Jump to content

Election glossary

The main terms and expressions to explain the parliamentary elections.



In constituencies with more than one seat in the National Council and in which a system of proportional representation therefore applies, voters can enter the name of the same candidate twice on the ballot paper (accumulating). The candidate thus receives two votes. Any changes made to the ballot paper must be made by hand, otherwise the ballot paper is invalid.

Additional vote

If fewer candidate names are entered on a ballot paper than the number of seats allocated to the constituency, the blank lines are counted as additional votes for the list (party, voter group, etc.) whose name or reference number is indicated on the ballot paper.

Allocation of mandates (seats)

In cantons that have more than one seat in the National Council, mandates are allocated according to the number of votes per list. In the cantons that have only one National Council seat, the person who receives the most votes is elected.

Allocation of seats in the National Council elections 2019

The 200 seats in the National Council are allocated to the 26 cantons according to their populations. The calculation is based on the resident population of the individual cantons in the year following the most recent parliamentary elections. However, each canton is entitled to at least one seat.

Further information: How many National Council seats does your canton have?


Blank ballot paper

Ballot paper that has no pre-printed content (candidates’ names, list name …).  



Person who stands for election and who satisfies the constitutional and legal requirements in order to do so. In constituencies where candidates do not have to register, any citizen of voting age may be elected.

See also: Standing for parliament: requirements, procedures, competent authorities

Candidate vote

Vote that a candidate receives when their name is written on the ballot paper. A vote for a candidate is at the same time a vote for the list.

Combining lists

When two or more lists are combined, they are regarded as a single list when the mandates are allocated. By combining lists, the candidates on the lists can increase their chances of being elected.
The seats are allocated to the individual lists according to the rules on proportional representation.
In the National Council elections, the list combinations and sub-combinations are indicated on the pre-printed ballot papers. 

Completing or altering a ballot paper by hand

Blank and pre-printed ballot papers must be filled out or altered by hand.     


Voters in cantons that have several seats in parliament can only elect candidates that stand for parliament in their constituency. A candidate can only stand for election in one constituency. In the National Council election, the cantons are the constituencies. As a result, voters can only vote for candidates standing in their own canton.

Council of States election

The Council of States comprises 46 representatives of the cantons. Obwalden, Nidwalden Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden (formerly known as the half-cantons) each have one representative in the Council of States, while the other cantons have two.
The election procedure for the Council of States is governed by cantonal law. 45 members of the Council of States are elected on the same day as the National Council elections take place. In Appenzell Innerrhoden, the Landsgemeinde or People’s Assembly elects the canton’s representative in the April before the National Council elections. In the cantons of Jura and Neuchâtel (in the latter since 2011) a system of proportional representation applies, while the other cantons use a first-past-the-post system.


Deceased candidate

Votes for candidates who have died in the period since the candidate lists were finalised are counted as personal votes for those candidates.

Deleting a name

Candidate names that appear on a pre-printed ballot paper may be deleted by hand. The name of at least one person eligible for election in the canton must appear for the ballot paper to be valid. A person whose name has been deleted does not receive a vote. The lines where names have been deleted count as party votes (provided the ballot paper bears a party name).


Electoral commune or political domicile

A person’s political domicile, also known in Switzerland as their electoral commune, is the commune in which a person exercises their political rights (votes, elections, address for receiving voting papers…). Persons with no fixed place of residence exercise their political rights in their commune of origin.

Electoral commune or political domicile for the Swiss abroad

For Swiss citizens living abroad, their most recent commune of residence in Switzerland is deemed to be their political domicile; where a Swiss citizen has never lived in Switzerland, their political domicile is their commune of origin.

Electronic voting, online voting, e-voting

Form of voting where voters are able to vote with the aid of a special electronic voting system by completing an electronic "ballot paper", which is then sent via a data network to the office responsible for the vote.

