Profound Democracy

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

4 May 2015

In 1776 and 1848, when the United States and Switzerland were founded – respectively, they were among very few democracies. Over the centuries, how we express our democracy has changed, but our deep adherence to, love of, and respect for democracy has only strengthened. This past weekend, I had an experience that reminded me about the roots of great democracy.

Across Switzerland, many local communities come together to discuss and vote on local city/community laws.  In many ways, this mirrors the caucuses we have during the primary season in the United States – where citizens have to show up and debate and vote for their preferred candidate.  However, this is not just about candidates, it’s about laws.  And – in a couple of the Cantons (Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden), this happens on a much larger scale.

Yesterday, I was a guest at the Glarner Landsgemeinde and witnessed their profound form of direct democracy.  Not only can the citizens vote for the laws of their canton, but any eligible voter 16 and up can challenge and/or propose an amendment to laws of the canton.  Here, for example, is a young woman advocating for how/whether to distribute the funds from the Cantonal bank.

The Landsgemeinde is held in the public square and is made even more communal and festive by the pomp and circumstance of a mini-parade of government officials along with a small fair full of food and tzachke booths.  What really astounded me is how public the voting was – and then how the votes were counted. Here’s what happens as I understand it:

The Cantonal legislature proposes a set of laws to be passed (along with the budget) and brings that to the voters on the first Sunday in May.  The proposals are brought up one by one and, if there are any people who wish to propose an amendment or contest the law, those individuals are invited up to share their perspectives. For each law, after everyone is heard, the Governor/Gemeinde President calls for a vote.  People can also propose new laws to be brought up.

Every eligible voter has been sent a voting card (anyone 16 and up – this year’s was yellow) and so the voting process goes as follows:

  • A show of cards for/against.  The Governor visually determines the winner.  If it’s close, then he/she:
  • Asks for people to stand up to show their cards for/against.  If it’s still too close to call, then he/she:
  • Invites up a couple of additional members of the government to each look out at a quadrant and do a visual count of the cards for/against.  If it’s still too close to call, then…
  • The vote goes against the government recommendation!

(note – I’m sure there are other complexities and conditions, but even if this is a fraction correct, it’s pretty astonishing!)

Three big points jump out at me here:

  1. Every eligible voter gets a voting card (no need to register to vote).
  2. Cantonal voting is 16 and up (federal voting is 18 and up).
  3. The government errs on the side of the people if it’s just too close to call.  I don’t know if this is why they do it, but by making that policy, they avoid any accusations of undue favoritism and bias.

As we look into the future and across Switzerland, you can contrast this very traditional form of voting with the online cantonal voting that now happens in places such as Geneva and recognize that, whether it’s in the comfort of your living room sitting in front of your computer, or sitting on a wooden bench in a public square raising your card, democracy is a very important and beautiful thing!

Here’s the Cantonal information if you want to see these events for yourself!

AND – in the United States, as we gear up for the Presidential nominating process in 2016, you may want to travel to caucus states like Iowa, Colorado, Washington, etc.. to see the caucus process happen.  As we get closer, I’ll share my personal experiences in that wild and up front expression of democracy.

In the meantime, here are more pictures from our visit to the Glarner Landsgemeinde.

Go Democracy!