The Swiss version of democracy

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We have now emerged from the first month of the Maine town meeting season. Voters have been getting behind the wheel of government, some making left turns, some veering to the right, others driving straight ahead and a few just simply backing out of the driveway.

Though we have the usual deliberation over fire trucks, street lights, and snowmobile trails, among the more contentious issues are those for three towns in the Damariscotta area on whether to allow Wal-Mart.

This is a question that has been a recurring item elsewhere in the state ever since 52% of Mainers voted in a 1990 referendum to allow major retailers to open on Sundays. Though the 1990 vote was one that wound up having the effect of paving the way for the move by Sam Walton’s company to the state, it did not preclude local vetoes by host communities.

In the town named for Maine’s first governor that’s the gateway to Sugarloaf, Kingfield, a big turnout of town meeting voters amended its land use ordinance to provide a more specific framework for reviewing one of the largest-ever Poland Spring water bottling facilities.

Two dozen miles down Route 27 in a town first explored in that most democratic of years, 1776, water control of a different sort was the main feature of Farmington’s town meeting. The question there was whether it would cost a quarter of million dollars to mend a town-owned dam.

The most detailed analysis came from one of the last contractors to work on the dam a generation ago, Ronald Greenwood, a great-grandson of one of Maine’s more celebrated inventors, Chester Greenwood. Greenwood urged a more modest undertaking. After hearing largely neutral but enlightening observations from two collegiate geology academics, Thomas Eastler and Archie “Bill” Berry, the town voted to put down $10,000 toward the project.

Making its debut in Maine this year is a tax cap override article, one that the over 100 towns seeking to raise more than the state specified increase in taxes from the year before must enact before sending out a property tax assessment. Of those that have so far considered it, most have voted for the increase.

Though we are frequently told our face-to-face open town meetings are the purest form of self-government, we are not alone. We also have democratic companions in some of the German speaking localities of Switzerland. Because the Swiss experience is much older than our own and about the only one observed in an overseas nation, it’s worth a quick look.

In what is now the Swiss mountain ski resort of Schwyz is the first documented instance of direct democracy since ancient Greece. It was here in 1294 that voters assembled to assume management of their own community. Though the rest of Europe was still knee deep in a class structured feudalism that oppressed many in a peasant like serfdom, it appears most adult male inhabitants of Schwyz were eligible to participate. (As in the U.S. the franchise was not extended to women until the 20th century.)

These landsgemeindes, as they are called, eventually spread to other areas of Switzerland. Their existence was, of course, periodically interrupted by outside invaders, whether from the German Habsburgs of the 1400’s or from the Napoleonic French of the late 1700s and early 1800’s.

Ironically France at this time had only recently been viewed the paragon of democracy because it had overthrown an entrenched monarchy and instituted its own albeit more national democracy in its l789 era revolution. The French did nevertheless succeed in introducing a country-wide referendum system in Switzerland. Thus, even though the local town meeting style of government was temporarily suspended, a national form of self-rule was for the first time imposed.

After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Swiss’s local citizen assemblies were restored. They are different from our Maine town meeting in a couple of respects. First, stemming from the large numbers who show up — as many as 3,000 — the meetings are usually held outdoors. This means also that none of them occur in March but are usually in late April or early May. Umbrellas are thus an occasional accessory.

Another difference is that they are usually conducted on Sundays, also a popular day for elections in France but one that’s virtually unheard of in New England. The best known landsgemeinde, that in Appenzell, is, however, characterized by a respect for the religious significance of the day with voting in this largely Catholic region near the Austrian border preceded by a church service.

Swiss enthusiasm for the process is demonstrated by perhaps the most remarkable difference from our own system. Voters participate while standing up and not seated.

A parallel to traditions in New England is the method of voting, show of hands. Nevertheless, in New England the option usually exists, upon voter request, to vote on some of the more sensitive issues by written ballot.

Appenzell’s president Carlo Schmid expresses his support for the system by remarking, “Look how much business we get through in two hours. We are voting today on all sorts of things; building permits, road extensions, Sunday opening hours..and we’re electing our officials too.”

Even more symptomatic of his support for the process are some of Schmid’s comments in opening one of Appenzell’s most recent annual meetings in which he proclaims, “The words l’etat, c’est moi,’ can be uttered most convincingly of all by an Appenzeller.”

Maybe so, Mr. Schmid, but there more than a few New Englanders who for similar reasons might challenge this claim even though the roots of your self-rule run deeper than our own.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@midmaine.com.

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