The Swiss parliament has two chambers, the National Council and the Council of States. In the National Council, the cantons are represented according to population. In the Council of States, each canton has two representatives, but there are also a few half-cantons with one representative each. For the National Council, there are uniform electoral rules for the country at large; for the Council of States, it is up to each canton to determine the electoral rules as long as they are democratic.

When modern Switzerland was founded in 1848, the electoral rules for the National Council were winner-take-all in single member districts such as FPTP. After World War I, the rules were changed to party list proportionality, see List PR. Currently, the National Council has 200 members that are elected in 26 electoral districts, corresponding to the 26 Swiss cantons and half-cantons. The largest canton, Zurich, elects 35 representatives, and the smallest cantons, only one. The parties submit candidate lists in each canton containing the names of their candidates for that canton's seats. The results are counted separately for each canton.

Having 26 electoral districts instead of a single national district works against the smaller parties. If Switzerland were treated as a single electoral district, only one-half of one percent of the vote would be needed to win one of the 200 National Council seats. With elections taking place in 26 separate districts, however, a higher percentage of votes is needed to win. In Zurich, a party must win about three percent of the vote to win one of the canton's 35 seats. In the small cantons with only one seat, the party with the most votes wins the seat. Thus, if the number of seats per district is reduced to one, the proportionality system becomes a system of winner-take-all (FPTP).

In contrast to countries like Germany, Switzerland has no minimal threshold of votes that a party must reach to receive any representation at all. Thus the principle of proportionality is applied in its pure form.

The candidates on the party lists are ranked by the voters and not by the parties. The latter merely submit a list of names without rank, usually in alphabetical order. The number of names cannot be more than the number of seats to be filled from each respective canton. In ranking the individual candidates the voters have three options:

The only condition is that the overall number of names is not greater than the number of seats to be elected from the canton. A voter also can decide to make no changes at all on the list. In this case, no preference is given to any of the candidates, but the ballot counts for the number of seats attributed to the party.

Voters may further complicate their list by writing in candidates from other parties (panachage). Thus, a Socialist voter may put a Free Democratic candidate on the list, either once or twice. With this write-in possibility, computation of the results becomes very complicated. In the above example, the Free Democratic write-in candidate counts for the Free Democratic party and detracts from the Socialist party strength; the voter has split their vote between the two parties. Voters can go even further and write in candidates from as many parties as they wish, but, again, the total number of names is not allowed to exceed the number of seats in the canton.

The computation of the results proceeds in the following way: for each canton, the number of seats each party receives is determined on the basis of the total votes for candidates of this party. Second, candidates win these seats in order of their ranking. This ranking is based on the number of times a candidate's name appears on all the lists, including write-ins on other parties' lists.

The freedom of choice that the Swiss system permits the voter weakens the party's control over its candidates, and thus party discipline is low. Although a Swiss party still controls whether or not a candidate gets listed, it cannot determine a candidate's chances of election through rank on the list. Once candidates are listed, they are on their own and must try to get a maximum number of voters to write them in twice, and a minimum to cross them out. Although this system seems to give great power to the electorate, it also increases the influence of interest groups. These groups inform their members about the candidates who favor their interests and for whom two votes should be cast, as well as about candidates who should be crossed out because they do not favor the group's interests. A teachers' group, for example, will inform its members which candidates are sympathetic to teachers' needs and which are not. Letters are sent out by a large number of groups ranging from business groups to trade unions. Candidates depend on political parties only for getting listed on the ballot; to be elected, they must obtain the support of a large number of different interest groups.

The Swiss still vote for party lists, but their electoral system allows them to express preferences for and against particular candidates. The election also takes place in relatively small districts, where voters feel more at home than in a single national district. These factors together personalize the relations between voters and candidates. With this electoral system the Swiss currently have 14 parties in the National Council.

Besides taking part in elections, Swiss voters have also a great say through the referendum. Indeed, of all the national referenda held in Western democracies since World War II, more than two-thirds were held in Switzerland. Voters have the right to call for a popular referendum on every bill decided by parliament. The only requirement is that 50,000 signatures be obtained, which is relatively easy in a country of 7 million inhabitants. The voters also have the final say on constitutional amendments. All constitutional amendments decided by parliament must be submitted to the voters. A minimum of 100,000 voters can also submit a constitutional amendment of their own, which will first be debated by parliament but finally decided in a popular referendum. This instrument of the popular constitutional initiative is widely used and can be applied to whatever question the people wish to decide. When the referendum was introduced in the 19th century, it was expected that its effect would be innovative. The founders of modern Switzerland anticipated that the voters would be open to change, but the opposite was true and the referendum has often had a delaying effect. The best example is the introduction of female suffrage only in 1971. Parliament was prepared much earlier than male voters to grant women the right to vote. This example is typical in the sense that it shows how it often takes a long time to convince the Swiss voters to accept a new idea.

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