Voting in Switzerland

Voting in Switzerland

Voting in Switzerland is the process by which Swiss citizens make decisions about governance and elect officials. Voting takes place over the week-end, with emphasis being put on the Sunday. At noon on that day ("Abstimmungssonntag" in German), voting ends.

Switzerland's voting system is unique among modern democratic nations in that Switzerland practices direct democracy (also called half-direct democracy), in which any citizen may challenge any law at any time. In addition, in most cantons all votes are cast using paper ballots that are manually counted.

Approximately four times a year, voting occurs over various issues; these include both referendums, where policies are directly voted on by people, and elections, where the populace votes for officials. These votes take place during the weekend. Federal, cantonal and municipal issues are polled simultaneously, and the majority of people cast their votes by mail.

Only 25% to 45% of all eligible citizens typically cast their votes, but controversial proposals (such as EU membership or abolishing the army) have seen voter turnouts of about 60%.

Voting procedures

Voting can be done through hand counts, mail-in ballots, visits to polling booths, or, more recently, Internet votes.

Until several years ago, some cantons punished citizens for not voting (with a fine equivalent to $3). In the canton of Schaffhausen, voting is still compulsory. This is the reason for the turnout which is usually a little higher than in the rest of the country.

There are no voting machines in Switzerland; all votes are counted by hand. Every municipality randomly recruits a number of citizens who have the duty of counting the ballots, but penalties for disobeying this duty have become rare. However, after people sort the ballots (e.g. "yes" and "no"), then the total number of "yes" and "no" votes are counted either manually or, in bigger cities, by an automatic counter (like the ones used in banks to count banknotes); or the ballots are weighed by a precision balance.

Mail-in ballots

Voters are not required to register before elections in Switzerland. Since every person living in the country (both Swiss nationals and foreigners) must register with the municipality within two weeks of moving to a new place, all citizens are already registered and do not have to reregister if they wish to vote. The municipalities know the addresses of their citizens, and approximately two months before the polling date they send voters a letter containing an envelope (with the word "Ballots" on it), a small booklet informing them about the proposed changes in the law and, finally, the ballots themselves. Once the voter has filled out his/her ballot these are then sent back to the municipality in a return envelope provided in the package.

Polling booths

Swiss citizens may cast their vote in polling booths. At polling booths voters take the ballots that they have previously received in the mail and drop them off at the booth. However, after the introduction of postal voting not many Swiss citizens choose to utilize this service. Apparently an advantage for the voters (they don't have to visit the polling booth on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning when the votes are to be counted on Sunday), it is, on the other hand, a disadvantage for organisations which were collecting signatures for an initiative near the polling station. This is so because the actual voters are interested in politics, so asking them for a signature yields far better results than randomly asking for signatures on a city square.

Internet voting

Several cantons (Geneva, Neuchâtel and Zürich) have developed test projects to allow citizens to vote via the Internet [ [ Official State of Geneva e-voting site] ] or by SMS.

Types of votes


There are three primary election types. The first two, parliamentary elections and executive elections, allow a Swiss citizens to vote for candidates to represent them in the government. Parliamentary elections are organized around a proportional multi-party voting system and executive elections are organized around a popular vote directly for individuals, where the individual with the most votes wins. The third type of election, referenda, concern policy issues.

Parliamentary elections

Parliamentary elections decide the members of the Council of States and the National Council. If candidates are running for a parliamentary position, the voter is sent several ballots, each corresponding to a different political party. Every party makes up its own voting list, but the voter can either make a list of his or her own or they can make some changes to party-proposed lists.

If candidates are running for the Federal Assembly of Switzerland, the ballot displays as many lines as there are posts to fill. The voter then votes for the candidates that they wish to fill the parliament seats. Each candidate can be voted for up to two times. Each time a candidate's name appears on the list, a vote is counted for the particular candidate. The voter can delete a candidate's name and replace it with another name if they wish or they can leave the line blank. Although the voter is provided with a party list the voter can substitute a member of a different party and prepare their own list. For example, one can remove a candidate from the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland list and replace him with one from the Liberal Party of Switzerland. If a voter uses a ready-made party list, additionally a "party vote" is cast for the specific party. A voter can also use a "free list" with no party affiliation; casting a free list with self-chosen candidate's names doesn't result in a party vote.

