Fox and Hounds contributor Joe Mathews is currently attending a conference in Switzerland on direct democracy, and is sending special reports on his experiences in Europe and how they contrast with California.

I spent Tuesday morning at the Kafigturm, the former women’s prison in Bern that has been converted into the leading spot for holding political forums, press conferences and meetings. (It’s a short walk from the headquarters of the government and the Parliament). My reporter friends and I visited with Hans-Urs Wili, a Swiss institution who has been spent the last third of a century (today was the day when he reached exactly one-third, and this man knows how to count) as the Swiss referee in matters of direct democracy. His title is head of the department of political rights at the federal chancellery. As such, he advises lawmakers and citizens alike in matters of referenda and initiatives.

His is the office to which you turn in signatures. Just as Liz Hill, the legislature’s non-partisan analyst in California, was long known as the budget nun, Wili is the Swiss initiative monk.

Wili was looking forward to a long weekend of checking signatures on referendum petitions, which are due in his office by 6 p.m. Thursday. Finding valid signatures is a problem in Switzerland as it is in other places with direct democracy, but the problem is a bit different for Wili. Municipalities review petitions first to check that those who signed are citizens and eligible voters. There isn’t much problem there. Wili’s headache is weeding out repeat signatures. It’s not uncommon for Swiss voters to sign the same referendum or initiative multiple times.

Why? It’s not necessarily intentional.

The problem is that Swiss law has few guidelines or restrictions on the form and format of petitions. So the same referendum can appear on petitions that look completely different. Interest groups and political association in Switzerland often compete to produce the most signatures, and that means citizens are hit up more than once. Wili said that such groups want to boast — for membership and fundraising reasons — that they produced the most signatures.

Wili can only recognize a particular citizen’s signature one time. You sign five times, but only one is valid. Some political groups want their petition to be the one with the valid signature so they can count it as theirs. Wili says that groups that lose in this competition often go to court to claim their signature should be the valid one. It is one of Wili’s greatest headaches.