When I was directly involved in direct democracy

June 15, 2021, 4 Comments

I vote every time I can, always have and always will. In Switzerland that means voting fairly frequently but this time I got involved in the counting of the votes too. Well, not actual counting (as you’ll see) but I became a cog on the electoral machine that keeps Swiss democracy running so smoothly. And it has to run smoothly, with a referendum every few months.

I wanted to see how it works after the votes have been cast, so I spent a day as part of the team that makes it all happen. Any Swiss voter could be called up to do this (a bit like jury service) or you can volunteer. I was the only volunteer in my team of 20 counting votes in one electoral district of Bern. We sat at socially-distanced tables in a local gym with no music or chatter. Very serious stuff. It reminded me of school exams.

Around 90% of votes are cast by post (it’s normal in Switzerland) so we each had a giant stack of envelopes. They’d already been slit open by a machine and we had to fish out the contents: the offical voting certificate and a second envelope containing the voting slips. The two are separate so that no one sees how a particular person voted. Then came the good part: a reality check on the certificate. I got distracted once I noticed that the voter’s year of birth was on there. My youngest voter was from 2002, my oldest from 1933. Most important was the signature: no signature = no vote, and it’s amazing how people forgot that.

Over 600 envelopes later, I moved on to stage two: extracting the voting slips from the second envelope (more on the voting system here). We were lucky to have only two slips, one for the national referendums and one for a Bern election, so sorting was easy. Easy but mind-numbingly dull. It helped that the voting envelopes had four holes in them so you could quickly see if you missed one slip inside. Piles of sorted slips were whisked away to be stamped with a little Swiss cross, but piles more envelopes kept appearing. We were done by lunchtime.

Votes in Bern are usually scanned and counted by machine. These postal votes would be done that evening, so that on election day itself (always a Sunday), the only votes that needed to be counted would be the ones handed in before the noon deadline. But for that to work, the postal votes must be ready to be scanned. That was our next job: checking each voting slip. Each of the national referendum questions had Yes and No boxes that voters crossed in blue or black ink. Anything that wouldn’t scan, we took out for a manual count – both Yes and No crossed, mistakes Tippexed out, any writing at all, red ink, green ink and yes, also pencil. Or even voting by drawing a smiley face instead of a cross.

The final hurdle was sorting the green slips for the local election. Each had a hand-written name on it and could not be scanned so our sorting was to speed up the count. Three candidates, three piles of votes. Simple, apart from the ones with other names written in or totally illegible handwriting or completely blank. Sorted piles were swapped around for a second check, then bundled up ready to be counted. And that was it.

A whole Saturday spent opening envelopes and sorting votes but bizarrely I enjoyed it. Seeing democracy at work, being involved, taking part in something that we could easily take for granted. It reinforced my view that everyone should vote as not everyone in the world can. My one regret? I should have brought plasters for my index fingers. Sliding them into envelopes with razor-cut edges wasn’t good for them at all.

For the results I had to wait until Sunday evening like everyone else. Five national referendums became No, No, Yes, No, Yes with the only real surprise being the rejection of the new CO2 law. Voters overturning legislation: that’s direct democracy in action, and I had been part of it.

4 Comments on "When I was directly involved in direct democracy"

  1. Laura Wednesday June 16th, 2021 at 04:10 PM · Reply

    Thanks for sharing some behind the scenes details about Swiss elections! Fascinating 🙂

    I worked both provincial and federal elections in Canada and I’m always super curious about how things work in other countries. The combination of manual and machine sorting/counting is really interesting.

    Do you know how many volunteers/recruits are required across the country for each vote?

    • Diccon Bewes Thursday June 17th, 2021 at 11:46 AM · Reply

      Glad you enjoyed it.
      I actually have no idea how many are needed. Bern has six electoral districts with 100 people working across the six teams. Population is 130,000 but only 90,000 are voters (the rest are children or foreigners) and turnout is usually around 60%. That makes roughly 55,000 votes for most referendums. Nationally, there are 5.5 million voters with an average turnout of around 48% so you could probably work it out – though of course big cities like Zurich and Geneva need more counters.

  2. Stu Sunday June 20th, 2021 at 08:34 PM · Reply

    Illegible handwriting. That must have been time consuming.

  3. Segue Fischlin Monday April 11th, 2022 at 05:37 AM · Reply

    Thank you for explaining this process. I’m dual citizen US-Swiss so I’m very interested in the nitty gritty. In the U.S., we have a big problem with the voting machines being manipulable. They are designed to be easy to program to provide ‘weighted’ results. The non-partisan group has been trying to educate us on the flaws of these machines. For this reason, it bothers me that machines are counting most of the votes in Switzerland, and not humans. I understand the appeal of sidestepping the tedium, but if the vote counts are not accurate, then it’s not democracy at all, is it? My Swiss vote card receipt has what I’m assuming is a unique QR code on it, but I don’t see a way online to verify that my vote was counted the way that I filled out the ballot, or if it was even counted at all! I see a large number of ballots ( around 45K) are disqualified each referendum, but are the voters notified that their ballots were disqualified so that they don’t make the same mistakes again?

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