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Referendum process in Switzerland

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This article seeks to explain how the IRI Swiss Briefing Tour showcased the referendum process in the country of Switzerland, how it works on a local and state level and summarize with over all thoughts on the process and what was learned during the tour.

Referendums on the Local level

Members of the Swiss group walking to Bülach's city hall
The tour group first visited the city of Bülach, where an in depth look at how referendums were conducted on the local level was given by local government officials. As with the US process, locals can petition for a referendum to be held on one of the four election dates throughout the year. The four dates per year are decided by the State government twenty years in advance, the first one of the year is either in February or March, the second in May or June, the third in September or October and the fourth always the last Sunday in November. Votes for members of government or parliament on the local and state level are held on different dates. While special election dates are allowed by law, they do not happen often. In the city of Bülach, 300 signatures are needed to have popular initiative vote. The government on the local level is split between the city parliament and the city government. Smaller cities do not have a parliament, the main body of legislation, so their government officials would instead deal with legislative issues. For the parliament to get an issue on the local ballot, only 9 members, out of a total of 28, need to agree; this gives the minority the ability to change policies and legislation, something that is often harder to do. The city government is then responsible for the implementation of the legislation that parliament decides on.

If a group or person petitions for an initiative, all funds have to be raised by the group or person and there is no limit on how much a person or business could donate to the campaign. If enough signatures are gathered by the group then there has to be a vote, no option. Some local elections in the state allow for the city council to decide to put the issue to a vote or not, that is not the case for Swiss initiatives. The group who petitioned for the initiative also are the ones to write the language for the ballot, unless there is a legal issue discovered by the city when it oversees the language, what the petitions write is what voters will see in their ballot. Switzerland relies nearly 100 percent on mailed in voting. Every person eligible to vote receives a ballot, there is no voter registration in the country, and the person has the option to mail that ballot or return it by hand to city voting locations. A increasing number of votes are being done electronically, but that will be discussed more fully in the Electronic Voting as used in Switzerland article.

The ballots for each vote have more options than a typical US issues ballot. The first option is to choose if you support the issue being voted on or not. Then the parliament often issues a counter proposal, where they offer another option to the question. For example, in the Canton of Zürich it was voted on it June whether a children care facility should be built and funded by the state. The parliament's counter proposal was in the line of only having one facility and it being funded by other means. Then the third question asked is if there is a tie between the two proposals, which do you prefer. Counter proposals are used on the state level as well and are a unique way for the government to offer a compromise to a citizens initiative rather than just not have a vote at all.

Referendums on the State level

Front of the Swiss Parliament building in Bern
Interesting facts, of the 162 years that Switzerland has had the referendum process, 178 initiatives have been voted on by the people and only 17 have been passed. Of the 166 referendums voted on in the same time period, 92 have been approved. Most of the time, the government counter proposal is accepted instead of the original initiative idea. Once the counter proposal idea was introduced on the Federal level of government, it took six years to get it through parliament then another thirteen to actually implement the system on a Federal then Canton level. Elections on the state level occur in a similar fashion as then do on the local level. Issues arise at the state level with ensuring all voting documents and materials are in the three official languages of the country and the fact that on the Canton level there are different procedures and direct democracy rights. The only issues that is strictly dealt with by the State government only is international affairs and treaties with other countries.

Although Switzerland voted against joining the European Union, the country is still dependent on the EU and the neighboring countries. The European Initiative is the first attempt to have a multinational referendum process occur, though not as easy to access as the Swiss system others are hopeful it would bring more involvement of the people into EU politics. Similarities between the European Initiative and the Swiss democratic model are visible, but it was not a simple matter of copying the Swiss model, more issues are involved on a European scale. An example of the limit of the Swiss referendum is the Alpine Initiative. A popular initiative that won at the polls, it sought to reduce pollution in the Alps area created by freight transportation through the mountains, usually from and to other countries. The Swiss government cannot influence other country's government regulations on the amount of freight transports that can run through their country or the amount of pollutants are allowed to be emitted by a truck within their borders. The issue arose with implementation, how would Switzerland limit pollution if the majority of the traffic did not originate or terminate within the country borders? One goal, is to get freight off the Alpine roads and on to trains. But again, bilateral agreements between Switzerland and neighboring countries are needed to ensure they know Swiss rules and are able to abide by the law create by the citizens of Switzerland. This issue has been a problem for the Swiss government who has slowly been implementing it but not meeting the goals originally set out in the original initiative as voted by the people.