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Optional referendum

The vast majority of laws and legislative acts enter into force uncontested. However, if you disagree with an act of parliament, it is possible to oppose it by launching a referendum. This is known as an optional referendum, as legislation is not automatically contested in this way. If enough signatures are collected to support the referendum, the contested law – or other form of legislation as set out in the Constitution – is put to popular vote. A referendum can also be requested by a minimum of eight cantons.

A majority of the valid votes cast (simple majority) is sufficient to reject an optional referendum, i.e. for the contested legislation to be accepted and become law.

An optional referendum can be launched against the following forms of legislation

Mandatory referendum

Some legislative acts passed by parliament, in particular amendments to the Constitution, must automatically be voted on by the Swiss electorate. This is known as a mandatory referendum.

In this case, any change to the law requires both a majority of the valid votes cast and the majority of the cantons (double majority).

A referendum must be held for the following forms of legislation to be adopted (mandatory referendum)

Who can launch a referendum?

A popular referendum can be launched by any Swiss citizen with the right to vote – including Swiss living abroad.

How can I launch an optional referendum?

  1. Create a referendum committee and inform the Federal Chancellery if you so wish, indicating just one contact person. There is no need to mention the number and identity of the persons or organisations concerned. Several referendum committees can be formed to deal with the same law or decree by parliament.
  2. Before the contested law or decree is published in the Federal Gazette, the referendum committee prepares the signature lists. Upon request the Federal Chancellery will provide the referendum committee with signature lists. These lists are required to contain certain specific information, for example the exact title of the contested law or decree and the date it was adopted by the Federal Assembly (see below). The committee can, if it so wishes, submit the signature lists to the Federal Chancellery to be checked.
  3. Signatures can start to be collected once the disputed law or disputed decree has been published in the Federal Gazette. From this date the committee has 100 days in which to collect the 50 000 signatures required, to have them validated by the communes and to hand them in to the Federal Chancellery. Probably not all signatures are valid, so it is worth collecting more than 50 000. It also takes some time for the communes to check the signatures, so they should be handed in to the communes in plenty of time and on a continuous basis; the 100-day deadline cannot be extended.
  4. A referendum can take place once at least 50 000 valid signatures have been handed in to the Federal Chancellery. The electorate can then vote on the disputed law or decree.

Where and how to submit lists of signatures to the Federal Chancellery in Bern

Cantonal and/or communal referendum

It is also possible to launch a referendum at cantonal and communal level. These often have a greater scope than federal referendums. For example, in several cantons it is possible to launch a referendum on financial matters (for expenses above a certain amount).

Please consult your canton’s website to find out about what kind of referendum can be launched in your canton and how to go about it.