Turnout and apathy.

In Wales turnout struggles to reach 45% for assembly elections. UK general election turnouts have fluctuated but in recent years have fallen below the 70% that used to be the norm. The disappearance of ideology from British politics and moves by both parties to capture the centre ground have left many voters believing that there is little to choose between the parties. That combined with the logical conclusion that voting in general elections makes little difference in how the country will be run has led to a significant reduction in turnout. Many non-voters, and voters, participated in politics in other ways such as attending protests or being part of a pressure group. So-called apathy may also more accurately be described as a lack of confidence and trust in the political system.

A criticism of direct democracy is that despite claims of greater participation in political processes, it does not solve the problem of voter apathy, with voter turnouts for referendums being even lower than they are for general elections.

There is some truth in this, however on important issues, which people feel would have a very direct impact on their lives, voter turnout in referendums is often much higher than in general elections. Examples include in the predominantly French speaking province of Quebec, in Canada, where there had been long standing sentiments on secession of Quebec from Canada. A referendum on the issue had a voter turnout of 94%. Similarly, a referendum on whether or not to adopt the Euro in Denmark, had a voter turnout of 87.5%.

In political systems where politicians are more accountable to their electorate, there is more trust in the system. This does not necessarily mean consistent engagement. A typical Swiss voter remarked "I can very well decide for myself whether I want to vote on a particular issue or not. .. I only vote when I'm happy that I know enough about the issue and have made up my own mind on it. I don't follow any particular party line, but I am, of course, influenced by what the parties say. If I haven't come to any clear view, then I don't go to vote".

There is another aspect to which little attention is given and that is the relevance of the issue to the voter, for example in Switzerland in Bern about a third of the local referendums in the 1990s were to do with the education system (about half of education proposals come from the teachers and their unions). In this situation many of the proposals would have been quite specific and of great importance to parents who would have made sure that they were well informed about the proposals. Other members of the community may have been content to let those most effected by the proposals to decide the outcome.

It could also be argued that in some situations people are offered to many referendums and voter fatigue creeps in. In Switzerland four federal referendum days are held each year with up to three or four proposals to be voted on each day. In addition to this they also have regional and municipal referendums. In this situation voter fatigue should come as no surprise. One answer to this problem could be to ensure that there was a smaller number of referendum days and that all national, regional and local referendums were held on the same day.

If the system is set up well we believe referendums should be rare. The parties will compete to support good ideas and put them through themselves in the knowledge that if they oppose good suggestions they will lose support at elections, something they cannot afford to do. The Swiss may have to many referendums, possibly a combination of to low a signature threshold and the fact that their government frequently refers decisions to the people. Fewer referendums, but on important issues should lead to higher turnouts.

A mechanism which is often used in ethnically diverse countries is that of a double majority. A double majority means a majority in overall percentage terms and a majority of all the different regions of a country voting for the measure. Switzerland employs the double majority rule. The system was designed in this way in order to foster unity between the linguistically different regions.

Bruno Kaufman, President of the Initiative and Referendum Institute of Europe, notes "From the Swiss experience we can all learn that representative democracy can do much better, if it includes comprehensive and citizen-friendly methods of participation. In Switzerland, the most important - but a relatively few - issues are decided by the people, important and more numerous matters by parliament, and the least important but very numerous issues by the government. That's what they mean by democracy."