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REVEALED: The Swiss canton where you can be fined for not voting

Most Swiss people who cast their ballots in elections or referendums do so voluntarily. But in one canton, voting is compulsory.

REVEALED: The Swiss canton where you can be fined for not voting
Most Swiss vote with mail-in ballots. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

The Swiss vote at least four times a year — more often than citizens of any other country. In 25 out of 26 cantons, this activity, while strongly encouraged, is optional.

People can choose whether to cast their ballots or sit out the vote, depending on how interested they are in particular issues.

Typically, less than half of the eligible voters turn in their ballots — either by mail or in person. This low participation has often been attributed to ‘voter fatigue’, meaning that people become tired of having to weigh in on too many issues with such regular frequency.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

But such a listless attitude is not acceptable in one Swiss canton: Schaffhausen. Any adult citizen who doesn’t cast a vote in regularly scheduled elections or referendums receives a fine.

This penalty used to be 3 francs for a missed vote, but in March 2014 the cantonal parliament doubled it to 6 francs.

This fine, more symbolic than truly punishing from a financial point of view, is intended to stir voter interest and participation. The strategy seems to have worked: turnout in Schaffhausen is consistently 15 to 20 percent higher than the Swiss average.

Best way to save 6 francs in Schaffhausen: vote. Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

Even so, some experts are skeptical about this coerced political participation.

“It could happen that some of the voters vote without sufficient expertise”, Daniel Kübler, democracy researcher at the University of Zurich said in an interview with SRF public broadcaster soon after the Schaffhausen doubled the fine.

“Voter turnout is not just about quantity. It is also about the quality of political interest”, he added.

In fact, compulsion— and a threat of fine — doesn’t always sway Schaffhausen voters to head to the polls.

“Often I don’t have the time or just don’t feel like it”, hotel owner René Laville told SRF.

He conceded, however, that the fine was fair and he doesn’t mind paying it.

Compulsory voting was common in Switzerland in the 19th century but was abolished in the other 25 cantons by the 1970s.

It remains in force in about 30 countries in the world. In Europe, it is required in Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Greece and Cyprus.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What was on the ballot in Switzerland’s first ever referendum?

How do authorities know who has voted, and who hasn’t?

Whether in Schaffhausen or elsewhere in Switzerland, citizens can vote in two ways.

One, and by far the most widely used method, is by mail.

Each eligible voter receives a ballot by post, along with a packet of information, detailing what the issues are, which parties are in favour or against, and what the Federal Council’s position is.

The ballot should be filled in and signed, and the return envelope contains a slip of paper with the voter’s name and address.

In case of in-person vote, each voter must show his or her identification, and their names are checked off the list.

READ MORE: The ten most unusual Swiss referendum topics

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Swiss vote on ‘Netflix’ law, organ donations and Frontex

Switzerland votes on Sunday on whether streaming services should cough up money to boost Swiss film-making -- and whether everyone should automatically become an organ donor unless they say otherwise.

Swiss vote on 'Netflix' law, organ donations and Frontex

Under the wealthy Alpine nation’s direct democracy system, voters are called to the polls four times a year to decide on specific topics, according to popular demand.

Besides streaming services and organ donation, the Swiss are voting on whether to join in the planned expansion of the European border agency Frontex, providing more money and staff to protect the continent’s Schengen
open-borders zone.

The polls close at midday (1000 GMT), with most ballots having already been sent in by post over the past four weeks.

Vote projections should come within an hour, with the results due later Sunday.

Lex Netflix
The so-called “Lex Netflix” vote is on an amendment to the Film Production Act adopted by parliament last October.

Since 2007, domestic television broadcasters have been obliged to invest four percent of their turnover in Swiss film-making.

The law change is intended to catch up with the dramatic shift in how audiovisual content is now consumed, with global streaming platforms like Netflix, Disney+ and Blue now making hundreds of millions of dollars in
Switzerland each year.

Furthermore, the platforms will be required to ensure that European-made films or series make up at least 30 percent of the content available in Switzerland, as in the neighbouring European Union.

Right-leaning opponents collected enough signatures to take the change to a referendum.

If the challenge fails, streaming services would have to submit to the four-percent rule.

The referendum looks set to pass by a narrow margin, according to recent opinion polls, although opposition has been growing.

READ ALSO: What is the ‘Netflix vote’ and how could it change TV in Switzerland?

Transplant laws
The vote on changing the organ donation laws would see everyone become a potential donor after death unless they have expressly opted out.

Currently, transplants are only possible if the donor consented before they died.

The government and parliament want to change the law to a “presumed consent” model — as used in a number of other European countries.

Relatives would still have the right of refusal if they suspected that the deceased would not have wanted to be an organ donor.

A group of opponents, backed by the populist and religious right, gathered enough signatures to force a referendum.

Polls show around 60 percent support changing the law.

At the end of 2021, more than 1,400 patients were awaiting transplant organs in Switzerland, a country of around 8.6 million people. 

But 72 people died in 2021 while on the waiting list, according to the Swisstransplant organisation.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What Switzerland’s ‘organ donation’ vote means for you

Ties between Brussels and Bern have been strained since May 2021 when non-EU Switzerland suddenly decided to end years of discussion towards a broad cooperation agreement with the bloc.

The Frontex vote could add to the unease.

Under Europe’s expansion plan, Frontex would have a permanent contingent of 10,000 border guards and coast guards.

Switzerland would nearly triple its financial contribution to Frontex to 61 million Swiss francs ($61 million, 58 million euros) annually.

Migrant support organisations, backed by left-leaning political parties, collected enough signatures to force a referendum.

The government has warned if voters reject the expansion, Switzerland risks automatic exclusion from the Schengen area.

Opinion polls indicate 69 percent of Swiss voters back expanding Frontex.

In February, the Swiss voted to tighten their notoriously lax tobacco laws by banning virtually all advertising of the hazardous products.

Voters also rejected banning all animal testing, and providing additional state funding to media companies.

READ ALSO: Frontex: How Switzerland’s ‘border vote’ on May 15th could impact travel