Are direct democracy and civil rights just “nice to the haves”?

Three voting booths, but one is empty: The complexity of a voting question can discourage citizens from taking part in a poll. © Keystone / Ti-press / Benedetto Galli

Women, the younger generation, as well as those with lower education and income levels are not only under-represented in political parties and institutions; they are also less likely to participate in votes than other groups in society.

This content was published on September 4, 2019 – 11:00

Sandro Lüscher, political scientist,

Consequently, their political interests remain largely ignored in the democratic process. Political scientist Sandro Lüscher explains why.

The struggle for civil rights and direct democracy in Switzerland has been a decade-long struggle that was fought in part on the bloodstained ground of a civil war, the Sonderbundkrieg in 1847. Today, no other country grants its citizens as many rights of political participation as Switzerland.

The peak of voter turnout was reached in 2016, when 63.5% of Swiss people went to the polls to vote on the construction of a new transalpine Gotthard road tunnel.

The lowest point came in 2018, when only 34.6% of the population voted for the “sovereign currency” initiative, a monetary reform that even the initiators struggled to explain.

On average, not even half of the 5.5 million Swiss voters make the effort to vote. One of the reasons is the interrelation between the complexity of an initiative and the rate of participation in a public vote. It is high time to take a closer look because it has been overlooked until now.

Participative democracy

Switzerland has a secular democracy. Just as the village baker has a say in corporate tax reform, the IT specialist can decide whether farmers who raise horned cows should receive more subsidies from the government.

What sometimes surprises abroad is conventional in Switzerland. Direct democracy is the government’s institutional and even slightly romantic belief in the political trickery of the citizens.

The close relationship of trust between citizens and government is necessary for a basic democratic political system to function.

Between demand and excessive demand

But do Swiss voters receive enough information on the issues put to the vote to form a balanced and differentiated opinion in times of increased complexity?

Could these low participation rates in fact be attributed to the fact that the government is demanding too much of its people as our world becomes more and more complicated? And does it expect more from certain population groups than others?

These questions address a central problem with which democracies are now struggling. Namely, the gulf between the reality of a democratic regime and what these democratic governments expect from their citizens.

As shown below, this means that the turnout mostly fell during the 20e century. At its lowest point in the early 1980s, voter turnout was still an average of 42%. It has since recovered slightly and is currently at 45%. These numbers are certainly not impressive.

The more complex the number, the lower the participation rate?

The participation of citizens in the political process is the underlying ideal of any democracy. However, this requires citizens to understand what an initiative is and to be able to form their own opinion on the basis of different arguments and positions.

It’s no surprise that people are reluctant to participate if an initiative is complex and written in a language even experts cannot understand.

There is, however, a simple trick: citizens can turn to politicians, experts or parties they trust and take their stand, believing they know what is right.

It’s more likely, however, that voters won’t even bother to vote if an initiative seems too intimidating. As the graph below shows, there is an interrelation between the level of complexity of an initiative and voter turnout.

The more complex a bill, the greater the likelihood of a low turnout. This important interrelation always exists if other factors such as the intensity of the campaign or the importance of a bill are taken into account.

Low participation increases inequalities

But is low turnout really a problem for a democracy? Doesn’t political abstinence express contentment?

Research has a clear answer to this: No! Low turnout is a problem! There are two aspects to this. First, voter turnout is the key to the political legitimacy of a public vote. The lower the turnout, the more unstable the political legitimacy of an election.

Second, voter abstinence is not evenly distributed among different social classes. It obeys a social logic and thus calls into question the democratic principle of equality.

More diversity through mobilization

The lower the participation, the more visible the social divide. In other words, high-turnout public votes represent a larger share of the population than hard-to-apprehend votes in which only a small circle of die-hard direct Democrats participate.

If a democracy seeks to represent the interests of the whole population and not just a wealthy minority, it must find a solution to this dilemma of direct democracy. This is where Switzerland is called upon because it grants its citizens the most extensive human rights in the world.

Introduction of the “random citizen” in Switzerland

However, there are solutions to the problem. One of them is a jury of citizens like what exists in the state of Oregon in the United States. There, a randomly selected group of people discuss an initiative and consult with all relevant parties as well as experts and specialists.

Once done, the panel presents the results of their discussions in an independent document that is easily understood by voters. Experience shows that citizens greatly value these independent documents because they help them form an opinion and take a decision.

Switzerland plans to test such a jury of citizens in the city of Sion in November before a planned vote in the canton of Valais. For this, the Swiss National Science Foundation has endowed Nenad Stojanovic with a chair at the University of Geneva.

Public votes and information

A direct democracy offering votes to the public needs broad, well-balanced, high-quality and independent information.

In Switzerland, the private and public media as well as the Swiss government inform the public about a proposal in question. Nationwide public polls are held up to four times a year.

The government explains the pros and cons of an initiative in a so-called voting book, which is sent to all Swiss households, and publishes short videos with the same information. The authorities also inform voters of the political positions of the main actors and issue voting recommendations.

Criticism of the dual role of government is increasing, especially when the information turns out to be wrong. This was the case in the 2016 vote on removing tax incentives for unmarried couples.

Independent and balanced information is also available on easyvote.chExternal link. The platform of the umbrella organization Swiss Youth Parliaments is aimed primarily at young people. The brief is written in a language aimed at young people, and polls have shown its videos are now popular with voters of all age groups.

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Sandro Lüscher studied political science and history and works as a research assistant at the universities of Zurich and St. Gallen. He also contributes regularly as a journalist to’s coverage of direct democracy. The last text is based on Lüscher’s master’s thesis supervised by Daniel Kübler and Thomas Milic at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Zurich.

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