One person, one vote? – not in Switzerland

Federalism privileges and protects voters from small cantons, such as canton Uri. Keystone

Thanks to federalism, Donald Trump is the American president, although Hillary Clinton got more votes. In Switzerland, votes also have varying weights depending on the canton.

This content was published on February 24, 2017 - 11:00

After the election, the news that Clinton had received about 2.9 million more votes than Trump was a sensation.

Switzerland also has such mechanisms. Here are two elements that give the small cantons more weight than their populations would yield:

Senate: This 46-seat chamber of parliament has two representatives from each canton and one representative from each half-canton, regardless of population. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, is population-based and has 200 seats. Both chambers have equal power.

Majority of cantons: Amendments to the constitution must be supported not only by a majority of the voters, but also by a majority of the cantons. Sometimes, a popular majority agrees to a proposal, but not the majority of cantons – which takes the matter off the table. So theoretically, 9% of all Swiss voters (those living in the small cantons) can block a proposal. In other words, a voter from Appenzell Outer Rhodes has 44-times the say of one from Zurich when voting on constitutional matters.

In Switzerland, most of the small cantons are rural, while the urban ones naturally have more people and are constantly growing. In other words, federalism favours people living in the countryside.

City-country divide

This is particularly problematic because urban and rural areas tend to vote so differently. People in cities generally lean left when voting, while those in rural areas and suburbs tend to vote more conservatively.

Political scientist and blogger Sandro LüscherExternal link evaluated the national votes between 2007 and 2016 and compared the city of Zurich’s results with those of Switzerland in general. He found that the difference between the “yes” votes was 9.2 percentage points on average. In 16 out of 82 cases, or about 19.5% of the time, Zurich voters were overruled.

In Zurich, Lucerne and Bern there has even been talk of founding urban half-cantons because the rural population votes so differently from the urban population.

Pardon our French

But why does Switzerland have a system that does not give everybody an equal say? There are historical reasons for this. Before Switzerland became a federal state in 1848, there was a civil war called the Sonderbund War, which claimed 150 lives. On the losing side were seven small, predominantly rural and Catholic cantons that had banded together. Switzerland’s cantonal majority system was created so that they’d accept the national state. In addition, the cantons were considered state units, which is still partly the case today.

Rainer J. Schweizer, a retired public law professor, says the French-speaking cantons are the main reason for maintaining the system.

“Whether cantons should be given a population-based number of votes for a cantonal majority or for Senate seats was discussed during the total revision of the federal constitution from 1872 to 1874,” Schweizer told But already then, the idea was rejected out of consideration for the French-speaking cantons. “Keep in mind that all attempts to give each of the two Basel cantons two Senate seats as well as two votes for a cantonal majority have failed because it would weaken the voting power of the French-speaking cantons.”

As Schweizer points out, the population in some cantons has increased considerably. “This makes it hard to understand the schematic equality of the cantons.” But according to Schweizer, any proportional grading of the cantons would lead to big debates. Anyway, it would take a cantonal majority to do away with the cantonal majority policy – and it is unlikely that the small cantons would volunteer to limit their own power.

Minority rules?

It is not unreasonable for small or French-speaking cantons to oppose population-based representation. After all, they do not have the same interests as urban and German-speaking cantons.

Ultimately, it’s a question of whether people want to be ruled by the majority or the minority. Following the “one person, one vote” principle, heavily populated cantons like Zurich, Bern, Vaud and Aargau could regularly override the small cantons such as Glarus, Jura, Schaffhausen and Uri. Likewise, German-speaking Switzerland could easily make decisions for French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland, since over 70% of the Swiss population is German-speaking.

But if the small cantons are favoured, then a minority is making decisions for the majority. It is a dilemma that cannot be solved. At least not in such a heterogeneous country as Switzerland.

Do you think “one person, one voice” is the way to go, or would it be more fair to give minorities extra weight? Discuss it with us in the comments!

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