Further information: Electronic voting (ch.ch/democracy and www.bk.admin.ch)

Eligibility for election

The right of citizens who are eligible to vote and to stand for election. Eligibility for election to the National Council is governed by federal law. Eligibility for election to the Council of States is governed by cantonal law.


Federal Assembly

The two chambers of parliament (National Council and Council of States) together make up the Federal Assembly. This has 246 members: 200 in the National Council and 46 in the Council of States. The two chambers sit separately and have the same powers. For certain tasks, such as electing the members of the Federal Council and the Federal Supreme Court, the two chambers sit jointly (United Federal Assembly).



The cantons ensure that any voter who is permanently unable to cast their vote because of invalidity or any other reason receives the assistance required to vote.

Invalid ballot paper

Ballot papers used in the National Council election in cantons with two or more seats are invalid if they

  • are not official ballot papers
  • do not bear the name of any candidate standing in the canton
  • have been completed or altered in any way other than by hand
  • Contain defamatory remarks or obviously irrelevant markings



Lists of candidates for elections to the National Council in cantons using a system of proportional representation are checked and approved by the cantons and the Federal Chancellery. Each list approved by the competent authorities is given a number and a name. Each canton publishes its lists with their names and numbers in its official gazette, together with the list combinations and sub-combinations, as early as possible ahead of the National Council elections.

List sub-combination

List combination in which individual partners in a combined list join together to pool their votes and thus improve their prospects of obtaining mandates in comparison with other combined list partners. 

List sub-combinations are only valid when they involve lists with the same basic name, the only difference being that each has candidates of a specific gender, wing of the same group, region or age.     


Majority system (First-past-the-post system)

Electoral system in which the seat to be allocated goes to the person obtaining the most votes, while those obtaining fewer votes receive no seat. The rules of the majority system are applied in the elections to the Federal Council and to the Federal Supreme Court, in most cantons for the elections to the cantonal government and the Council of States, and also in communal elections.

The elections to the National Council are by contrast governed by the system of proportional representation, with the exception of the elections in cantons that have been allocated only one seat. Because of their low number of residents, the cantons of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Glarus, Nidwalden, Obwalden and Uri only have one member each in the National Council; they choose their representative by the majority system. If there is a tie in votes, the winner is decided by drawing lots.

Multiple candidacy

Multiple candidacies are not permitted. If the name of a candidate appears on more than one candidate list in a constituency, the cantonal authority responsible for organising the election will delete it from all lists. If the name appears on candidate lists in more than one canton, the Federal Chancellery will delete it from the second and any further lists.


National Council ballot paper

Official form that voters in the National Council elections have to use; they can complete it themselves (blank ballot paper blank), add names to it or delete names that are already on it (pre-printed ballot paper with the list name, details of any list combination or sub-combination, reference number and candidates’ names). In the Council of States elections, voters use a separate ballot paper.

National Council election

The National Council has 200 members. They represent the Swiss People. Its 200 seats are allocated to the 26 cantons according to their resident populations. Each canton is entitled to at least one seat.
National Council elections are governed by federal law. The general election to the National Council is held every four years on the second-last Sunday in October. The members of the National Council are elected in a system of proportional representation. In cantons that have only one seat, their representative is elected under the first-past-the-post system.


Party vote

Every candidate vote and additional vote on a ballot paper is credited as a vote to the party or voter group on the electoral list whose title or reference number is indicated on the ballot paper. The number of votes a party obtains determines how the mandates are allocated among the various lists. If a party name or reference number is entered on a blank ballot paper (on which no candidate names are pre-printed), the blank lines are allocated to that party. If no party name or reference number is entered, then the blank lines are not counted. On a pre-printed ballot paper, candidates whose names have been scored out but not replaced still receive a vote.

Polling card (voter identification card)

A polling card is needed to vote in elections and popular votes: it proves that a person is entitled to vote. The polling card is sent to voters with the other voting papers. It must either be returned to the commune along with the completed ballot papers or produced when voting at a polling station.

Postal voting

Method of voting in which voters send their ballot papers to the office responsible for the vote and are not required to go to the polling station in order to vote.


