Driven by concerns over low turnout, a Swiss political party has proposed mandatory voting in canton Jura. The northwestern region could one day follow the example of Schaffhausen, the only one of Switzerland’s 26 cantons that penalises non-voters.
The Jura cantonal parliament is set to discuss the issue later this year and the government must then present a bill.
Ultimately, voters in the sparsely populated region bordering France must have the final say on the potential change to the cantonal constitution.
The Independent Christian Social Democrats – the fourth-largest party in the 50-member Jura parliament – brought forward the idea of compulsory voting.
“Democracy is weakened and loses its purpose if citizens stay away from politics,” parliamentarian Philippe Eggertswyler says in his motion on behalf of his party.
“The right to vote had to be won with hard work over centuries, and people in many countries are still fighting for it.”
He says there is a serious crisis brought about by growing distrust in state institutions and politicians, a lack of interest and low turnout in votes and elections. This became evident in public ballots held in Jura and neighbouring canton Neuchâtel earlier this year.
Eggertswyler’s party has called on the government to draft a bill introducing mandatory voting at the local, cantonal and federal levels.
Th motion also refers to canton Schaffhausenexternal link in German-speaking northern Switzerland, which introduced the obligation to vote back in 1892 and resisted any attempt to abandon the system unlike other Swiss cantons.
Schaffhausen regularly records voter turnout regularly 10-15% above the Swiss average. Non-voters in the small canton north of Zurich have to pay a CHF6 ($6) fine which is added to the local authority tax bill at the end of the year.
Compulsory voting has been enforced in about 30 countries worldwide, according to Eggertswyler. In Europe, it is required in Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Greece and Cyprus. Elsewhere in the world, Australia, Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, Equatorial Guinea, Peru, Paraguay, Panama, Bolivia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, Egypt, Gabon and Lebanon all have some form of mandatory voting rules.
Opinions are divided over whether such a policy really benefits political engagement.
Georg Lutz, professor of political science at the University of Lausanne, is not convinced. He says he has no reason to revise a statement he made on public television SRF in 2014.
“[Compulsory voting] is unlikely to lead to people being more engaged in politics or to them being better informed, or more interested,” he said at the time. “On the contrary, it probably results in more uninterested people taking part in decisions.”
Political observers say the motion stands a realistic chance of winning a majority in the Jura parliament.
Whether voters will endorse an amendment to the cantonal constitution, however, could depend on the details in the bill. If it includes strict punitive measures, its chances of success are rather limited among voters in a region traditionally attached to personal freedoms.