Should we worry about low voter turnouts in Switzerland?

Lost before the confusion of innumerable prospects: Swiss voters are called to the ballot box several times a year to vote on a range of issues. Keystone

On average, less than half of registered Swiss voters go to the polls. But there’s no need (yet) to panic about possible negative effects on the country’s democracy. 

This content was published on August 10, 2018 - 11:00

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” Really? The line often attributed to early-20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman hardly reflects the political situation 100 years on: whatever your opinion of Donald Trump or Brexit (to take the most mediatised phenomena of recent years) the least you can say is that they have changed something.

In Switzerland, especially, the chance to make a difference through voting stare you in the face: four times yearly, registered citizens decide on everything from the mundane (should the trees on Geneva’s Plainpalais square be torn down and replanted?) to the momentous (should the country curb immigration from the European Union?).

So why do we not do it more?

Around the world, voter turnouts have been steadily dropping in recent decadesExternal link. And in Switzerland, where a recent upturn (see graphic) slightly bucks this trend, participation rates are still among the lowest on the democratic planet – consistently under 50%. The last batch of national votes, on a reform of gambling laws and a plan to overhaul the country’s monetary system, saw about 34% of voters head to the polls.

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Too much, too often

People who study civic participation in Switzerland are at least clear about the why: frequency and complexity.

That Swiss citizens are called to the ballot box so often is a key pillar of the direct democratic system. But this can also cause fatigue, says Barry Lopez of easyvoteExternal link, an organisation that publishes easily-digestible information to try to spur more Swiss youth to vote. As soon as you’re done trying to understand the intricacies of the summer voting session, it’s time to start deciphering how you will vote in autumn; the cycle offers little respite.

Compounding this is the complexity of many votes, which are often based on technical and less than clear-cut choices. An easyvote study from 2016External link showed that “complicated language” was the top factor deterring young people from voting. And it’s not just youth: pollsters and commentators agreed that the recent sovereign money initiative, proposing that the central bank take total control of the money supply in Switzerland, was in part rejected due to the sheer difficulty of understanding it.

So, as a result of the frequent bombardment of their brain capacity by such complex choices, many Swiss simply stay away from the ballot box – the average turnout for national votes (as opposed to regional and local) last year was about 46%. Exceptions are usually the more emotive and clear-cut questions on identity or immigration: a vote to join the EEA in 1992 brought out 79%; the 2016 vote to deport foreign criminals, 63%.

Don’t fear the abstention

However, the reasons for poor participation are perhaps less interesting than the question of whether it harms the efficacy of country’s treasured direct democracy itself. But here, again, not many are panicking.

Claude Longchamp, a political analyst with polling group gfs.bernExternal link, reckons that the relatively low participation in Switzerland is only a “minor problem”. If, he told, the 46% that get out to vote were always the same (and if the same 54% stayed home each time), this would indeed present a problem for adequate representation, he says.

But studies have shown that the breakdown is more fluid. Longchamp explains that while a quarter of voters always vote, another quarter never do, and half are “flexible” depending on the issue. This means that three-quarters of the voting population participate somewhat regularly, a figure that puts Switzerland around the average compared with countries where votes are less frequent, such as other representative democracies in Western Europe.

Lopez from easyvote agrees. Despite his organisation’s mission statement of increasing participation rates among 18-25-year-olds, he also reckons that the issue is more a theoretical one of “credibility” than of actual dud outcomes. In any case, the Swiss who do vote, do so “pragmatically”, he says, citing well-known cases where people voted against giving themselves more holidays or a universal basic incomeExternal link.

Even the so-called “occasional voters”, who get out to vote depending on the topic at hand and the level of campaigning around it, rarely shake the careful nature of the Swiss general will. Just 22 of the over 200 people’s initiatives proposed since 1891 have been accepted; and in ‘surprising’ cases such as the vote to limit EU immigration in 2014, results are often markedly tight.

Taxation without representation

For Longchamp, a bigger problem is the sheer number of foreign nationals in Switzerland who cannot vote. In cities such as Geneva and Basel, he says, you have 40% of the tax-paying population who are ineligible to participate due to lack of citizenship: this could in theory lead to real problems of a lack of representation and ownership.

Beyond the cities (where turnouts are generally lower than in rural areas), the overall proportion of foreigners in Switzerland is around 25%: this means that June’s sovereign money vote, for example – where 76% of the 34% of registered voters that turned out voted “no” – was consigned to the scrapheap by just 16% of the overall (all ages, all citizenship statuses) population in the country – a tiny minority.

And with the proportion of foreigners in Switzerland steadily increasing – despite popular movements to limit them – efforts have been made to give them a participatory voice. For example, in some cantons, C-permit holders resident in the country for a certain amount of time can now vote (and stand as candidates) at the municipal level.

Results have been mixed, however: one study focused on canton Neuchâtel found that foreigners are not taking advantage of the opportunity. Why? One reason is the complexity of the political system; if it’s a problem for Swiss, it’s definitely a problem for immigrants. Another is the lack of corresponding voting rights at the national level – something not likely to materialise anytime soon.

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