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Switzerland Tries Internet Voting

Switzerland is set to make history by holding what authorities say is the world's first national referendum in which some voters can cast their ballots over the Internet.

About 22,000 voters in four Geneva suburbs — less than 1 percent of the Swiss electorate — have been given the option of voting online in a national referendum Sunday on issues including naturalization laws, maternity leave and postal reform.

Municipal authorities in Geneva decided on the measure following a string of successful local online polls.

They began accepting votes for the national referendum over the Internet on Sept. 3. The "virtual ballot box" will be opened Sunday, when the rest of Switzerland's 4.7 million voters will have a chance to cast their ballots in a booth.

The most popular option, however, is postal ballots, which accounted for more than 90 percent of the vote in previous referendums here.

Authorities say the hands-on experiment in virtual democracy could lead to e-voting becoming a third option for all voters in the Alpine country within several years, even if it is unlikely ever to replace the other methods entirely.

Under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, citizens traipse to the polls several times a year to vote on national and local issues ranging from national security to whether to build a new parking lot in their municipality.

Sunday's proposals include loosening tough rules on naturalizing foreigners, paying for 14 weeks of maternity leave out of government coffers and halting a cost-cutting campaign to shut post offices. Geneva's voters also will decide on cantonal (state) proposals including whether to ban the sale of alcohol in gas stations.

The Swiss often grow weary of exercising their rights.

Authorities are concerned by sliding voter turnout, which rarely exceeds 50 percent, and are looking for ways to boost participation.

Online polling has been tried before in U.S. primary elections and British local tax votes.

But the world's first-ever binding Internet vote took place in January 2003, when the 1,162 voters of the Geneva suburb of Anieres cast their ballots in a local referendum on whether taxpayers should finance the renovation of a restaurant.

Following that referendum and later ones in the larger city suburbs of Cologny, Carouge and Meyrin, Swiss federal authorities gave Geneva officials permission to try e-voting in Sunday's national poll.

Geneva's e-voting system uses software that cantonal (state) authorities developed — and copyrighted — with the Swiss office of Hewlett Packard and the Geneva-based online security firm Wisekey.

All citizens of the four suburbs received a card from local authorities giving them the options of voting over the Internet, by mail or in person, Geneva electoral authorities said.

The card includes a 16-character personal ID code and a 4-character security code which voters scratch to reveal.

Voters must visit the canton's special Web site and type in their personal code to establish a secure connection, after which they receive an online ballot form. They then have to type in the security code and their date and place of birth.

A single voters' register ensures individuals can vote only once, whether online, by mail or in person, Geneva authorities noted.

Geneva plans further online votes in municipal and national referendums in October and November, officials said.

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