Record abstention rates in Switzerland under scrutiny

Election campaigners might be interested in the findings of young researchers about the low voter turnout Institute of political science Zurich University

Students of the University of Zurich have been looking at the causes of low voter turnout in Switzerland. The results are sometimes surprising – and could provide food for thought for the organisers of political campaigns.

This content was published on December 15, 2015 - 12:05
Ariane Gigon in Zürich,

“Passing from misinformed uncertainty to informed uncertainty, such is the goal of surveys and opinion polls in political science!”

These were the words of political scientist Claude Longchamp, Switzerland’s best-known pollster, at a presentation of bachelor's dissertations by students of the seminar “Inequality, democracy and participation,” at the Department of political science of Zurich UniversityExternal link last May.

“Why does a country like Switzerland, which is seen as a model of direct democracy, have the lowest voter turnout ratesExternal link by far? Are the citizens so satisfied that they no longer go to the polls? This is one of the questions we have examined this year,” explains professor Silja HäusermannExternal link, who led the seminar.

The students based their analyses on different bodies of data, including the European Social SurveyExternal link 2012. They also used specifically Swiss data.

Their findings were then summarised on posters. This was a particularly useful exercise, according to Häusermann, as it “encouraged them not only to dissect the complex data available, but also to draw conclusions.”

The 2014/15 class was the third to do this exercise.

Being able to participate

One student, Stefan Rey, made a first potentially interesting discovery.

He looked at the correlation between the range of democratic rights available in different cantons (financial referendum, right of individual initiative) and citizen satisfaction.

“We could expect that those citizens with access to a wider range of direct democratic tools would be more satisfied with the system than the others, and that the more they were called upon to vote on different matters, the more satisfied they would be.”

Rey's study confirmed this hypothesis. Thus, the French-speaking cantons, which vote less often than the German-speaking ones, also showed lower satisfaction levels.

The differences were, however, not great. In the student's view, “the possibility of participating in democratic decisions has a greater impact on satisfaction than actually participating.”

Young people impatient

Another topic often discussed with respect to low voter participation is the absence of voting rights for certain categories of the population.

Does giving more rights – for example to minors or to foreigners – increase the satisfaction of residents in a country?

Society, but also the economy, needs satisfied inhabitants, noted Jeffrey Stein. This student compared the satisfaction levels of foreigners, young people under 18, voters and voluntary non-voters.

The results were surprising.

He found that those not eligible to vote were more positive about the system than those who do vote or those who abstain from exercising their rights.

In contrast, minors are champing at the bit: within the group of those not entitled to vote, they are significantly less satisfied than the foreigners.

Stable political interest

Another student, Blerta Salihi, studied the voting behaviour of naturalised foreigners compared with Swiss nationals.

She found that, “as expected, the latter are more likely to turn out to vote than the former. On average, 82% of them say they are willing to vote, against 70% of naturalised immigrants.”

“Naturalised citizens identify with their country of origin for a long time. So they are often less interested in political events in their adopted country,” Salihi concluded.

Efforts to increase voter turnout also focus specifically on young people.

Ruedi Schneider, who examined this phenomenon, found that political interest among young people aged 15 to 30 remained stable in Switzerland between 2002 and 2012. Just under 50% of them said they were interested, against a European average of 32.4%.

“Incorrect voting”

And what if people sometimes vote against their preferences and against their own best interests?

This phenomenon, called “incorrect voting,” is often studied in the United States in connection with the more disadvantaged and less educated citizens who vote Republican.

Arlena Frey researched two questions that were put to the vote in Switzerland in November 2008:

An initiative aimed at introducing a flexible state pensions age - rejected by nearly 59% of voters - , and the initiative seeking to scrap the statute of limitations for convicted paedophiles which was accepted by nearly 52%, with a participation level of 47.5%.

According to Frey, the phenomenon of “incorrect voting” is limited in Switzerland.

It affected 7.5% of voters on the pension initiative and 10% on the elimination of the statute of limitations.

“The more interested people are in a project, the less “incorrect voting” there is,” she concluded. “The low proportion of “incorrect votes” in Switzerland is a thumbs up for the legitimacy of direct democracy.”

The papers by the future researchers show that the feeling of competence about themselves is central in determining whether they participate, according to professor Häusermann.

“So maybe we have to work more on civic education in order to increase the number of citizens turning out to vote.”

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