Caption: Who’s allowed to have a say here? The Landsgemeinde (people’s assembly) in Trogen (Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden). As depicted by Johann Jakob Mock, 1814.
Caption: Who’s allowed to have a say here? The Landsgemeinde (people’s assembly) in Trogen (Canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden). As depicted by Johann Jakob Mock, 1814. Wikimedia / Kantonsbibliothek Appenzell Ausserrhoden

Deprived of a voice

Too young, too foreign, too different? Fifty years on from the introduction of voting and electoral rights for women, the issue of political participation is still a hot topic. A historical overview of disenfranchisement in Switzerland.

Hannes Mangold

Hannes Mangold

Hannes Mangold is exhibition curator and head of cultural outreach at the Swiss National Library.

Are you under 18 years old? Do you not hold a Swiss passport? Are you under a general deputyship arrangement? If any of these apply to you, you’re in the 37% of the Swiss population who are excluded from voting in elections and referenda at national level. All people are equal and, accordingly, they deserve the same rights: this dream, inspired by the ideals of Greek antiquity, the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, was also incorporated into the Swiss Federal Constitution of 1848. In reality, however, equality was limited to an exclusive group. In 1848 ‘every Swiss citizen over the age of twenty’ was declared eligible to vote in referenda and elections. As is well known, this didn’t include women.

No vote without a passport

And anyone who didn’t hold a Swiss passport was also barred from going to the polls. Only in the Canton of Neuchâtel were foreigners given the right to vote and be elected at community level, from 1849. It was then 130 years until the newly founded Canton of Jura became, in 1979, the second canton to introduce municipal voting rights for foreigners – now also including foreign women. However, this seemed to set a trend. Two other cantons in western Switzerland now have local voting rights for foreigners: Vaud since 2002 and Fribourg since 2006. In both cases this right is linked to a minimum length of residence. In addition, there have been various possibilities for the resident population without Swiss passports to participate in community politics in Appenzell Ausserrhoden since 1995, in Graubünden since 2004, and in Geneva and Basel-Stadt since 2005. At cantonal level, appropriate laws on voting rights for foreigners were introduced in Jura in 1979 and in Neuchâtel in 2001. At national level, the rule is still that only those who have a Swiss passport are permitted to have their say. A democratic basic requirement from the 18th century thus remains unfulfilled: ‘No tax without a vote’.
A prerequisite for political rights in many parts of the country: a Swiss passport. Example from 1945.
A prerequisite for political rights in many parts of the country: a Swiss passport. Example from 1945. Swiss National Museum

No voting by minors

The introduction of women’s suffrage 50 years ago was the biggest extension of political rights in Switzerland. A much smaller group was granted the same rights 20 years later: on 3 March 1991, the adults voted by referendum to lower the voting age from 20 to 18 years. Young people, it was argued, took an interest in politics and were well informed politically, were employed and paid taxes; their needs had to be represented in an ageing society. Citing very similar reasoning, in 2007 Glarus lowered the voting age to 16 – so far, the only canton to do so. In recent years this move has been the subject of growing debate at national level as well. Voting age differs from the age of majority. After the 1991 referendum, that was the case for a while – until the age of majority was also lowered to eighteen in 1996.

No vote for the mentally disabled

If a person has a special need for assistance and is deemed mentally disabled, that person is placed under what is known as a general deputyship (a form of adult guardianship). Switzerland deprives people under a general deputyship of their political rights. This practice has been the subject of increasing criticism since Switzerland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2014. Many of the approximately 14,000 people affected by this law are able to form a political opinion and take part in the political process. However, only the Canton of Geneva has so far made any adjustment to accommodate the political rights guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As of 2020, mentally disabled people in the Canton of Geneva are no longer deprived of their right to vote in referenda and elections. Counting those under a general deputyship, minors and foreigners, more than a third of Switzerland’s population cannot vote in either referenda or elections. This exclusion is often justified with the argument that these groups are not mature enough to cast an eligible vote. Until 1971, the same argument was applied to women. In retrospect, one can only marvel at this. At best, this bemusement may prompt us to ask why more than a third of the resident population is permitted only limited access to participation in the political process. The question of whether a whole new voter segment would in fact stream to the ballot box is hardly relevant. For 50 years, more than half of voters in Switzerland have consistently failed to take part in referenda. But there’s a big difference between having the right to vote, and exercising that right. In the end, the decision not to exercise one’s political rights is also a privilege.
Who in Switzerland is allowed to vote? Explanatory video by chchportal / YouTube

Vote now!

09.09.2021 14.01.2022 / Swiss National Library
Until 14 January 2022, the Swiss National Library in Bern is showing the exhibition ‘Vote now! On the right to have a say’. In the exhibition, the Library explores selected aspects of the past and present of co-determination in Switzerland. For a look at the exhibition, visit the website

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