Clock ticking for vote counters

The counting is underway

The pressure is on for thousands of counters to sort through the votes from Sunday's parliamentary elections.

This content was published on October 19, 2003 - 19:10

Under the Swiss federal system, cantons are free to choose how they process the results, resulting in a variety of methods being used across the country.

Cantons have different ways of selecting their counters. While some counters are chosen by the authorities, others are put forward by political parties.

In some cantons, people are obliged to be counters if the authorities select them. If they refuse without a valid reason they can be fined.

All vote counters must have Swiss citizenship and be at least 18 years old.

In canton Fribourg, a lot of students apply to count up the votes, as they are paid SFr20 an hour. However, some of the poorer cantons can only afford to reward their counters with a free meal.

High concentration

Because the lists submitted by voters can be complex, vote counters must have a high level of concentration.

Each voter receives a package containing candidate lists for each political party, from which they choose a set of names.

They are allowed to modify these lists in various ways, for example by choosing a selection of candidates from different parties or by striking candidates off a party list.

They can also write out a new list themselves. However, only one single ballot paper is allowed to be placed in the envelope.

Bernard Muhl, a spokesman for canton Vaud, says these modifications are becoming increasingly popular.

“In recent years, there has been a tendency towards modifying the voting lists,” he said. “In canton Vaud, half of the documents handed in have been changed.”

Despite the patchwork of voting lists, Muhl says that as long as the counters concentrate and receive clear instructions, the margin for error is small.

“The processing of results is like a mathematical model. We can easily tell if the result has inconsistencies,” he explains. “But the checks can’t show where the error came from and it sometimes takes time to find the missing vote.”

Postal votes

Vote counters also have to deal with an increasing number of postal votes. In cantons Vaud and Geneva, 90 per cent of citizens now send their voting lists by mail.

Postal voting allows counters to sort through voting lists before the polling stations officially close at midday. This means that in some cantons the bulk of the counting can be done in advance, although some authorities forbid early counting for security reasons.

However not all cantons allow this method. In Ticino voting by correspondence is not permitted unless the voter is in prison or on military service.


In a number of cantons, the counter’s work has been simplified by the use of computers, which have in-built software that automatically calculates the results.

Machines can even help to count the votes. In the city of Zurich, for example, ballots are fed through a machine for counting banknotes, while in canton Bern they are weighed.

However, machines can’t be used for modified voting lists, which can only be counted by hand.

“A counting machine is inconceivable given the multiple possibilities for modifying the voting lists,” Muhl said.

And even if a counting machine were able to process modified voting lists, Muhl says cantons are more likely to invest in electronic voting, which allows voters cast their ballot over the internet.

E-voting is currently being trialled in Switzerland to gauge its potential. The next test will take place in the town of Coligny in canton Geneva in November.

But manual counters won’t lose their jobs just yet. A number of hurdles, particularly regarding security, still have to be ironed out before e-voting can introduced nationally.

swissinfo, Olivier Pauchard (translation: Joanne Shields)

In brief

In some cantons, the authorities select their vote counters, while in others, political parties put people forward for the task.

The rising popularity of voting by post means counters in some cantons can process the bulk of the votes before the polling stations have officially closed.

Although a number of cantons use machines to count the ballots, modified voting lists must be counted by hand.

End of insertion
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In compliance with the JTI standards

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