Survey: foreign names can be an electoral handicap

In most Swiss cantons, voters can amend electoral lists by striking off candidates they don't want to support Keystone

Under the Swiss electoral system, voters can cross off candidates on pre-printed ballot lists. This method discriminates against foreign entrants with non-Swiss sounding names, a study has found.

This content was published on March 22, 2018 minutes

Such names are more often struck off the list, according to research conducted by Lea PortmannExternal link and Nenad StojanovicExternal link from Lucerne University.

Swiss citizens from overseas who take part in elections make up about 12% of the total electorate in Switzerland. This minority is also underrepresented in governments and parliaments.

One of the reasons is the free-list proportional representation system in most parts of the country for parliamentary elections at a national, cantonal and local level. It allows voters to cast so-called “negative preference votes” against candidates considered unsuitable.

Research details

The researchers examined 45,000 ballot papers which were amended by voters in the 2014 elections to the local parliaments of Zurich, Bülach, Adliswil, Dietikon and Wädenswil.

The 90 election lists included 1,633 candidates, of whom 13% had non-Swiss sounding names.

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Using data from real ballots during the 2014 local elections in canton Zurich, the researchers concludeExternal linkd that “candidates with non-Swiss names incur a significant electoral penalty”.


Stojanovic says that taking into account all other possible parameters, candidates with non-Swiss sounding names dropped down 1.4 places on party lists because they were more often struck off compared with those candidates with typically Swiss names.

“This is not enormous but it can be enough to prevent the election of a candidate,” Stojanovic explains.

Electoral discrimination is likely to be at the centre of debates as the Movement of elected immigrantsExternal link continues to collect signatures for a non-binding petition. The group is calling on parties and voters to “promote the participation and political integration of people with an immigrant background”.

More research

Portmann and Stojanovic have extended their research from the 2014 local elections to focus on the 2015 elections for the national parliament.

Voters can not only strike certain names from list, but also add them twice or mix candidates from different political parties Keystone

“We wanted to see if there were differences between rural and urban regions or between the different language regions in Switzerland,” says Stojanovic. “We have already done a good deal of work.”

The researchers hope that the study will be available ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.

The examination of the 2014 Zurich elections did not reveal major voter discrimination for candidates with non-Swiss names. But the political scientists don’t rule out that it might be the case in elections in other cantons. They say more research is needed to gain better insight into the issue of discrimination.

Regardless of new research results, the researchers conclude that the Swiss electoral system, which allows voters to strike candidates off an election list, discriminates against candidates from minority groups.

In the case of the Zurich elections, in-depth analysis found that candidates with low-skilled jobs were more frequently crossed off than those with more prestigious professions.

+ Find out how far good looks go in Swiss politics

National level

In the House of Representatives, about 5.5% of the members elected in the 2015 elections had names which were not common in Switzerland before the 1940s.

The share of names that do not sound typically Swiss in the Senate is slightly higher (6.5%), according to researchers Stojanovic and Portmann.

They also point out that Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis is the first member of the Swiss government who was born as a foreign national (from Italy) and gained Swiss citizenship when he was a teenager.

Cassis sat in the House of Representative as a member of the centre-right Radical Party of canton Ticino from 2007 to October 2017 when he was elected to the Swiss government.

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