Democracy newsletter: the growing case for federal referendums in the US?

Keystone / Jim Lo Scalzo

The latest updates on Swiss and international democracy: it's the election, stupid!

This content was published on October 21, 2020 - 11:50

After one of the most comprehensive voting exercises of the year in Europe last month, when five nationwide referendums were held in Switzerland, we are now heading towards the most globally consequential: on November 3, over 150 million Americans will make decisions on thousands of political offices and issues, including the role of president.

As Covid-19 continues to disrupt our daily lives, campaigning and voting is different this year, and options to vote remotely are more in demand than ever before. While the Swiss practice of postal voting is well-established and no longer controversial – as swissinfo recently reported – using the postal services in election processes elsewhere is rarely easy, as we also explored:

But it’s never too late to improve the process: for example, I learnt the other day that US embassies and missions around the globe are offering safe modes of transporting ballots by eligible expat citizens back to their home counties across America. Postal voters in many countries are also now receiving a confirmation message like this one: Hello XY, This is a message from the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters. Your ballot for the 2020 General Election was received and will be counted. Thank you for voting!”

What a great service – and maybe inspiration for the Swiss electoral authorities as well?

There is another big question mark around the election of new officeholders and decisions on many measures to be voted this autumn. Will the losing side concede and accept the result? Donald Trump, the incumbent occupant of the White House, has repeatedly dodged such questions, saying that he will accept the result only if everything is done fairly. Sowing doubt around an election or referendum process is by no means only an American virtue however: it’s a worldwide vice, as Professor Adam Przeworski from New York University told me in a recent story comparing the US, Switzerland and other nations.

From our perspective here at we can also see many exciting parallels and differences between two historic federal states born by democratic revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries: Switzerland and the US, or the “Twins separated at birth”. One major difference is that in contrast to Switzerland, where over the years 630 nationwide popular votes have been held at the national level, not a single such vote has happened in the US. This makes America something of an outlier, says University of Southern California Professor John Matsuska in this editionExternal link of the Democracy Paradox.

There is a strong case that the US would gain a lot by letting its citizens having a bigger say on the federal level like the Swiss, as my colleague from Zocalo Public Square, Joe Mathews writes in an articleExternal link to be re-published by later this week.  

Finally, as America lives through – and the world watches – the nerve-wracking final weeks of a general election, we’re interested in what you think: should the U.S. – as one of the last countries in the world which would do soExternal link – introduce a referendum process at the federal level? If yes or no, why? Join the conversation here.

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