Direct democracy enters digital age

Signing up via a stand on the market – a thing of the past? Digital democracy advocates are aiming for half of signatures collected online. Keystone

Campaigns increasingly take place on the internet, and in Switzerland, initiatives and referendums can now be signed online, thanks to Will this stimulate interest in politics or undermine the coherence and credibility of the system?

This content was published on May 17, 2016 - 11:00

One click to select the topic, three fields to fill in (surname, first name, email) and, hey presto, you receive a form that you can print out, sign, fold in two and slip into a mailbox – the postage is paid by the recipient. From now on, this method of collecting signatures for the tools of direct democracy (initiatives, referenda) could well replace the traditional market stalls and door-to-door canvassing.

In just a few days, wecollect.chExternal link has already garnered more than 27,200 signatures in support of the three initiatives (soon four) it is promoting. The fact that these texts were launched by the leftwing Social Democratic Party and other left-wing groups – the website is on this side of the political spectrum – is immaterial. The right is bound to follow suit soon, if necessary by launching its own platform.

“A start up – but non-profit”

“The several thousands of Swiss francs needed to start wecollect came from my own pocket,” Daniel Graf told “At the moment we're a startup and the final structures will only be up and running by the end of the year. But the aim is to stay a non-profit organisation.”

His partner in wecollect is Donat Kaufmann, a student who made a name for himself in 2015 by collecting CHF140,000 ($144,000) via crowdfunding. This paid for a front page ad in the free newspaper 20 Minutes to counter the all-powerful publicity machine belonging to the conservative right Swiss People’s Party.

Crowdfunding is part of wecollect, but only to lower the costs of campaigns it has launched. The idea is to give smaller organisations access to instruments of direct democracy. They often don’t have the funding. “We want to be the facilitators, but there are only two of us and we can’t dictate the political agenda,” Graf said. 

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Digital impact

Of course, Swiss politics has not waited for wecollect to make use of the worldwide web. As so often in recent years, the conservative right has been the trailblazer in the field of communication. 

“The campaign by the Swiss People's Party [SVP in German] for the 2015 parliamentary elections marked the beginning of a revolution in political communication in Switzerland, which now really uses social networks and the Internet systematically as a source of information and, above all, mobilisation,” explains Lukas GolderExternal link, a political scientist at the research institute gfs.bern.

And the strategy is paying off: in October 2015, the People's Party boosted its representation in parliament's lower house from 54 to 65 seats. Young people have also been won over, not least thanks to the fast-paced and rather humourous video clip "Welcome to SVPExternal link". The video – produced in Swiss-German dialect, with electro music playing in the background – went viral, with over 900,000 views so far.

Then, a few months later, in February 2016, it was the joint campaign by the left, right and civil society against the so-called enforcement initiative on “foreign criminals” that earned the People’s Party a stinging defeat. This time, there was no trendy clip, but rather mobilisation and fundraising on social networks, which observers have described as “unprecedented”.

Dynamic campaigns

Of course, Switzerland has already had some very dynamic political campaigns, as in 1989, when over one third of citizens voted to abolish the army, and in 1992, when voters refused to join the European Economic Area (EEA) by a hair's breadth. Yet at that time there was no web and no mobile phones.

“Regarding the EEA, more than 10% of those who voted had also physically taken part in a campaign event,” remembers Golder. 

“This is an all-time record, and it meant that political mobilisation was also very visible in the streets. Back then, television was the mass medium par excellence. While still important today, it is gradually losing ground.”

Social networks are taking over as the new mass medium. However, as a mass medium it is paradoxically also very individual, as people can withdraw into their information “bubble”, where they see only the content that interests them and read only the opinions of people who think like them, according to Golder.

Not so fast!

In a world where the Internet is omnipresent, the advent of wecollect seems a logical consequence. Its founder Daniel GrafExternal link, who was formerly secretary of the Green Party in Zurich and a spokesman for Amnesty International, is now committed to the campaign for an unconditional basic income. 

With his platform, he is seeking to create a “fast, effective and viral” striking force, using the member lists of left-wing parties and some NGOs. “Anyone who is backed by a dynamic community that can be activated by email has a real gem," he recently told the Sunday press.

At first glance, all this seems like grist for the mill for direct democracy. By facilitating access to its instruments, the Internet can only make it more dynamic and reactive. However there are risks, which Golder places in the broader context of the acceleration of political processes.

“This evolution began already in the days when television reigned supreme,” he notes. “The faster the media get, the quicker politics must react. However, Swiss politics is not known for its high speed of reaction, as it is founded on the search for compromise, which can take years.”

New dimension 

“With a tool like wecollect, we are again entering a new dimension,” he continues. “If collecting signatures becomes very easy and inexpensive, we will witness a further acceleration, with the growing risk that trivial questions are put forward, or texts that have not been properly thought through, as the authors didn't have time to ponder all the eventualities.” 

Not to mention the fact that a proliferation of initiatives could make politics unnavigable, both for citizens and the media, which still plays a key role in explaining issues and putting them into perspective.

It's still early in the process, and Golder is looking forward to seeing where it all leads, while keeping an open mind. 

“It is above all a means to raise interest in politics. And with our militia system, especially at the municipal level, which is closest to the citizen, this is going to make a big difference for our country.”

The internet is slashing prices

“Nobody really dares to talk about how much a people’s initiative costs,” Lukas Golder said. The first digital signature collection in Switzerland is for an initiative by the Social Democratic party on introducing transparent party financing. Switzerland is the only country in Europe with no law on the issue.

Normally signatures for initiatives are collected by activists and sympathisers to the cause on the streets. But there are also companies offering signature collectors for hire.

The whole process – from printing the petition forms to handing in the initiative to the Federal Chancellery – is a big expense. Golder reckons that the collection of 100,000 signatures for an initiative could cost between CHF500,000 and CHF1 million ($513,000-$1.3 million). That’s CHF5-10 per signature.  

wecollect could cut costs. You print out the document at home and then pay 53 cents for the postage beyond a certain quantity – so 100,000 signatures costs CHF53,000. There are further costs too. But Graf believes that in the end under it would amount to less than CHF1 per signature.

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