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Environement, foreigners, woman status What are the recurrent themes in Swiss ballots?

Since 1848, Swiss had their say over 600 nationwide ballots. Are there themes that have recently been more popular? A visual summary spanning over 170 years of Swiss polls.

Half of the states in the world have some form of direct legislation. But Switzerland stands alone in how extensively it uses it. Swiss go to polls about four times a year for national votes. But to give their say on what topic? looked at all ballots' themes since Switzerland's first constitution in 1848.

We used for that data compiled by the Centre for Research on Direct Democracyexternal link which tagged all nationwide ballots in Switzerland (over 600) with keyword themes. Each ballot got assigned between 1 to 3 theme. Here is under a graphic showing the frequency of all themes: 


graphic showing all ballot themes

Such theme wordcloud do not tell us anything about the ballots' outcome nor how these themes evolved over time.

The graphic under offers a more complete view, showing by theme the detailed ballots over time. 

If you are not familiar with direct democracy, please note that there are three types of votes represented in the following graphic: Mandatory referendums, optional referendums and people's initiatives. These different types of votes are explained at the end of the story. 

In general, people's initiatives are much more often refused than referendums. Swiss citizen rejected about 90% of all People's initiatives, while they accepted over 70% of mandatory Referendums.


cool graphic

There is of course some subjectivity in defining what are the topics for every ballot. But based on the data at hand, we can observe a recent rise of people's initiatives about the environment, immigration and the status of woman. It is also known that since the 70's, the number of nationwide People's initiatives put to vote has increased.

Switzerland's direct democracy and its three types of ballots

  • Mandatory referendums (since 1848): In the case of a change, yet small, to the constitution by parliament, the people must have their say. The same goes for membership in supranational communities or in the adoption of laws that have been declared urgent.
  • Optional referendums: (since 1875): Swiss citizens can also contest all laws adopted or modified by parliament. For an “optional referendum” vote to take place, at least 50,000 signatures from citizens must be filed.
  • People's initiatives: (since 1893): People’s initiatives allow citizens to propose changes to the constitution by introducing new provisions, or by amending or repealing existing provisions. For an initiative to be submitted for a verdict at the polls, its proponents must gather at least 100,000 signatures from citizens eligible to vote.