A party or group can enter the names of their candidates twice on their list in order either to increase their candidates’ chances of being elected or to fill out their list when they have fewer candidates than there are mandates.


Right to be elected

The right of citizens who are eligible to vote and to stand for election to parliament. Eligibility for election to the National Council is governed by federal law. The right to be elected to the Council of States is governed by cantonal law.   

Right to vote

All Swiss citizens aged 18 or over have the right to participate in the National Council election (just as they have the right to call for referendums and bring popular initiatives and vote on the same). However, anyone who suffers from a permanent lack of legal capacity and who is subject to a comprehensive deputy ship or guardianship as a result is not permitted to vote on federal matters. Women received the right to vote at federal level on 7 February 1971.
In cantonal elections (including elections to the Council of States), the right to vote is regulated at cantonal level; as a result, the rules may vary from canton to canton.

Further information: Who is entitled to vote?

Right to vote in elections

The right of citizens eligible to vote to elect their representatives. The question of who has the right to vote in the National Council elections is governed by federal law. The right to vote in elections to the Council of States is governed by cantonal law.


Splitting the vote

In constituencies that are allocated more than one seat in the National Council, voters can delete candidate names printed on a pre-printed ballot paper and enter the names of candidates from other lists for the same constituency. The changes must be handwritten, otherwise the ballot paper is invalid. Voters may not enter more names on the ballot paper than there are seats in the constituency (canton).

Substitute candidate

If a seat in the National Council for a canton with more than one seat becomes vacant before the end of the legislative period, the cantonal government declares as elected the candidate who obtained the most votes in the previous general election after the departing member of the National Council. If there is no electable substitute available on the relevant list, at least three fifths of the signatories to the list may propose a candidate. In cases where no signatures had to be collected, the chair of the cantonal party puts forward a candidate. The cantonal government declares the candidate elected without an election being held. If the party concerned decides not to propose a candidate, then an election is held.

Supplementary election

Election that is held when there are more seats to be allocated at an election to the National Council than there are candidates to fill them, or when a seat becomes vacant in the National Council without there being a substitute candidate available to fill it.

Swiss abroad

The Swiss abroad are Swiss citizens who do not live in Switzerland and who have registered with a Swiss representation abroad. They can exercise their right to vote in person or by post in their electoral commune provided they have had their name entered on the electoral roll. In some cantons they can vote online. The last commune of residence counts as the political domicile of Swiss citizens living abroad; for those who have never lived in Switzerland, it is the commune of origin.

System of proportional representation

Electoral system in which the mandates available are allocated to the candidate lists in proportion to the votes that are given to the individual lists. Since 1919, the National Council elections have been based on a system of proportional representation, while, for example, the Federal Council, the judges of the Federal Supreme Court and the members of most cantonal or communal authorities are elected by the majority system. An exception is the cantons that only send one member to parliament because of their low number of residents: Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Glarus, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Uri. The majority system applies in these cantons.


Tacit election

Electoral procedure at cantonal level in which the cantonal government declares all the persons named on the electoral lists for the National Council to be elected because the lists do not contain more candidates than there are mandates (seats) to be allocated in the canton concerned.


The number of people who voted in a specific election (expressed as a percentage of the total number of eligible voters). The turnout in the National Council elections from 1919–2015 were as follows:


1919 80,4
1922 76,4
1925 76,8
1928 78,8
1931 78,8
1935 78,3
1939 74,3
1943 70,0
1947 72,4
1951 71,2
1955 70,1
1959 68,5
1963 66,1
1967 65,7
1971 56,9
1975 52,4
1979 48,0
1983 48,9
1987 46,5
1991 46,0
1995 42,2
1999 43,4
2003 45.2
2007 48.3





Source: Federal Statistical Office FSO


Voting by proxy

A voter can appoint a third party or proxy to vote on their behalf at the polling station, provided cantonal law permits this in cantonal votes and elections.

Last modification: november 2019