I keep hearing about “low voter turnout in Switzerland”.
I also hear that, somehow, low voter turnout has something to do with the quality of democracy.
The Swiss vote in 2020 on the following proposals at the national level.
Besides individuals and other groups, political parties and other organizations can also make proposals if, like everybody else, they collect the required number of signatures within a specified period.
This is how the Swiss voters decided in 2020 at the national, cantonal and municipal level. At the canton level, I only mention the Canton of Geneva. At the municipal level, I include only the referendum in the municipality of Bernex, population 10 000. Throughout Switzerland’s cantons and municipalities, referendums take place on many issues that the citizens decided they must decide.
February 9th, 2020 referendums:
Swiss citizens voted on a proposal to increase affordable housing. They rejected it; 57% against, 42% in favour.
On the same date, they also voted on another proposal to retain anti-discrimination legislation based on sexual orientation. They approved it; 63% in favour, 38% against.
September 27, 2020 referendums (Includes several postponed from May 17th because of the virus):
Proposal to restrict immigration. Rejected; 61% against, 38% in favour.
Proposal to make it legally easier to kill wolves threatening farm animals. Rejected; 52% against, 48% in favour.
Proposal to increase the tax allowance if you have children. Rejected; 63% against, 37% in favour.
Proposal to block the purchase of new fighter aircraft for the Swiss Air Force. Accepted; 50.15%, 49.85% against. You can not get much closer!
Proposal to stop new paternity leave benefits law for fathers. Approved; 60% in favour of stopping the law, 40% against.
November 29, 2020 referendums:
The voters will decide the fate of two initiatives.
One proposes a change to the constitution to make Swiss multinational companies liable in Switzerland for violations of human rights and damages to their environment in their activities abroad.
The other initiative proposes to ban the financing of Swiss producers of war materials.
But there is more to Swiss democracy than decisions by voters on national issues. At the Canton (Equivalent to a state or province in a federal government) and local level, the Swiss people also are the last authority; not the executive, not the elected representatives, not the Supreme or Constitutional court.
For example, in the Canton of Geneva and the city of Geneva, like in all cantons and municipalities, they also have referendums on cantonal and local issues.
Interestingly, the official name of the Canton of Geneva is “Republic and Canton of Geneva”. The name alone gives you an idea of the autonomy and power of the Swiss Cantons. They have more power and autonomy than, for example, the states in the United States, including states like California where they also have referendums, “the devil is in the detail”, but that is a topic for another day.
The initiative proposed that financing of public services must be preserved, that the level of municipal and cantonal tax and progressive taxation shall be also maintained.
It passed. 50.03 voted in favour, 49.97 against. Yes! you can get even closer results than the results on the proposal to buy aircraft for the Swiss Air Force!
A referendum in the Canton, to make 23 Swiss Francs (25 USD) per hour the minimum wage. Passed; 73% in favour, 27% against.
A referendum to accept the modification of Swiss federal road laws in the Canton of Geneva. Passed; 59% in favour, 41% against.
Municipal referendum. Town of Bernex, near Geneva. Population 10,000.
A referendum on the acceptance of the deliberation of the municipal government to open a credit line of 1 960 000.00 Swiss Francs, (2 144 000 USD), for the development of streetcar stops in the municipality.
The referendum rejected the recommendation of the municipal government; 60% voted for rejection, 40% for acceptance. Notice the referendum was not on the decision by the government. It is clear the decision power lies within the people, not the government.
Voter turnout in each referendum oscillated between 40 and 60%. In other cases, the turnout has been as low as not much above 30%, an as high as 75%. Most of the time the turnout is around 40%.
Many observers do not go beyond these numbers and speak of “Switzerland’s low voter turnout”, even of “voter fatigue”. They are wrong, wrong.
Voter turnout in Switzerland can be low on particular referendums because people vote on the issues that concern them.
For example, concerning the referendum on affordable housing and anti-discrimination legislation, the turnout was 42%. For most Swiss voters, those two issues were not pressing. We do not know why; perhaps they feel the vast majority of Swiss have no problems finding housing, perhaps they believe discrimination is not a problem.
Many more turned out, about 60%, concerning immigration, hunting, taxes, paternity leave and the purchase of fighter aircraft.
Nevertheless, in Switzerland, no issue is closed. Things can change; they could organize another referendum on any of those issues, and new ones.
The more interesting figure is that if we take one year, 80% of the Swiss vote. This is higher than any other democracy. That turn out in Switzerland is low and voters are burned out is wrong, they make no sense. Whoever says that has not looked beyond the surface or does not want to see…
Voter turnout can be low or for many reasons, in Switzerland and everywhere else. Voters can turn out in low number because they feel they do not need to bother because the country is well run, or for the opposite; citizens have given up on elections and politicians, perhaps they are just accumulating anger until they explode.
The Swiss have more trust in government than any other democracy. Surveys also show the vast majority are satisfied with direct democracy.
Swiss direct democracy is more democratic than any representative democracy because the people decide more often and in the most important issues. Any representative democracy is also more civil, humane and fair than any non-democracy.