Electoral Systems: Germany

Another guest blog on electoral systems from the European Politics students, this time on Germany.

At first glance, Germany’s electoral system seems intimidatingly complex, however its intricacies can be demystified by taking a close and careful look. Germany has a bicameral legislature that consists of the Bundestag (The Federal Diet), the lower house, and the Bundesrat (The Federal Council), the upper house. This entry will address the elections for the Bundestag, the more powerful of the houses, which currently has 620 members, as opposed to much smaller Bundesrat that only has 69 appointed members.

Germany has a mixed-member proportional system and was the first to adapt this system, however it is now used in other countries like New Zealand, Hungary, and Italy. On the ballot voters have two votes and select a candidate as well as a political party. The first vote, as shown on the left side of the ballot, is used to elect local representatives to the Bundestag. The constituency candidate who receives the most votes will be elected through the first-past-the-post method. This vote directly elects 299 members, half of the total 598. The wisdom behind having this vote is that every constituency will have a personal representative in the Bundestag that will help to bridge the gap between representatives and voters. In theory this candidate should be elected based on competence as opposed to party loyalty, although this does not always occur in practice (Deutscher Bundestag 10).

The second vote, indicated on the right side of the ballot, is for a political party that stems from the individual Länder (federal states). The second vote is very important because it determines the relative influence of parties in the Bundestag, as each party is allocated seats in proportion to the number of votes that it received. In order to calculate number of seats each party will receive the Sainte-Laguë/Schepers method is employed. It sounds scary, but it’s really not! Here are the three main calculations that are used:

  1. Total # of votes/Total number of seats to be distributed= Divisor for allocation
  2. Party’s # of 2nd votes/Divisor for allocation=Party’s # of seats
  3. Party’s# of seats-# of direct mandates won from 1st vote= # of candidates from a party that will be elected from the 2nd vote.

The second vote selects the other half of the members of the Bundestag. Candidates from this vote gain a seat by being higher up on the ranked party lists that are shown on the ballot. While the candidates elected in the first vote are more beholden to their constituencies, the candidates elected by the second vote are more loyal to the party line (Klingeman 14).

It is important to mention that in order to gain representation in the Bundestag, a party must obtain a minimum of 3 direct mandates from the first vote or at least 5% of the vote from the second vote.  This rule was adapted in order to prevent party fragmentation that, in part, led to the rise of Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in the Weimar Republic. However, this threshold does not determine the number of parties in parliament or hinder the formation and growth of new and smaller parties, as evidenced by the Green Party’s entrance in 1983 (Klingemann 3).

One final puzzle, if there are supposed to be 598 total seats, why are there currently 620 members? Sometimes a party receives more first votes than it is entitled to as a result of the second vote. However, the party is allowed to retain these seats that are known as overhang mandates. Overhang mandates emerge for several reasons including: split ballots, abstentions or invalid second votes, an unusually large number of parties that pass the 5% threshold (Giovanni Capoccia 186-189). Overhang mandates are one of the most controversial elements of the electoral system. Some scholars warn that they have the potential to distort majority proportions, especially since the number of mandates has dramatically increased since unification (Behnke 496).


Behnke, Joachim. “The Strange Phenomenon Of Surplus Seats In The German Electoral System.”German Politics 16.4 (2007): 496-517.

Capoccia, Giovanni. “The Political Consequences Of Electoral Laws: The German System At Fifty.” Conference Papers — American Political Science Association (2002): 1. Political Science Complete. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. <http://ezproxy.ups.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=poh&AN=17984974&login.asp&site=ehost-live&scope=site>.

Der Bundeswahlleiter. “Sainte-Lague/Schepers.” Der Bundeswahlleiter. 28 Feb. 2012. <http://www.bundeswahlleiter.de/de/glossar/texte/Saint_Lague_Schepers.html>.

Deutscher Bundestag. “Wahlen: Grundpfeiler der Demokratie.” Deutscher Bundestag. 29 Feb. 2012. < https://www.btg-bestellservice.de/pdf/20210500.pdf>.

Inter-Parliamentary Union.  “German Bundestag” Inter-Parliamentary Union.  26 Feb. 2012 <http://www.ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2121_B.htm>.

Klingeman, Hans-Dieter and Berhard Wessels. “Political Consequences of Germany’s Mixed-Member system: Personalization at the Grass-Roots?” Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung Dec. 1999. 28 Feb. 2012 <http://www2000.wzb.eu/~wessels/Downloads/FSIII%2099-205.PDF>.



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