Direct Democracy in Switzerland

Reader E.R. pointed me to a helpful Joe Matthews op-ed in the Sacramento Bee that attempts to explain why direct democracy works better in Switzerland than in California:

Under initiative-based direct democracy, California politics has become a shooting range that never closes. Dozens of initiatives are filed each year (the record is 152 in 2005). Since Johnson’s time, more than 105 initiatives have been approved by voters. In contrast, the referendum — a ballot measure that allows citizens to reverse an act of the Legislature — is rare. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, only 64 referenda have even been filed in California since 1911.

Why the disparity? The state constitution makes initiatives easier to qualify for the ballot than referenda (the number of signatures required is the same, but sponsors get more time to gather signatures for an initiative) and just as easy to pass at the ballot. A simple majority is all that’s needed.

Swiss direct democracy works in the opposite way. It’s based not on the initiative but on the referendum. The Swiss constitution makes initiatives twice as hard to qualify as a referendum. A referendum needs only a simple majority of votes to pass, but an initiative must achieve a “double majority” to succeed — a majority of the national vote, and majorities in a majority of the country’s 26 cantons, or provinces. Initiatives are thus much less common than referenda because they so often fail — the success rate of Swiss initiatives is just 9 percent. (In California this decade, a historically difficult time for passing initiatives, voters have approved 30 percent of initiatives).


I’d want to see more research before definitively accepting this theory, but it makes sense. And it goes to show that differences in institutional structure can make a very big difference.