16-year-olds to the ballot box?

The responsibility of voters in direct democracy should not be underestimated!

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

The National Council took an astonishingly quick decision in the parliamentary autumn session: After an extremely brief discussion with only four statements, it approved a parliamentary initiative. According to this initiative, active voting and election rights for 16-year-olds are to be introduced at federal level. Luckily, also in this question things are never as bad as they seem: It is to be hoped that the Council of States will think things through thoroughly before they vote on it, and if not, the voters will have the last word.
  The initiative comes from the Green Sibel Arslan (Baselstadt). In her own words, it is her “heartfelt concern” to “give young people a voice”.1 On 3 July, the National Council’s Political Institutions Committee had recommended the initiative with 12:12 votes with one abstention and the president’s casting vote narrowly to rejection.

Poorly designed …

That the initiative is badly launched, the youngest national councillor, 26-year-old Andri Silberschmidt (FDP/the Liberals Zurich), actually had to explain his fellow councillors. Active and passive right to vote should not diverge: Who may vote actively should also be allowed to run for election. Furthermore, the voting age and the age of maturity (18 years) should be the same.2 
  It must be added that these arguments are not a mere formalism, but correspond to the understanding of the responsible citizen in direct democracy. The voting rights of the Swiss do not only include the right to speak out and have a say in decisions, as some young people might think who demonstrate against climate change or the pandemic-related compulsory masks in discos and clubs. It is connected with the obligation to make a contribution to the common good. Although some 20- or 30-year-olds also lack the personal maturity for this, as the supporters of the initiative claimed, this is not an argument for voting rights for 16-year-olds.
  But the initiative is also incongruous from a federalist perspective: “Before we decide here on new rights centrally, it is up to the cantons to take the first step,” says Andri Silberschmidt. Only one canton (Glarus) has so far introduced the voting age of 16, while several cantons have rejected it at the ballot box. Should they have a say in the decision-making process in the Confederation before they can participate in the community assembly and have a say in cantonal matters? An upside-down world.

… with quite weird reasoning …

The main arguments of the proponents: The young people would have too little to say “because of the demographics” (Sibel Arsan) — or expressed less elegantly: “Democracy in Switzerland suffers from old age [...]” (Tamara Funiciello, SP (Swiss Social Democratic Party, Bern). Pretty screwy, isn’t it?
  And because there are so many interested 16- and 17-year-olds, they must have subito the tone in politics? Let’s rather make our young people aware that they can learn a lot from their older fellow citizens who are well experienced in democracy and life, because they simply lack the experience and knowledge at the age of 16 — by the way, also at 18.
  “16-year-olds have the necessary political education because this takes place mostly in compulsory school, which means for many young people shortly before their 16th birthday.” (Sibel Arslan; similar to Tamara Funiciello) [emphasis mw]. A bold statement! In the questionable Curriculum 21 of the elementary school, “political education” has its place among the thousands of so-called competencies in a small place and yet, with its abundance of content and its detachment, it goes beyond any framework (see box). The typical contradiction of “competence-oriented” learning: many high-flying goals with little behind them. Above all, however, upper school students (13 to 16 years old) are too young for a genuine “political education”. A realistic introduction to citizenship education is much more appropriate at the vocational school level (from 16 years of age), where it has always been part of general education, or at the Gymnasium, where in some cantons it still needs to be developed.

… but with all the more transparent tongues in cheek?

According to National Councillor Funiciello, young people should have a say in their future, because “they will have to live in it the longest.  That is why the 16-year-olds should be able to vote, for example, on retirement pensions, the CO2 law or working hours. She adds: Lowering the active voting and voting age is a strengthening of our democracy.” Strengthening of democracy?  Or is it rather the hoped-for influx of young people via the climate demonstrations to the Greens and the Social Democrats? But the scheme may backfire. As the attitude of many young people — at least those who are completing a vocational training — is, as I have experienced time and again as a vocational school teacher, rather “conservative”, i.e. they do not want to prematurely replace the tried and tested with something “more modern”. Conclusion: Let’s stick to active and passive voting and voting rights from the age of 18.  •

1  Parliamentary Initiative 19.415. Giving young people a voice. Active voting and voting rights for 16-year-olds as a first step into active political life. Submitted by Sibel Arslan (GP BS).
2  Parliamentary Initiative 19.415. Negotiation in the National Council on 10 September 2020

“Political Education” for senior grades in Curriculum 21 –

Inviting 13 to 16-year-old students to rebelllion?

mw. Curriculum 21 contains quite a “nourishing” program entitled „Understanding democracy and human rights and campaigning.” It is meant for youngsters who should spend their remaining studying time on the accomplishment of their basic knowledge during these last three years of secondary school. Teachers may choose how they want to use the scarce time for this kind of “political education”. Either tolerating that their students download some “explanations” and ”theses”from the Internet without understanding much of them or they encourage them to participate in climate demonstrations and so on. Anyway, the subject material on “political education” in Curriculum 21 gives the teacher a questionable platform to form the attitudes of the majority of his students who are still very amenable to influence.

“Curriculum 21. Spaces, Times, Societies (including Geography and History)
Part 8 Understanding democracy and human rights and campaigning

1. Students are able to explain Swiss democracy and compare it to other systems.
a. Students are able to tell how democracy came about and how it developed and is distinguished from other political systems. * Democracy, People’s souvereignty, Restriction of Power, Citizens Rights
b. They can distinguish between the three powers on the level of the Commune, the Canton and the Federation and show what tasks they have to solve. *Constitution, Division of Powers, Government, Judiciary
c. They can explain significant peculiarities of Swiss Democracy and explain the rights and duties which result from them *Federalism, People, Commune, Direct Democracy, Initiative, Referendum, Parties, Associations
d. They can take a stand about contemporary problems and controversies and combine them with their personal everyday experiences within and without school and can argue for their positions (e.g. relationship between state and economy, settlement areas.”)

Furthermore there are the topics Human Rights and Children’s Rights (“2. Students are able to explain the development, significance of and the threats to human rights”), and the topic Switzerland’s International relations. (“3. Students are able to recognize and judge the position of Switzerland in Europe and the world”)


At least 80 to 100 teacher-guided lessons would be necessary if the objective of this undertaking were that the students got to know the fundamentals of Switzerland’s state model and the rights and duties deriving from it. Comment on 1.d: Before they were capable of judging contemporary issues, students would have to get informed about goals and arguments of both sides. For ethical and educational reasons it is not permissible to present one-sided and erraneous slogans as for example “Nein zur schädlichen Kündigungsinitiative” (“No to the damaging dismissal initiative”) and name it “information” about the Initiative “For a moderate immigration”.

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