I just voted in the German parliamentary (Bundestag) election, and so I figured I’d write an explanation about how it all works. To begin with, there are five main political parties in this election: the SPD (social democrats), CDU (Christian Democratic Union, Merkel’s party and the most conservative of the traditional parties), Die Linke (“the left” – most votes are from former East Germany), Die Grünen (the Green Party), and the AfD (Alternative for Germany, the up and coming far right party). There are many other parties with various ideologies and platforms, including single-issue parties and joke parties (including Die PARTEI (‘The Party’) and the Pirate Party, which both have seats in the European Parliament and are preferred as serious votes by many citizens).
I love the German voting system because each citizen casts two votes. The 598 member Bundestag is elected in two parts. The first 299 members are district representatives, with each district voting for one candidate, similar to the US House of Representatives or the UK House of Commons. The next 299 members are selected by the parties in each state (Bundesland) and the parties are given proportional representation based on the second vote, explained below. For the second half it doesn’t matter as much who the members are, just what their party is.
As mentioned, the first vote (Erststimme) is for a candidate in the local district in which the voter lives. The candidate with the most votes wins the seat. In countries like the United Kingdom, this is where it ends, which leads to big differences between the real split of seats between parties and the percentages of the vote they actually received. Not so in Germany.
The second vote (Zweitstimme) is a vote for a party. With the Zweitstimme it is ensured that each party will have the same percentage in the Bundestag as they do in the vote (as long as they get at least 5% of the vote). If the 298 members can’t split evenly with the voting numbers, more members are added to the Bundestag. So for example, if the SPD gets 51% of the Zweitstimme votes, they are guaranteed 51% of control in the Bundestag.
There are many benefits to this system, first and foremost being that it is extremely fair. Everybody is equally represented. Furthermore, it combines the best aspects of each voting style; each district has their interests represented on the federal level, and each party has their interests represented. Another benefit is that it allows citizens to vote their conscience. Let’s say I like to vote for the Green Party but I live in a voting district which reliably votes for the CDU Party. If I had only one vote (like in the US or UK), I would be ‘throwing away’ my vote because realistically the CDU is going to win whether I vote or not. In the German system, I can still give the Green Party more seats by voting in the Zweitstimme.
Another interesting impact of this system is that it adds a whole new layer of strategic voting to the mix. You don’t have to vote for the same party twice, so if there is someone you prefer on the local level that is not in your preferred party, you can choose them. In this election cycle there is a big struggle between the sitting Chancellor from the CDU party, Angela Merkel, and the SPD candidate, Martin Schulz. Perhaps another party will win the local seat in my district, but I want to vote for the party of one of these candidates. The German system lets me cast my vote in this way.
I was able to vote in this election because I’m a German citizen and because I have lived in Germany for at least 3 months within the past 25 years. Because I live in the Netherlands but am still registered in Berlin, I requested a mail-in ballot (Briefwahl) from the city election commission and they mailed it to me at my Dutch address. I filled out the ballot and put it into the mail (international postage at my expense, it would be free if I were mailing it from Germany).
If you’re interested in whom I voted for, please contact me. I am quite open about my choices and reasoning and love discussing politics. I just don’t think it’s the best idea to put the information publicly online.