The parliament is elected through two different procedures.

The National Council is elected through a procedure called proportional representation ("Proporzwahl" in German), because each party gets a number of parliament seats proportional to the number of party votes it receives. This determines the number of seats that the party is given, but the individual candidates still aren't elected - this is determined by the "candidate vote". If according to the party votes the Liberals get 5 seats, the five liberal candidates with the highest candidate vote counts are elected.

Members of the Council of States are elected through different systems as decided by the cantons, because the body represents Switzerland's cantons (member states). However, there is a uniform mode of election taking place on the same date as the nationwide National Council elections. This procedure is the plurality voting system ("Majorzwahl" in German). In the canton of Zug and the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, the elections take place before the other cantons according to Majorzwahl. The only exception to Majorzwahl is the canton of Jura, where the two councillors are elected according to Proporzwahl.

Cantonal elections

The voters can also vote for the government of each canton. The ballot has only one line where the voter can place the full name of "any" mature citizen that lives in the said canton, i.e. a write-in candidate. There are no party votes, only candidate votes; so this procedure is called ("Majorzwahl") where the candidate with the most votes wins, otherwise known as simple majority (plurality in the US) elections.


For each proposal there is a box on the ballot which the voter has to fill with either a "Yes" or a "No". If there are proposals that contradict each other, there is also a tie-break question: "If both proposals are adopted by the people, which proposal do you favor? (the so-called "subsidiary question" introduced in 1987)

Constitutional Referenda

If there is a referendum on changing the text of the Swiss constitution, there are also cantonal votes. Each full canton has one vote, but so-called half-cantons (because they were so historically split centuries ago) only have a half vote each. In the case that a change of the constitution is adopted, both the majority of the Swiss citizens and the majority of the cantons have to agree. The cantonal vote is determined by a popular vote among the people of that canton; if the majority supports a proposal then the entire canton supports the proposal.

This cantonal vote means that small cantons are represented equally with the larger ones. For example, Basel-Country as a canton has about 256,000 inhabitants, but has only half a cantonal vote (the other "half canton" being Basel-City). On the other side, there is the canton of Uri which has a full cantonal vote, but only 35,000 inhabitants. In the case that the majority of the cantons should approve a constitutional change with a great probability, there must be a majority of about 60% in the Swiss-wide popular vote.

Town meetings

Every village, town or city has its parliament — in some villages, it is the town meeting (usually called "Landsgemeinde"), where the adult citizens vote by raising their hands. There, the citizen can also present oral or written proposals which are voted on at the next town hall meeting. In larger towns, the town hall meetings are substituted by an elected parliament.

In the municipal parliaments, votes about changes to the "town constitution" (Gemeindereglement, which governs, e.g., the use of public space), financial engagements exceeding the competence of the executive branch and naturalizations are carried out.

Voting qualifications

Switzerland currently has about 7.5 million inhabitants; 5.6 million are Swiss citizens who have the right to vote although some cantons (states) and municipalities have granted foreigners the right to vote if they have lived a certain number of years in Switzerland.

All Swiss citizens aged 18 years or more are allowed to vote. In addition, Swiss citizens living outside of the country who are older than 18 are also allowed to vote on federal matters and, in some cantons, on cantonal matters. For these voters, registration through the local or nearest Swiss Consulate is compulsory (as they are not already registered in the municipality in which they live). They can choose to register in any Swiss municipalities in which they have been registered previously, or at their place of origin.

Votes on citizenship

In general, the municipal parliament decides about naturalizations. However, in some towns, naturalisations are subject to a popular vote. The Supreme Court decided in 2003 that naturalizations were an administrative act and thus must obey the prohibition of arbitrariness, which rules out democratic votes on naturalizations.

There are ongoing discussions about changing the rules: one proposal consists of automatically naturalizing foreigners if they fulfill the formal criteria, and citizens can propose non-naturalization if they give a reason for the proposal. The proposal would be voted on, and if the foreigner doesn't accept the outcome of the vote, he can order the court to verify the objectivity of the reasons. Some politicians have started an initiative to change the Swiss Constitution in order to make votes on naturalizations legal ( [] ), this reached a a referendum in June and was soundly rejected.


External links

* [ Swiss government site] - English link at bottom
* [ Swiss parliament site]
* [ Political rights at the federal level]

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