How does a nation of serial voters handle a referendum?

The jewels in the crown are not just the power given to the people, but also the clear, simple, comprehensive and impartial explanations that accompany the ballot papers

Swiss identity under threat? Artists from yodellers to rappers jumped to defend the TV licence

By Peter Ungphakorn
MARCH 2, 2018 | UPDATED MARCH 4, 2018

• Voters in Vaud rejected the cantonal popular initiative on dental health insurance by 57.5% to 42.5% with a turnout of 55.6%
• The nationwide proposal to scrap the TV licence was rejected by all cantons, and by 71.6% to 28.4% of the popular vote, turnout 54.1%. Majorities in favour were needed on both counts
• The nationwide vote on extending the government’s authority to collect taxes was accepted by all cantons, and by 84.1% to 15.9% of the popular vote, turnout 52.9%. Again majorities were needed on both counts
• Incidentally, voters in Valais voted to rewrite their cantonal constitution.

On Sunday (March 4), the Swiss go to the first of four polls scheduled this year. It’s an opportunity to take a quick look at how referendums are handled in Switzerland.

The jewels in the crown are not just the power given to the people, but also the clear, simple, comprehensive and impartial explanations that accompany the ballot papers.

This is part of a systematic process that includes scrutiny, checks and balances. Years of experience allow the Swiss to handle it all professionally and efficiently, up to four times a year — dates have been set in advance for every quarter all the way to 2037!


Referendums, initiatives and counter-proposals
The ballot package

The issues can be pretty big. On the ballot papers this weekend is a proposal to scrap the radio and television licence fee, which would probably end Swiss public broadcasting as we know it. It looks likely to be rejected, but no one’s taking that for granted.

It’s not the only subject put to the citizens. What the Swiss vote about depends on where they live. Nationwide there are two issues:  the broadcasting licence fee and a constitutional amendment to extend the government’s right to collect national direct taxes and value-added tax for another 15 years.

There are also cantonal issues. In French-speaking Vaud — capital Lausanne — voters are being asked to decide whether to create a cantonal insurance scheme for dental treatment, because compulsory private health insurance doesn’t always cover it.

The canton manages the voting in all issues. This (pdf, in French) is Vaud’s announcement setting out the details of Sunday’s vote.

In some towns and villages there might also be votes, although these can take place on different days. Real examples range from resurfacing the high street to shifting allegiance to another canton.

This is all part of the Swiss system of direct democracy where power comes from its citizens, from the villages and towns, then the cantons and finally the confederation.

I’m not going into the issues here. Details of the national-level questions can be found on the Swiss national broadcaster’s website. Instead, this is a quick look at how these votes work.

And I’m not saying the system is perfect, or that it could or should be copied anywhere else in the world. Every country is unique. But I will say that those accompanying explanation booklets have been developed into a fine art of user-friendliness.

The Swiss themselves complain about too much voting and how it delays decision-making. Turnout tends to be low, although research suggest most people vote sometime even if only a few vote every time.

And here’s an interesting statistic from “The proposal to abolish the licence fee is the 210th people’s initiative to be voted on in Swiss history. Twenty-two have been approved in nearly 130 years.”

Chart comparing licence fees of European countries
High cost of serving four languages: One of the most expensive TV licences in the world (Click the image to see it full size)

Referendums, initiatives and counter-proposalsBack to top

Switzerland distinguishes between referendums and popular initiatives. A referendum is required for any proposal to change the constitution or a major law — the proposal usually comes from the government and is “referred” to the people.

The vote on tax collection is a referendum. The Swiss constitution contains a quirk. It sets a time limit on the government’s authority to collect taxes. The federal government’s authority expires in 2020 (see unofficial translations of article 196 paragraphs 13 and 14 on the time limit, article 128 on federal direct tax, and article 130 on value added tax).

The government wants to extend that for 15 years to 2035. It had wanted an indefinite extension but during consultations it found only a minority supported that, while another minority felt 15 years was too long. So it settled for 15 years. The referendum text was finalised on June 16, 2017.

The vote on the TV licence is not strictly-speaking a referendum. It’s a “popular initiative”. This is when any proposal that acquires 100,000 verified signatures has to be put to a vote.

But before the public gets to vote, the government looks at the initiative. Sometimes this leads to a negotiation in which a compromise is struck and no vote is needed. Sometimes the government produces a counter-proposal.

