Zurich and its 14-item monster vote

In the city of Zurich, citizens "must" say yes or no 14 times on Sunday. Keystone

Porsches, private banks, parties, cocaine – Zurich is in many ways a city of extremes. That is also true when it comes to direct democracy. On Sunday June 10, citizens will vote on no less than 14 issues. This marathon of democratic decision-making is not without its dangers.

This content was published on June 8, 2018 - 11:00
Stephanie Hess and Bruno Kaufmann, Zurich,

This text is part of #DearDemocracyexternal linkExternal link, a platform on direct democracy issues, by Contributors, including outside authors frequently share their views. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of

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Many of the people you see strolling on the Bahnhofstrasse are carrying the signature shopping bags of fancy brands like Chanel, Bulgari, and Gucci. Others carry briefcases and wear expensive suits, grey being the preferred colour.

 If Zurich is the world’s richest city, as a UBS studyExternal link recently found, then BahnhofstrasseExternal link may well be the priciest street in the world. Here designer boutiques are laid out one after another like expensive pearls on a string. Farther down is Paradeplatz, the beating heart of Switzerland’s financial industry, where the head offices of major Swiss banks can be found. Then comes the five-star Hotel Baur au Lac. A double room costs CHF800 ($815) – a night, that is. Parked outside the hotel entrance are Bentleys, Porsches, and Bugattis.

From street parades to voting marathons

This city reverberates with the clink of money, but also the beat of music, which spills out of nightclubs every weekend, and once a year at the Street Parade, the world’s largest techno party.

Internationally speaking, Zurich has a small population (424,000) but it is a metropolis of finance and electronic pop music. It has also made history as a catalyst for art and religion. Zurich was the birthplace of Dadaism and the launchpad for the Reformation in Switzerland. In 1968, guitar guru Jimi Hendrix electrified the youth of the city at his monster concertExternal link.

Now, 50 years later in Zurich, there is to be a monster vote. The envelope was as thick as a book. The voting papers arrived with a thump in Zurich’s mailboxes in these past few weeks. Citizens must weigh in on 14 separate issuesExternal link: two proposals each at a national and cantonal levels,  and, as the main part of the package, tenExternal link municipal issues. No less than eight of these concern financial questions.  Key issues include introducing all-day schools, budget allocations to rebuild various city government buildings, and electing councils to oversee primary schools.

Unfathomable decisions

"Such a long list of items is unusual even for us," admits  Zurich city clerk Claudia Cuche-Curti. There are several reasons for this. Switzerland has four “voting Sundays” every year. The last one in March coincided with municipal elections in Zurich. "We usually don’t add any extra referendum issues to that," Cuche-Curti explains.

Key issues include all-day schools, budget allocations to rebuild various city government buildings, and electing councils to oversee primary schools. Stephanie Hess

What also prevented a more even distribution of the voting burden was that these proposals are first debated by the local parliament and its committees. "We cannot determine when these debates finish." That is not the case for people’s initiatives which, since 2000, must be put to vote on deadline.

Managable or overwhelming?

Such a flood of proposals is overwhelming for Zurich voters, believes Toni Stadelmann, who ran for city parliament as an independent four years ago. Too much detail, too little time, too much to think about. Free informed opinion is no longer guaranteed in his view. Stadelmann filed an objection under electoral law but it was rejected. The number of items was indeed large but manageable, he was told. A few days ago an administrative court confirmed that decision and found that the municipal proposals are "not all that complex".

Cuche-Curtis takes the same view. "The building proposals in particular are very understandable matters," she says. In the voters’ newsletter, which was sent out with the voting papers, all the background and the views of both sides are given in long-form and summary versions. "Without making too much of an effort, you can grasp what it’s all about."

Risk of voter fatigue

Thomas Milic, a lecturer at the Centre for Democracy in Aarau, says that so many items to vote on may well be too much to handle. He warns of "voter fatigue" which has been found in several studies, including here in SwitzerlandExternal link. "It leads to proposals which come later on in the list being turned down, no matter what they’re about,” he says. The effects are still fairly slight and pose no major problem for  the practice of democracy here, according to the Swiss studies.

According to Milic, whether someone turns out to vote depends not so much on the number of items to vote on, but what they’re about. "For the upcoming nationwide voting day, there is no particular proposal that will pull the rest along," he says. "When someone is motivated to vote because of one issue, they will also go on and fill in the ballots for all the others, even the local issues."  Milic suspects that won’t be the case this time around.

Voting records

With regards to the number of votes held, the city and canton of Zurich hold the world record, having turned to the people no less than 3,000 times since 1869. So-called “monster votes” in which multiple items are decided on are certainly not unique to Swiss democracy. In Ecuador, ten constitutional amendments were put to a vote on a single day in 2011. Earlier, in 2008, voters in the US state of Oregon had to decide on over 15 issues in one go.

The German state of Hesse will submit ten issues to the voters later this year – including a proposal to abolish the death penalty. Taiwan and the American state of Florida have ten or more items to vote on in upcoming referendums this November. The all-time record for referendum voting, however, is held by a relatively remote nation: the Pacific island state of Palau. Ten years ago the country held a voting marathon on no less than 23 constitutional amendments.

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