Foreign voting rights in Vals

“If it came up today, we would still grant foreigners the right to vote.”

While foreigners’ right to vote is a subject of constant debate throughout Switzerland, it is already just part of everyday life in 25 Graubünden municipalities – Vals is one of them. How does it work? Reto Jörger, the town clerk of the quietly progressive mountain village, gives us an insight in this interview.

It’s 11 a.m., and things are pretty quiet here in Vals. A few hikers are stocking up on picnic supplies in the supermarket, a man studies the advertisements on a garage door littered with notes without getting off his bike, a woman takes four freshly shorn llamas for a walk. Since 2012, foreigners have been allowed to co-determine municipal policy in Vals. Although foreigners in many cantons of Western Switzerland have had the right to vote at municipal level (and even at cantonal level in two cantons) for a long time, only a few municipalities in German-speaking Switzerland have taken this step, among them Graubünden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Basel-Stadt.


The woman at Peng bakery remembers the referendum on granting foreigners the right to vote. It was never a big issue before or after the municipal assembly. But she has a theory on why the people of Vals are open to foreigners: “We know the situation – there aren’t that many jobs in such a small village. Especially in the 1950s, a lot of people had to go elsewhere to look for work. That’s why we know what it is like to be ‘foreign’, so maybe we understand the situation better.” Reto Jörger, the town clerk, doesn’t think the theory is too far from the truth. But let’s look at the story from the beginning.

Mr Jörger, how did Vals end up voting on the issue of giving foreigners the right to vote?
We had to completely rewrite the constitution, and the idea of granting foreigners the right to vote arose in the process. We discussed it and came to the conclusion that it would actually be important as a measure for integration. And so, in the course of amending the constitution, we included the right for foreigners to vote.


Do you think voters were aware of this point?
Yes, of course. It was always explicitly mentioned in the circular for the municipal assembly and in the referendum documents. I don’t think any voters really overlooked it. The right to vote was also only granted to foreigners with a residence permit who have lived here for at least 10 years, not to all foreigners who live in Vals.

«The basic attitude of the people of Vals is very open and tolerant.»

How many foreigners live in the municipality of Vals, and how many of them are eligible to vote?
We have 987 residents in total, and 199 of them are foreigners. About 30 are eligible to vote.

And do the foreign residents who are eligible exercise their right to vote?
Well, we don’t keep statistics on that, of course – it would be a problem because of voting secrecy. But the yardstick here is the municipal assembly, so you can make a rough estimate based on attendance. I would say the percentage of foreigners that vote is somewhat lower than that of the Swiss – mainly because of the language barrier. Furthermore, how likely you are to vote depends on how relevant the issue being voted on is to you personally. When it comes to tourism issues, of course, most people participate if they work in the industry or are directly or indirectly affected by the outcome, and that’s mainly Germans and Austrians.


Is Vals a municipality that likes to vote?
Yes, on average more than 100 residents attend each municipal assembly – which is quite a good number. If the issue is fairly controversial, then there may even be 250.


Would you say that the foreign citizens of Vals are well integrated?
We hardly have any problems. The people of Vals are very open and tolerant. The locals have also never really had problems with foreign nationals becoming Swiss citizens.

Living in Graubünden
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