But on the TV licence the government considered the proposal and rejected it. Parliament did too. The lower house voted 129 against, 33 for, with 32 MPs abstaining. In the Senate the vote was 41 against, 2 for with 1 abstention. So both the Cabinet and parliament are recommending the public to vote against the initiative.

An interesting point: the proposal to scrap the licence fee came from the far-right Swiss People’s Party, which then collected the signatures. It’s the only party to support the proposal and unsurprisingly it was outvoted in parliament.

The Swiss seven-member Cabinet represents all the main parties in parliament across the spectrum from left to right. Two of those members are from the Swiss People’s Party but the Cabinet majority also rejected the proposal.

The Vaud cantonal vote on insurance for dental treatment is also a popular initiative, although it does require an amendment to the Vaud constitution (it would add a new article 65b to article 65, which deals with public health — see French text).

It’s supported by left and centre-left parties and one from the centre right, opposed by the rest of the right, and with the required 15,000 signatures. The initiative has a history of almost 10 years, summarised below.

The package of ballot papers
Clear and succinct: 3 explanatory booklets accompany 2 ballot papers and 1 envelope (Click the image to see it full size)

The ballot packageBack to top

Two or three weeks before polling day the ballot papers arrive. The default method of voting is now postal, although many people just pop down to the municipal offices and leave the envelopes in a special box.

The package of papers includes more than the voting slips. In Vaud for this vote there are also three slim booklets.

One in the national colour, red, comes from the federal government (pdf, in French) and explains the two national issues:  10 pages on tax authorisation and 14 pages on the licence fee proposal.

Another 12-pager in the Vaud cantonal colour, green (pdf, in French), explains the Vaud dental insurance issue.

The explanations include summaries of the proposals, background information, relevant facts and figures, the history of the proposal, the arguments and counter arguments, what happened in parliament and in the government, the implications and how the proposal would be implemented.

Take the initiative on dental insurance. It starts with a summary of the proposal, continues with the general context, including how much dental care costs to households in Switzerland compared with other OECD countries, how the proposal would be implemented if it is passed and how much it would cost (and what costs are unknown), the various steps the proposal has passed and the debates in the Vaud parliament and government. All of this in 12 pages of an A5 (half A4) booklet, and all written clearly and simply.

We learn that the proposal was first discussed in the Vaud parliament almost a decade ago, in the 2009–2010 session, which demanded an official study. This focused on dental health of under 18-year-olds and in 2013 made some recommendations to strengthen dental healthcare.

By July 2014 supporters had acquired the necessary 15,000 signatures. The cantonal government launched a consultation and prepared a draft text to put to the vote. It also produced a counter-proposal that would to increase some support for dental care, financed by a fee on salaries and a cantonal tax on sugary drinks.

But this did not pass scrutiny by the cantonal parliament and a committee in 2017. Parliament rejected the counter-proposal and recommended voting against the initiative. However the initiative is supported by left and centre parties, which have a majority in the cantonal government. The government therefore decided to support the initiative although a minority of its members voted against.

In the booklet, the cantonal parliament has the last word with a recommendation for voters to reject the initiative. But in the end it’s the voters who will have the real last word.

This is pretty informative, but for some people it might not be enough, or rather, it might even be too much.

A third booklet allows them to cut to the chase. It lists all the main parties and their positions on each of the three subjects. Voters can simply do what their preferred party suggests!

The lists show all parties support the tax proposal, and all but the Swiss People’s Party oppose scrapping the TV licence. Four parties support the Vaud dental insurance proposal: the coalition of the left, Social Democrats, Greens and the Christian Democrats. Three oppose it: the Liberal-Radicals, Swiss People’s Party and centre-right Liberal Greens.

Meanwhile the debates have raged in the media as they would in any country. Switzerland has one of the most expensive TV and radio licences in the world. Its national broadcaster serves a small population of only about eight million, divided into four language zones, each requiring two or three TV channels, and several radio services, although the fourth language, Romansh, has to make do with a much smaller service.

Despite the cost and new patterns of media consumption, the defence is strong. Yodellers and rappers were among 5,000 artists and 50 organisations who issued a statement calling for the licence fee and national broadcaster to be preserved in the interests of cultural identity and diversity. They may prevail.

Updates: March 3, 2018 — added Vaud parliament recommending voters reject dental insurance initiative, added links to Swiss, Vaud parliament and Vaud government pages
March 4, 2018 — added poll results, and the statistic on the small number of initiatives that pass.

• Alphorns: cmooreinswitzerland CC0.
• Chart and photo of ballot papers: Peter Ungphakorn


Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

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