Understanding the German Electoral System
Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program
Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.
Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).
Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.
German voters will go to the polls on September 26th to elect a new lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. Although each one of these elections held every four years matters, the 2021 outing is more important than usual because the nearly sixteen-year tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming to an end and there will be a new head of government. There will also likely be a new partisan composition to the government because the current “grand coalition” of CDU/CSU and SPD in power since 2013 (and before that 2005-2009) is broadly disliked. The 2021 outcome and the new leader will have a tremendous impact on numerous policy areas, especially the environment/climate change and the future of the European project.
The German electoral system is often difficult to understand, even for Germans. For instance, only a third of Germans in 2018 knew that the “second vote” (Zweitstimme) for a party is more important than the “first vote” (Erststimme) for a candidate in terms of actually determining the composition of the parliament. Overhanging and compensatory mandates are also impenetrable concepts for people on either side of the Atlantic.
We at AICGS have therefore put together a short guide to Germany’s electoral system. In addition to the basic outlines of the system per se, we have also included information about the parties and their platforms, different coalition options, and a list of the eight chancellors and their governing coalitions. We also link to the various AICGS events and articles devoted to the campaign and the upcoming election.
The German System in Context
There is a wide array of electoral systems in use around the world today. Although each system is tailored to specific circumstances and preferences—including especially those of the parties in power—there are four main families: plurality, in which the candidate with the most votes wins; majority, where either through redistributing ranked preferences or two rounds, the winner is ensured of a majority; proportional, in which a party’s vote share closely aligns to its seat share; and mixed systems, where elements of several of the above are combined.
The Federal Republic of Germany pioneered a mixed system in which a portion of the members of parliament are elected in single constituencies by plurality and another portion is elected from larger multi-member constituencies through some sort of proportional representation. Such systems have proved to be quite popular, used by over 17 percent of countries worldwide including places like Japan, New Zealand, and Russia. In fact, the vast majority of countries that have engaged in electoral system reform over the last few decades have adopted this method. Most mixed systems, however, are mixed member majoritarian or parallel voting systems where the outcomes of the two parts of the election are separate and added together.
Germany uses mixed member proportional or personalized proportional (personalisierte Verhältniswahl). Voters get two votes—one for the constituency candidate (Erststimme) and one for a party (Zweitstimme). The second vote, often called the party or chancellor vote is much more important because it determines the overall distribution of seats in the Bundestag. Essentially, the constituency seats won are subtracted from a party’s share of seats if all were allocated proportionally based on national-level second vote totals. As an example, if there is a parliament of 100 members and a party gets 40 percent of the vote in a perfectly proportional allocation, it would get 40 seats. But, if it already won 30 constituencies, it would only receive 10 seats from the multimember constituency. A party that received 20 percent of the vote, but gained no constituencies, would get 20 seats all from the list.
Such a mixed-member proportional system has been deemed the most desirable by experts (followed by the single transferrable vote and open list proportional). It is not, however, without its complexities, as our primer points out. Currently, the German electoral system appears rather over-engineered, resulting in one of the largest (and most expensive) parliaments in the world. Additional changes have been discussed recently and will be on the agenda of the next parliament.
But the overall system has worked extraordinarily well for over 70 years to create a proportional parliament with strong coalition governments and sufficient partisan choice for voters. We shall see how it performs in September.