Using direct democracy in elections

In recent years political parties in the United States and Switzerland have increasingly used direct democracy for electoral purposes. While the aim of setting a political agenda is similar in both countries, the practices are clearly different.

This content was published on September 24, 2014
Laurent Bernhard, University of Zurich, professor at the Political Science Institute

During election campaigns various issues generally emerge pushed by parties and candidates but only a few actually manage to become part of general public debate.

The reliance on ballot propositions can set an electoral agenda. These are proposed pieces of legislation to be approved or rejected by eligible voters such as initiatives, popular or legislative referendums.

When questions such as same-sex marriage bans, immigration restrictions and minimum wage are submitted for ballot, they usually receive a great deal of attention in an electoral campaign.

Statewide ballot propositions

In the US, direct democracy-style tools and institutions are not available at the federal level. As a result, Republicans and the Democrats are forced to make use of state ballot measures. As these votes take place alongside candidate races, direct democratic campaigns often have an impact on voting in elections in the states concerned.

Laurent Bernhard, researcher at the Universities of Zurich (NCCR Democracy) and Bern (Swiss Political Yearbook) Laurent Bernhard

The best-known example occurred in the 2004 presidential elections when the Republican Party placed questions against same-sex marriage on the general election ballots of eleven states. All of these measures passed by high margins, obtaining almost 70% support on average.

Following the presidential contest, many observers claimed that these ballot propositions – especially the initiative on a gay-marriage ban in the swing state of Ohio – decisively contributed to secure the re-election of George W. Bush.

This kind of strategy not only applies to presidential elections. The Democrats are said to have benefited hugely after unions lodged initiatives asking for an increase in the minimum wage in ballots in six states at the same time as the 2006 mid-term elections. These initiatives were a reaction to the anti-sex marriage measures submitted to the vote two years earlier.

Launching initiatives

By contrast, this kind of strategy is not feasible in Switzerland, as referendums and initiatives are not scheduled the same day that citizens elect their representatives to the federal parliament.

But democratic campaigns launched several months ahead of election day can have an impact on the electoral agenda and the outcome of the vote. Nonetheless, owing to their power to fix the dates of ballots, the federal authorities generally manage to prevent a vote that favours one particular party from taking place during an election year.

The 1999 federal elections were an exception, however. That year’s campaign was dominated by immigration. Citizens voted on two ballot propositions calling for tougher Swiss asylum policy in the context of the war in Kosovo. The media later attributed the spectacular rise of the conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to the fact these two votes took place only four months before the general elections.

In light of the difficulties to submit ballot propositions exactly when they want, Swiss parties have recently discovered the merits of so-called “electoral campaign initiatives” designed to set the electoral agenda.

Parties benefit from the fact that when gathering signatures they can make contact with potential voters on the streets. In order to qualify for a vote, popular initiatives have to obtain 100,000 valid signatures at the federal level.

During the 2011 federal election campaign, six out of the seven biggest Swiss parties made use of these “electoral campaign initiatives”. Only the newly created Conservative Democratic Party (BDP) declined to use this campaign tool. While the Greens and centre-right Christian Democrats launched two initiatives, the remaining parties focused on one single proposition.

Each party generally highlighted their respective core concerns. The Swiss People’s Party launched an initiative against mass immigration, which Swiss citizens accepted in 2014, the centre-left Social Democrats advocated a state-run health-care insurance scheme, the centre-right Radical Party proposed to end bureaucracy, the Christian Democrats focused on family politics, the Green Liberals called for ecological tax reform, and the Evangelical People’s Party took the lead regarding an introduction of a federal inheritance tax.

Mobilization and priming

According to experts, the main political topics being discussed in society can influence citizens in two ways. First, voters are likely to be mobilized by ballot propositions. In the US measures against same-sex marriage posed in ballots received broad support among socially minded conservatives who poured into polling stations to cast their vote in favor of the Republican candidate who was firmly behind this issue.

Second, changes in the electoral agenda are expected to prime voters by altering what is at the front of their minds on election day. This occurs when voters assign greater weight to issues that have achieved agenda status. Thus, when immigration suddenly dominates the electoral campaign as a result of the launch of a new initiative by Swiss People’s Party, voters are more likely to base their vote on this particular issue. 

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. Over time, the selection of articles will present a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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