Sunday, November 09, 2008

Legislation by popular vote

Mr. O is Swiss. He earned his U.S. citizenship in 2001. By virtue of marriage (me) and birth (the kids), we are all Swiss citizens.

His family is in Zurich and Winterthur. They have sent us congratulatory notes on being smart Americans for electing a president of such solid character.

While discussing politics on my side of the family is rarely a festive affair, I find it interesting to hear from my Swiss brother-in-law on topics of civic action in his home country.

In his most recent note, he lets me know that:

Three or four times a year, we have to vote on whatever is put up to vote. This is in addition to voting for parliament (representatives) and senators. We don't get to elect a president, the parliament does that. We just received the package with all the information on what we are to vote for. I thought you might it find it interesting to hear what we vote on this coming November 30.

In Switzerland, the populace does not get to elect a president. Let me just say that again, in case you missed it the first two times: voters in Switzerland do not directly elect their president.

Double the size of New Jersey and you've got a rough idea of the size of Switzerland. Here are the federal matters up for popular vote [imagine if these initiatives were voted upon at a federal level in the U.S. instead of legislated through representation]:

1. To increase the statute of limitation on crimes to children of pornographic nature from 15 years to none, meaning you can prosecute at any time in your life. The reasoning here is that children may take a long time to gather the courage to go to law enforcement.

2. To allow people to collect their social security from the age of 62. Now you collect social security at 65. With the new rules, you can collect at 62 but, of course, less.

3. Individuals and organisations such as Greenpeace, WWF can lodge administrative complaints against plans (to build shopping centres, roads etc). We must decide whether the rights of the organisations are curbed.

(Editorial from my brother in law: I'll tell you my feeling on this one - this is the attempt by the conservatives to get the "greens" to shut up. If the law is changed, the organisation will stay and they will be able to prepare these administrative complaints. They only won't be able to submit them. There are, however, enough individuals who will hand them in. This is why I think this whole thing is an absolute silly waste of time from a bunch of repressed conservatives that cannot channel their energies into anything constructive. And this is whether you agree with the right of complaint or not...)

4. Whether possession of marijuana for one's own private use is to be de-criminalised.

5. Whether marijuana may be used for medicinal purposes.

State (canton) matters are equivalent to county-level legislation in the U.S.:

1. Every canton in Switzerland has a different school system. If you move 20 minutes away to the canton of Argovia, school starts at a different time and you may start learning English at another time. Zurichers vote on joining a system where the schools harmonise together.

2. Dogs have been a problem in the canton. At least two children have been mauled and killed by dogs in the past few years, We have to decide if we a) want dog owners to take a test and have their dog go to dog school and b) if we want to ban fighting dogs (like pit-bulls)

3. If the national bank has any profits they are divided amongst the cantons. We have to decide if we want any profits we get to go and pay off public debt. (This is another attempt of the super conservatives to curb spending - I'm not for all the debt we have, but it is just plain silly to say "when we get the profits, we pay back our debt; when we don't, who knows what we do?")

4. Doctors in the countryside can sell medication. In the two big cities of Zurich, Zurich and Winterthur, doctors cannot sell medication. They can only make the prescriptions and then you have to go to the pharmacy. We now decide if the doctors in the two cities can also sell medication.

5. We decide if we lengthen the tram line to the zoo (about 500 meters). About 200 parking spaces will be done away with and the extension will cost 14 million Swiss Francs.

And finally, County and City matters in Switzerland are parallel to what amount to municipal (city) matters here in the U.S.:

1. We elect the 12 members of the Committee of renters and owners of rentals (apartments and houses).City matters1. We elect the 20 members of the employment court.

2. We decide if we - as a city - reduce our electricty consumation to the amount 20 years ago.

3. We extend another tram line within the city. (this is a matter only for the voters of the city; because the zoo is used by everyone, the canton pays for part of the extension and therefore the canton votes on that.)

4. We decide if a "green" spot, not a garden, not a park, but just a field in the middle of the city can be rezoned so that apartments can be built on the land. The land belongs to the city and they want to build inexpensive apartments there.

5. We decide if a former industrial area is to be rezoned so that commercial apartments and offices can be built. This land does not belong to the city.
Swiss voters can also cast ballots via the Internet. I imagine the U.S. will be an election cycle or five behind that trend.

But one thing our proud country can establish is the value of transparency in government.

I do believe.

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