Referendums For Members

Direct democracy: How do Switzerland's referendums actually work?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Direct democracy: How do Switzerland's referendums actually work?
A woman casts her ballot into a slot at the communal administration building in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Photo by GABRIEL MONNET / AFP

Under the country’s unique system of direct democracy, the Swiss vote on average four times a year — more frequently than any other nation. Yet, very few people actually go to the polls. Why is this?


Like the proverbial Swiss clockwork, the country's citizens vote four times a year: in February or March, May or June, September, and November, weighing in on a variety of issues of local, regional or national importance.

This year’s referendum dates are scheduled for March 3rd, June 9th, September 22nd, and November 24th.

But does this mean that the voters will actually show up at the ballot box on the day itself with their bulletins in hand?


This is why

Weeks before a scheduled vote day, each canton sends out thick envelopes with voting materials (in the canton’s language) to all Swiss citizens over the age of 18.

You don’t have to ‘register’ to vote as is the case in some countries, like the United States.

As soon as a person becomes naturalised and appears in official databases as a Swiss citizen, or as soon as a Swiss citizen turns 18, authorities will automatically send out voting material for the upcoming referendums to each eligible person.

And if you are worried about whether the canton will know your address, you shouldn’t.

When you register in your commune of residence (as everyone living in Switzerland must), you are automatically on the government’s radar, for better or for worse.

READ ALSO: Why you need to tell Swiss authorities where you live 


If the authorities need to find you — for whatever reason — they will, probably sooner rather than later.

But back to the voting bulletins.

Each envelope consists of a brochure explaining what each (national, cantonal, or communal) issue is all about, as well as the government’s position on each topic.

There is also a sheet indicating how each political party recommends to vote. A ballot is also included.

Last but not least, there is also a sheet to be filled with your birth date and signed, before being slipped into, along with your ballot, a special envelope.

An example of some of the voting materials for the upcoming March 3rd referendum in canton Vaud. Photo: The Local

The government publishes instructions on how to fill out the ballot correctly. 

You can either send this out by mail, or slip the envelope into a specially designated slot located outside your communal  / municipal building.

The vast majority — about 90 percent of voters— mail their ballots in ahead of time, with few people actually showing up at the physical polling station on the voting day itself.

Showing up in person at the polling station happens more often in villages and small towns where people combine their civic duty with mingling with other residents, socialising, and — because this is Switzerland — sharing a glass of local white wine.


When are the votes actually counted?

While the envelopes are opened and ballots extracted as soon as they arrive, they are not actually tallied before Sunday, the officially designated ‘vote’ day.

Some are discarded because they are not signed, marked properly, or contain other errors.

The mail-in ballots, as well as those cast in person at municipal centres, are tallied as soon as the polls close at noon.

The counts for each commune are then integrated into the cantonal / federal tally to know the final results, which are usually published by late afternoon or late evening on Sunday.


What is the average turnout for each referendum?

While voters in other countries may envy their Swiss counterparts for their ability to have such an active (and frequent) say in their nation’s political process, the Swiss themselves don’t participate in each referendum.

Overall, the voter turnout is just over 45 percent — lower than in neighbouring Germany (76.5 percent), Austria (75.5 percent), Italy (72.9), and France (48.7).

One of the reasons advanced for the low participation is that, unlike many other countries, Switzerland’s political climate is much calmer, more stable, and less contentious, so people are are not as 'fired up' as elsewhere.

How many people actually cast their votes in any referendum depends on what issues are at stake — the more directly they affect people’s lives, the more they will vote.

One such example is the upcoming June 3rd vote that will determine the financial benefits pensioners in Switzerland will get, as well as the age they will retire at.

READ ALSO: What's at stake in Switzerland's March 3rd referendum?

And if you want to be sure not to miss any future voting days, you will be happy to know that the government has set dates for referendums up to the year …2043, which gives you plenty of notice to get ready. 


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