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Why does Switzerland have so many referendums and how do they work?

Naomi Tsvirko
Naomi Tsvirko - [email protected]
Why does Switzerland have so many referendums and how do they work?
Swiss referendums are an integral part of the lawmaking system. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

On Sunday 19 May, Swiss citizens will be asked to vote in two federal referendums - one on the tightening of gun laws and the other is based on company tax laws, but why exactly does Switzerland have so many referendums?


In Switzerland, referendums are considered one of the main methods of demonstrating the nation's belief in the value of direct democracy. Referendums allow voters to have the final say at the ballot box on certain parliament decisions.

In the 1800s Switzerland's years of civil strife were caused by unpopular constitutions, leading the government to hold Switzerland's first referendum in 1802,  after a fifth constitution was submitted to the people for approval.

The most polarising issue at the time was the question of restoring a federal state versus maintaining a central state. Although the 1802 constitution had favoured a unitary nation, the decision was seen as unfair and caused the government to create the Act of Mediation of 19 February 1803, a new constitution restoring the sovereignty of the cantons in a federal system with guidelines that have persisted to the present day. 

Today, although most laws passed by the Swiss Parliament come into force without having to ask the people to vote on them. There are two reasons a vote or referendum can occur: 

1. Optional referendum

When citizens disagree with the decision of the Swiss Parliament and they gather 50,000 valid signatures within 100 days of the official publication of the act, or eight cantons submit a request, the act is submitted to a vote and citizens participate in an optional referendum. The legislation only comes into force if it is accepted by the majority of the voters. 

2. Mandatory Referendum

Certain laws passed by the Swiss Parliament, including amendments to the Federal Constitution, must be put to a national vote in the cantons. Amendments to the Federal Constitution only come into force if they are accepted by a majority of the voters and cantons.

Read also: What you need to know about Switzerland's crucial gun control referendum

Besides federal referendums, there are also cantonal and communal referendums. These referendums can be held on a wider range of matters and each canton has different rules about how these types of referendums are run.

Cantonal referendum rules differ in every each canton. Photo:

How often do federal referendums take place?

Swiss people vote in referendums up to four times a year. They vote on around 15 federal proposals and also cast their ballot on issues affecting individual cantons at the same time.

Who can vote?

All Swiss citizens aged 18 or over can vote, including Swiss citizens that are registered as living abroad. Around 5.3 million voters are eligible to take part in the next vote set for June 10th. That is a little under two-thirds of all people living in Switzerland.

A government information video about who can vote in Switzerland

How do people vote?

There are three ways to cast a vote: by postal voting (the most popular option), at the ballot box, and, in some cantons, electronically (e-voting). However, e-voting remains controversial with concerns over system security.

In the case of postal voting, envelopes are sent out to people’s homes around two months before the referendum and contain the ballot papers as well as booklets with all the relevant legislation (or proposed legislation), and an outline on arguments in favour and against each proposal. These booklets also contain recommendations from the federal government on whether voters should accept or reject proposals.

Read also: Why Switzerland's gun referendum threatens its membership of Schengen

What is voter turnout like?

In 2017, Swiss voters were called to vote in referendums on three occasions. The average overall turnout out was around 45 percent. Over the last decade, the figure has been above 40 percent.

How many referendums are successfully passed?

The Swiss have been called on to vote around 306 times since 1848 for a total of 617 proposals. In total, 299 proposals have been passed while 334 have been rejected. 

What are the upcoming referendums about?

The next vote is on Sunday 19 May and the referendum is to decide whether the country should tighten its gun laws by adopting the European Union's revised Firearms Directive. On this day, voters will also decide whether to accept or reject a new corporate tax plan to replace the special tax breaks that multinational companies now receive.



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