electronic voting (elections). Electronic voting (e-voting) could considerably simplify the voting process abroad. The first trials in various cantons received an encouraging welcome and offer a positive outlook. 67% of Swiss registered abroad, who regularly participate in referendums, already do so digitally. According to the Confederation’s estimates, by 2019 two-thirds of the cantons will be using the electronic voting system.
Further improvement of E-Democracy
So far, the developments are encouraging, but the potential of e-democracy is far from having been fully reached. Electronic voting could include an electronic discussion (e-discussion): voters could discuss and comment on the ideas of public projects on virtual platforms. If these discussions were taken into consideration in the consultation procedure, citizens would thus be more involved in the legislative process.
Since participation in election polls is difficult for Swiss citizens living abroad, an electronic discussion would stimulate the formation of the opinion of the Swiss living abroad as well as that of residents, and strengthen their bond with the country. Particularly, the personal involvement of all voters in the ideas of projects could increase the acceptance and quality of democratic decisions.
There is an alternative to electronic voting: the electronic initiative, which refers to the electronic collection of signatures. Besides simplifying all bureaucratic formalities, the Swiss living abroad could benefit from the opportunity to support an initiative.
The rapid growth of the “fifth Switzerland” is reason enough to exploit the many opportunities of e-democracy. However, the principle of “safety rather than speed” must undeniably prevail , as the use of electronic voting should not affect the credibility of the democratic process.