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Election Observation in Switzerland

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 12:42

Election Observation in SwitzerlandBy Charles Lasham, Director of Electoral Affairs at ICPS

The very first election I observed abroad was in Namibia in 1989. I was in the company of over 1500 other observers from many countries under the control of the United Nations. There was still some resistance to the elections and our presence was not welcomed by everyone. I have also observed post conflict elections in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Sierra Leone and the former Soviet Union countries. During that time I was the returning officer for the City of Liverpool and one of the 12 UK European Returning Officers in the UK. In 2000 I started to work on a permanent basis for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems where I was their country representative and chief of party in Moldova, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan. I ended my time with IFES in Egypt and departed there just two days before the demonstrations started. I have been used to going to interesting places where there has been some uncertainty but maybe the tide is turning.

In September last year I managed to get selected as the senior elections advisor for the OSCE/ODIHR election assessment mission for the federal elections held in Switzerland on 23rd October. As part of an eight person team under the leadership of a very experienced American, Peter Eicher, I travelled to Bern on 10th October and met numerous officials throughout the country, observed the elections, the counting and tabulation of the votes and stayed until 28th October working with the team to put together the first draft of the report. I was the only Brit on the team and the other members consisted of two Americans, and one each from Canada, Germany, Greece, Poland and Russia.

In a country where everything runs like clockwork why do you think OSCE/ODIHR need to assess their elections? Well, it is because of the commitments to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), made by Switzerland which requires them to have their elections observed by other members. So, the government of Switzerland extended an invitation to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) to observe the 23 October 2011 national elections and OSCE/ODIHR accepted.

There are certain aspects of the Swiss election process that are extremely interesting and I shall attempt to explain a few of them here in this short article. The first point to make is that with a population of 7.7 million and an electorate of 5.1 million this was not the largest election I have ever been involved in. With a turnout of 49% and over 85% of voters choosing to vote by post, election day activities are fairly limited. In fact, polling stations opened for a minimum of 30 minutes and up to a maximum of 2.5 hours with polls closing at 12 noon. In the city of Luzern, population 75,000, there was only one polling station open on election day. And no-one complained.

There are 26 cantons in Switzerland and while the cantons have to adhere to the Constitution and the Federal Act on Political Rights there are 26 separate cantonal laws governing the conduct of elections. The Federal Chancellery sets minimum standards but each canton is able to determine how it runs their own election and there are significant differences of approach depending on where you are in the country. For example, in one canton there is compulsory voting, in another the franchise is extended to 16 year olds while the rest of the country voting at age 18 years. Most of the 200 members of the National Council are elected through a proportional system (the Hagenbach-Bischoff formula ) with National Council are elected through a proportional system ( the Hagenbach-Bischoff formula ) with the cantons being the constituencies. Seats are allocated to cantons according to their population, with a minimum of one seat per canton. The largest canton, Zurich, has 34 seats, while the six smallest cantons have one seat each. In the one-seat cantons, the elections are held under a majoritarian system.

Ballots are delivered to those on the voter lists by the administration of the cantons or lower level communes, usually by post. In the multi-seat cantons, electors receive a packet of prepared ballots which includes a separate ballot for each party list indicating the party name, the party number and the names of party candidates. In addition, the packet includes a blank ballot with no party or candidate information. Voters are entitled to a number of votes equal to the number of seats the canton has in the National Council. The voting system is complex, giving voters several options: they can vote for a party list in its entirety by placing the list, unmarked, into the envelope provided or directly into the ballot box; they can vote for a party list, but delete names and add names from other lists up to the number of seats available; they can vote using the blank or empty ballot by writing in any combination of candidate names from any list, up to the number of seats available; and they can vote by placing a party name at the top of the blank ballot and entering candidate names from any list and any blank spaces are allocated to the party named at the top. Candidate lists may include the name of the same candidate printed twice, or voters may write in the name of a candidate or candidates so that they appear on the lists twice, provided that the total number of entries on the ballot does not exceed the number of seats available.

Most ballots are returned by post or delivered to special post boxes set up outside commune offices within the canton. Ballot envelopes are opened in advance of election day and the count proper begins at close of poll, 12 noon on election day. Despite the complicated voting system and the difficulties that brings at the counting of the votes, the results are declared, in the main, on the same day. Everything ran well but, like any election process, there can be improvements. The final report of the election assessment mission can be found on the OSCE/ODIHR website This is the same site for experienced election administrators to get registered and volunteer for short term or long term observer missions. My experience was a good one. The team was extremely professional, experienced and hard working. In that sense it was very much the same as my first mission abroad all those years ago.

Charles Lasham is an experienced electoral administrator and founder member and former chair of the Association of Electoral Administrators in the United Kingdom. He has recently been appointed as Director of Electoral Affairs at ICPS.