How Germany’s election system works
September 26, 2021 - On September 26, Germany will not only elect a new Bundestag but also a new chancellor, marking the end of Angela Merkel’s 16 years in office. More than 60 million people will each cast two votes in a system that combines both direct and proportional representation -- a direct vote for a constituency candidate and a second party vote to determine the distribution of seats.
Germany’s election process is so complex that even some Germans don’t fully understand it. There are 60.4 million people age 18 and above that are eligible to vote. They will decide how to divide the 598 base seats in the Bundestag among members of Germany’s political parties.
The ballot form has two columns. The first column in black and the second column in blue, presenting voters with two simple choices: one for a constituency (district) candidate and one for a political party.
The first vote, or “Erststimme,” which elects a local candidate in Germany’s 299 constituencies, follows the first-past-the-post system. These seats are guaranteed.
The second vote, or “Zweitstimme”, goes to a political party and fills the remaining 299 of 598 seats in Bundestag by proportional representation. Parties need to receive at least 5 per cent of the second votes in a state to qualify for a seat.
The system becomes complicated when Germans split their votes, meaning they vote for a candidate from one party in the first vote and a different political party in their second vote. A so-called split vote can upset the balance of seats in parliament, with one party more strongly represented than they should be following the proportionate second votes.
Extra “overhang” and “balance” seats counter the split vote effect. The additional seats ensure every candidate who was directly elected gets a seat while political parties are still proportionally represented based on the number of votes they received.
After Germany’s 2017 parliamentary elections, there were 709 seats in the Bundestag, including 111 overhang and balance seats.
The newly-elected members of the Bundestag then vote for Germany’s chancellor. A chancellor needs to receive an absolute majority, more than half, of the votes in parliament to be elected.
Selecting the chancellor is far from easy. Following the September 2017 ballot, a coalition deal was not ironed out until February 2018 and formally agreed in a postal vote of Social Democratic Party (SPD) members on March 4. It took a further ten days before the Bundestag approved Angela Merkel’s fourth term as chancellor.