One might think that going to the polls is nothing special in Switzerland, since we do that several times a year anyway.
However, this year is the federal general election: every four years, elections are held for the entire federal Parliament. The Council of States, the upper house, has 46 members and each canton has two. (Except for the half-cantons of Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Appenzeller Innerrhoden, and Appenzeller Ausserrhoden, which logically each have one representative.) The National Council (lower house) has 200 seats and these are allocated to cantons according to their population – but every canton gets at least one seat.
Fortunately, the federal government has a helpful, and entertaining, website in four languages (the four official Swiss ones, plus English) to explain everything. There is even a truly awesome quiz, where I learned that (yay! cantonal autonomy!) most cantons use a system of proportional representation to choose their representatives, BUT six cantons do first-past-the-post.
In the 2015 general election, turnout was 48.5% of eligible voters. This seems low, but considering that vibrant democracies such as the US calculate turnout on the basis of registered voters (which in turn, is a fraction of those eligible to vote), almost half is pretty respectable.
The canton of Schaffhausen didn’t think so, and requires its eligible residents to vote: those who don’t face a fine of CHF 6, which will get you a tall cappuccino at an unnamed international coffee chain. I wonder if that is a sufficient punishment to insure high turnout in Schaffhausen.
On the positive reinforcement side, Swiss voters could for the very first time mark themselves as having voted on Facebook.
For my first ever Swiss general election, I got to vote for 18 people: two names for the Council of States, and 16 votes to fill the National Council seats granted to my canton of residence.
This was also my first experience with party lists. Several weeks before the final polling date of October 20, I received a fat packet in the post.
This contained a brochure explaining voting rules in general, two packets full of official party propaganda (from those parties that provided it), and my ballot papers: a simple blue paper with space for me to write in two names for the Council of States; and a whopping booklet of 36 pre-printed (and one blank) party lists for the National Council.
This is not something to be taken lightly.
Choosing two names from ten for the Council of States wasn’t so hard. After that, I had to study the rules alongside my stack of materials.
For the party faithful, you just need to tear out a pre-printed list with the party’s 16 anointed candidates and put in in your envelope. But what if I’m a Social Democrat (SP) voter? There are five SP lists to choose from: standard; labor unions; queer*feminist; JUSO, the firebrand young Socialists; migrants (i.e., naturalized Swiss). The Christian Democrats (CVP) were worse, with nine different lists covering regions within the canton in addition to the youth wing and the 60+.
An election poster from the SVP with some typical “Swiss People.” They may have been required to wear different glasses and ties for this photo.
There were the Liberals (FDP) the Greens, the Green Liberals, the nationalist right Swiss People’s Party (SVP)– never vote for a party whose title includes the word “people” – the Civic Democrats (BDP), the Pirate Party, and the Independents (DU).
And a blank list where you can fill in the 16 names of your choice. Now we’re talking.
But wait: you are allowed to amend the pre-printed ballot paper! You can delete a name (streichen) by crossing it through. That person won’t get one of your 16 points, but a point goes to the party listed on the top of the ballot. You can accumulate (kumulieren), which means giving two votes to one or more candidates, simply by writing in that person’s name again on one of the lines. Achtung! make sure the candidate is not already listed twice (some parties do this), or your ballot is invalidated. You can split your vote (panaschieren), by writing the names of candidates from other lists on your ballot paper.
You can in fact do all those things on one ballot paper, which then looks rather messy. Important is not listing more than 16 names (or the number permitted by each canton)– fewer names is fine. The party noted at the top of the list then gets the blank lines as generic party votes.
Completed ballot papers are sealed in the provided envelope, which goes into another envelope with your personal voter ID document, and is delivered to the box in the town hall. The counting starts, by hand, at 10:00 a.m. in our village. I now understand why the position of “vote counter” is an elected one (my village has three, with three alternates) with great responsibility.
In the end, I went back to my blank paper and created a custom list, because I like to be difficult. I used names from five different lists, gave one person two votes, left three lines blank, and wrote a party name at the top so that said party would get three more votes from me. I think I did this right; I hope so.