Four times a year, Swiss voters are asked to cast votes on proposals put forward by at least 100,000 citizens who must sign in support. Popular initiatives that do not reach the hurdle of 100,000 signatures don’t make the cut.
Over the decades the number of popular initiatives has grown significantly. In the 80 years between 1891 and 1970 the number of popular initiatives averaged less than one a year. Starting in the 1970s the number rose sharply to more than two a year. Since 2000, the number has averaged more than four a year.
Numerous reasons have been put forward to explain the rise. One is population growth. 100,000 signatures represents 2% of the Swiss electorate. The corresponding 50,000 signatures required in 1891 represented 8% of Swiss voters. However, there is evidence to undermine this theory. Cantons with higher signature hurdles for cantonal initiatives don’t all have lower numbers of votes.
Another theory is that the trend reflects a shift in political culture. Some politicians have been accused of using popular votes to alter the course of decisions in parliament. When they don’t like the direction of travel they use popular votes to give their party and policies a marketing boost, whip up support among voters and open up the possibility of prevailing over the will of parliament.
Despite the rising frequency of popular initiatives most are rejected. Between 1970 and 2020, out of a total 182 popular initiatives, only 17 (9%) were accepted by voters. This total does not include popular initiatives that failed to get enough signatures or failed to qualify for other reasons.
In addition to popular initiatives, Swiss citizens get to vote on optional referenda. Optional referenda are launched in opposition to decisions and laws created and accepted by government. These votes require a lower 50,000 valid signatures to qualify and are voted on alongside popular initiatives. Optional referenda are not included in the chart above.
The recent round of voting on 13 February 2022 included two popular initiatives and two optional referenda. Proposals to ban animal testing and to ban tobacco advertising that can be seen by young people were both popular initiatives, while votes on government plans to remove investment stamp duty and support Swiss media were both optional referenda.