Laws are made by Parliament. Most laws come into force without a referendum. But sometimes a vote is held on a new or amended law. This type of vote is called a referendum.
Most laws are subject to an optional referendum. This type of vote is only held when someone is against the new or amended law and so launches a referendum.
Optional referendums can be held at national (federal), cantonal and communal level.
At the federal level, the process is as follows: a referendum committee is usually set up and if it manages to collect 50,000 valid signatures within 100 days of the publication of the new legislation, a referendum is held. The legislation only comes into force if it is accepted by a majority of the voters.
Parliament also decides on enactments that are not laws, for example decisions on international treaties between Switzerland and other countries. It is also possible to launch an optional referendum against these.
Most laws and other enactments passed by Parliament come into force without a popular vote being held. But in some cases, a referendum must be held. So unlike in the case of an optional referendum, signatures do not have to be collected; the referendum is mandatory.
This is always the case when Parliament wishes to amend the Constitution. Amendments to the Constitution require a majority vote of both the electorate and the cantons.
Mandatory referendums are also held in the cantons and communes.
How is a referendum launched?
Who can launch a referendum?
Any member of the electorate who is opposed to a new or amended law passed by the Swiss parliament can launch an optional referendum – even if they live abroad.
Individuals can join forces with other people to form a referendum committee. This makes things easier, but is not absolutely necessary.
What is more, several groups can initiate a referendum against the same new or amended law – even though they might be from different political camps. The signatures collected are counted.
What's the first step?
The Swiss Federal Chancellery can provide information on the steps to be taken to launch a referendum, including legal aspects.
Swiss Federal Chancellery
Political Rights Section
Federal Palace West Wing
Tel. +41 58 462 48 02
For referendums at cantonal or communal level, contact the relevant office at your canton or commune.
Creating signature lists
First of all, signature lists need to be created. This should be done early on, if possible while Parliament is still debating the new law or amendment so that signatures can be collected as soon as the law is published in the Federal Gazette.
The signature lists must state the exact title of the contested law, the date it was adopted by the Federal Assembly and certain other details. On request, the Federal Chancellery can provide a signature list template, like the one pictured above.
Signature lists can also be checked by the Federal Chancellery.
Signatures can only be collected once the contested law has been published in the Federal Gazette. From this point on, the authors of the referendum have 100 days to collect the necessary 50,000 signatures, have them certified and submit them to the Federal Chancellery.
Anyone with the right to vote in Switzerland may sign.
They must enter their surname and first name, date of birth and address legibly and by hand in the list and sign it. A further requirement is that any given signature list may contain only the signatures of persons from the same commune – because the communes are the first to check the signatures.
Usually not all signatures are found to be valid. It is therefore recommended to collect more than 50,000 signatures.
All signatures collected must be verified by the communes before the collection deadline. This takes time, so the signature lists should be submitted to the communes on an ongoing basis.
The communes check that the persons who have put their signature to the referendum are entered in the electoral roll and whether a name appears more than once.
Submitting the referendum
All verified signatures must be submitted to the Federal Chancellery within 100 days. More information on this can be found in the factsheet on submitting referendums.
The Federal Chancellery then checks that all the signatures are valid, in particular whether they comply with the legal requirements.
If at least 50,000 signatures are valid, then the referendum request is successful.
If the optional referendum request is successful, the electorate votes on the contested law. The Federal Council decides when the vote takes place. It must announce the date at least four months in advance.
All persons with the right to vote in Switzerland can sign an optional referendum.
Swiss citizens living abroad who are entitled to vote can also sign an optional referendum. To do so, they must be registered with the Swiss representation responsible for them.
The Federal Chancellery maintains a list of bills against which a referendum can still be launched and for which signatures can be collected.
Signature lists can be downloaded directly (PDF) and printed out, usually from the website of the referendum committee. Completed lists can be sent by post to the address found on them.
You can find a list of all the optional referendums submitted since 1874 on the Federal Chancellery website.
Referendum are not only held against federal laws. Voters in a canton or a commune may launch an optional referendum if they are against a decision of the local parliament. The mandatory referendum also exists at these levels.
Further information on referendums in Switzerland can be found on the Federal Chancellery website.
You can find out how voting rights for Swiss citizens are regulated on the page on voting rights.
You can also read about voting rights for Swiss living abroad.
All bills with an ongoing referendum deadline can be viewed on the Federal Chancellery website.
The Federal Chancellery website lists all the optional referendums that have been submitted since 1874.
The Political Rights Section can answer any further questions you may have about referendums in Switzerland.