From the November 2003 Idaho Observer:

Switzerland: Old-fashioned direct democracy

Switzerland is the “votingest” nation in the world and her people are generally confident that elections are fair and vote counts are accurate. If someone formally challenges the accuracy of official election results the votes are recounted. In the U.S. we vote a lot (but not as much as the Swiss) and the people are generally certain that elections are unfair and vote counts are inaccurate. If someone attempts to formally challenge election results, he finds himself snarled in red tape and must finally concede that a recount will never be conducted. With those dynamics in mind, it seems appropriate to get an overview of the Swiss voting system to see if it may give us a clue as to where the American system went wrong.

by Gabi Dischner

Switzerland has been a “direct democracy” since 1848. There are 26 cantons, or states in Switzerland. About five times a year Swiss people are called up to cast votes on federal, cantonal and communal levels for initiatives, referenda and parliamentary proposals besides the usual political elections.

In Switzerland all adults over 18, who are not incapacitated or have had their voting rights suspended from criminal convictions, are qualified to vote.

Switzerland's population is 7.3 million and has 4.7 million registered voters. The direct democracy process requires a big expenditure in organization and manpower besides the duty to stimulate people to meet their political responsibilities through adequate information and discussions on the various points of view.

Though I was born and raised in Germany, I have been a voting Swiss citizen for 23 years. Seeing how the American voting process has become so unaccountable with electronic balloting, I wondered how the Swiss voting process works behind the scenes. What I found was a simple system that many will judge as old-fashioned and far behind our hightech-electronic times:

Voter lists are held and updated in computers in the residents' voter registration office of every town and village in the country. The list is available to any resident at any time and is published once a year. Changes (cancellations/addenda) are published monthly on the bulletin board outside the townhall and once a year the updated list is sent to the canton's government.

In advance of a scheduled election or vote, the residents' registration office sends the official voting material (including paper ballots) to every person qualified to vote and communicates location of the polling place and the hours the polls will be open. At the entrance of the polling place two officials check the voter's identity against the list of qualified voters and register that the ballot has been cast. The voter is then allowed to place his ballot paper into the ballot box.

For the majority, ballots are cast by the voter at the polling station, but votes can also be sent by mail as long as they arrive at the townhall before the deadline. In some cantons a representative of the registered voter can put the vote into the ballot box, but the ballot paper must have been previously completed by the voter.

In a town with about 15,000 inhabitants there are five different polling stations where residents can vote. When the election is over and the polling stations are closed the ballot boxes are opened and public servants start the count.

When this is done, policemen bring the results and all the voting papers to the central office of the town where the results of the town's polling stations are combined.

The outcome is then transmitted telephonically to the department in the cantonal capital. Here all incoming data are again combined and published, or, in federal elections or national votes, the final results are transmitted to the federal elections' office in Bern.

Once the election results have been counted and publicly announced, all the paper ballots are taken to the canton's government. If no one protests or objects to the official results within 60-90 days (depending upon the type of election), the paper ballots are destroyed and the government deposits the official vote tally records into historic archives.

If a formal protest or objection is filed within the time frame allowed by law, which does happen from time to time, the ballots are recounted.

The general feeling in Switzerland is that when people vote, their vote is counted and that elections are fair. However, as in all human systems there is room for error or abuse. The ability to demand a recount increases public assurance that votes are counted accurately.

Electronic vote - opportunities, risks and practicability of electronic execution of political rights

On January, 9, 2002 a special commission that had been formed to study the possibility of amending Swiss voting laws to accommodate electronic balloting submitted its report to the federal government. Following are the summary points of the report:


Electronic communication devices facilitate public access to information and create new possibilities of communication and activity. For democracy this brings opportunities on several levels:

* political procedures can be adapted to social development

* easier participation in elections/votes

* attractive new forms of participation complement the conventional forms of democracy

* participation could eventually be higher

* the democratic principle “one person - one voice” can be better protected against classic abuse

* being a forerunner in electronic voting, Switzerland could set standards to prevent possible abuse

* electronic votes make it easier to find out the motivation of the vote, with the consensus of those entitled to vote

Risks and challenges

The introduction of new communication technologies implies the need for changes at all levels of the voting process which contain challenges for the Swiss political system and risks that it may be adversely affected

* voting system will require new forms [structures].

* specific federal Swiss structures are possibly blurred

* opinion-building processes could be affected through the possible acceleration of procedures

* the digital ditch between people with and without access to the Internet could create inequality in the participation of political life

* solutions must be found to combat the danger of abuse. Third parties could abuse the new technologies and interfere in the election process. The present level of informatics allows actually the development of programs which make appear a certain output on the screen, record something different and print again something else. It is much more difficult to find out possible technical breakdowns and mistakes in electronic voting than in conventional procedures and public control and recount is complicated. Electronic voting and signing of initiatives, referendums and parliamentary proposals face heavy technical security problems.

* even if today many technical problems are known, it doesn't mean that they can also be resolved.

* The functionality of the democratic system is endangered when basic doubts about the reliability of electronic execution of political rights can't be eliminated among those entitled to vote.

Waging carefully the pro and cons of electronic versus traditional voting, I personally find that the opportunities are listed to justify electronic voting as part of being current with the technology trends in modern society.

As the cost of implementation is not even mentioned, I suppose that there is no tangible advantage in electronic voting.

On the other hand the risks definately point to a loss of democracy. Maybe, in some systems such as voting, it is better to be old-fashioned.


This is the second month in a row that Gabi Dischner has shown us the error of American ways by giving readers of The IO a comparative glimpse into European life.

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