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Elections 2019 Who can vote in Switzerland? Who can’t?

A woman leaves a polling booth after having cast their vote

Those who don't hold a Swiss passport cannot vote in federal elections but some cantons, notably in the French-speaking part of the country, give foreigners a say on municipal issues.

(Keystone)

Ahead of parliamentary elections on October 20, swissinfo.ch looks at why a third of the Swiss resident population is disenfranchised. What is the voting situation in Switzerland for foreigners, the mentally disabled, prisoners and other minorities? 

in depth

Politics Parliamentary elections 2019

Voters elect the members of the Swiss parliament for the next four-year term on October 20.

At the previous elections in 2015external link, 5.28 million people were entitled to vote out of a total population of 8.33 million (63%). Who were the remaining 37%? 

Here we look at various groups of society and whether they can vote at the three levels of government: federal, cantonal and municipal. 

Foreigners

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A quarter of the Swiss populationexternal link doesn’t have Swiss citizenship. If you don’t have Swiss citizenship, you can’t vote at the federal level (and therefore in parliamentary elections) – even if you were born in Switzerland or have lived in the country all your life. Some 350,000 people were born in Switzerland but don’t have Swiss citizenship. 

However, most cantons in French-speaking Switzerland give foreigners a say on municipal issues — usually after being resident for a certain amount of time — and two (Neuchâtel and Jura) allow it on cantonal issuesexternal link as well. 

German-speaking cantons are much more reserved in letting foreigners vote. Cantons Basel City, Appenzell Outer Rhodes and Graubünden allow their municipalities to offer foreigners the vote but in practice few municipalities do so. 

Dual nationals

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Every fifth Swissexternal link over 15 has at least one other nationality, most often Italian, French or German. In Geneva, almost half the population has more than one passport. Dual nationalityexternal link does not affect voting rights in Switzerland. 

Swiss abroad

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Some 760,000 people with Swiss citizenship live abroadexternal link. They can exercise their political rightsexternal link if they are 18 and registered with their Swiss representation abroad. They must also be registered on the electoral roll of their last municipality of residence in Switzerland or, if they have never lived in Switzerland, in their place of originexternal link

In some cantonsexternal link, Swiss living abroad can also vote at the cantonal and municipal level. For more information, contact the relevant cantonal authorityexternal link

The government has suspended e-voting trials, so Swiss abroad have to vote either by post or in person. Most Swiss abroad don’t vote: in 2015 turnout among the whole expat Swiss community was 4.5%.  

Minors

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Although you have to be 18 to vote at the federal level (lowered from 20 in 1991), each canton is in theory free to give minors voting rights at cantonal level. In practice, Glarus — population 40,000 — is the only canton to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote on cantonal and municipal issues. At the end of 2018, 18% of the Swiss population was aged under 18. 

Prisoners

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Being in prison doesn’t change your voting rights in Switzerland — unlike in the United Statesexternal link (which even restricts people’s right to vote after leaving prison) and Britainexternal link. Other European countries, such as France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, allow disenfranchisement by special court order. 

People with mental disabilities

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You cannot vote in Switzerland if you are “subject to guardianship due to long-term lack of capacity of judgement (and you are not represented by a proxy designated to act on your behalf for this reason)”. 

About 16,000 people fall into this category. Critics point out that this violates the UN Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilitiesexternal link, which Switzerland ratified in 2014.

The decision to place someone under guardianship is made unilaterally by the authorities on a case-by-case basis. 

Citizens who are elderly, ill or disabledexternal link and who are unable to complete their ballot papers for votes and elections by themselves must also be able to exercise their political rights. The cantons ensure that the municipalities provide the necessary assistance. 

Women

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Of course women can vote in Switzerland! But only since 1971 at the federal level and 1990 at the cantonal level in Appenzell Inner Rhodes (after the Federal Court stepped in). 

Although Switzerland was one of the last countries in the world to give women the vote, it was the first to do so as a result of a (male-only) popular vote. 

voting vid

Video on voting in Switzerland

Voting in Switzerland

Voting is not compulsory in Switzerland (apart from in canton Schaffhausen up to the age of 65 — if you don’t have an excuse, you have to pay CHF6). 

Around two-thirds of Swiss residents are entitled to vote and, of those, just under half actually do so. 

Swiss voting rights in a nutshell: “If you have Swiss citizenship, are at least 18 years of age, live in Switzerland, and are not subject to guardianship due to long-term lack of capacity of judgement (and you are not represented by a proxy designated to act on your behalf for this reason), you can vote at federal, cantonal and communal level and also launch and sign referendums and initiatives.” (Source: ch.chexternal link)

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