How do elections work in the German States?

Author:
Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 9th May 2022

Fresh off the heels of voters in Germany’s northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein, this Sunday 15th May it is North-Rhine Westphalia’s turn to elect their state parliament or Landtag. With a population just shy of 18 million, North-Rhine Westphalia is Germany’s most populous state, with this vote being a crucial test for the still young Scholz government.

But elections in all the German states are hugely important. Not just are they some of the most powerful subnational bodies in Europe, they also have a fair bit of influence at the federal level through the Bundesrat – Germany’s upper house. So, let’s take a look at the voting systems used to choose these sixteen key state parliaments.

Personalised PR

As per the national Bundestag, 13 of the 16 states use some version of the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system, known in Germany as ‘personalised proportional representation’. Most states broadly follow the federal example – a set number of seats are elected by First Past the Post, with the remainder elected by PR in a compensatory manner with the possibility of additional levelling seats being added; voters have two votes, one for a local constituency candidate and one for a closed party list; and there is a 5% exclusion threshold in every state.

But there is some variation. There is no consistent electoral formula, with D’Hondt, Hare-LR and Sainte-Laguë all used by at least one state, and the default proportion of single-member seats varies from 49% in Saxony-Anhalt to 71% in North Rhine-Westphalia. Also, in states where there are small but significant national minorities, parties representing those groups – such as the Danish-Frisian SSW in Schleswig-Holstein – are exempt from the threshold.

And then we come to Germany’s two southernmost states…

Bavaria

At first glance the Bavarian model of MMP is fairly standard – 91 seats are elected in single-member districts and a minimum of 89 are elected proportionally. But, as with many things Bavarian, it’s certainly got a unique twist. The 5% statewide threshold, for instance, also applies to the First Past the Post seats. This means that it is possible for a party to win the most votes in a constituency but then forfeit the seat if their party doesn’t get enough votes elsewhere.

Voting is a bit different too. Voters still have two votes, but the second vote is for a candidate on a list rather than for a list itself (open lists rather than closed lists). It is also the sum of both votes that determines the allocation of the proportional seats rather than the second vote alone. Unlike the other states, the proportional allocation occurs in seven multi-member regions rather than statewide.

Baden-Württemberg

Baden-Württemberg’s version of MMP also makes some radical changes to the standard model. The differences start at the polling booth – voters only have a single vote which decides both the winner of the single-member constituencies and the allocation of the proportional seats (which is also done in regions rather than statewide).

But most notably, Baden-Württemberg doesn’t use party lists at all. Instead, the proportional seats are given to the best performing constituency candidates who didn’t win a seat – i.e. the strongest runners-up. This prevents the need for the large ballot papers often seen with open lists and ties the proportional candidates to an individual constituency – giving such seats a ‘second mandate’.

List PR

There are, however, three states who eschew MMP in favour of a List PR system – Saarland and the city states of Bremen and Hamburg, which together make up three of the four least populous states in Germany. Bremen and Hamburg, along with MMP states Brandenburg and Schleswig-Holstein, also have votes at 16.

Bremen’s system is a fairly straight PR system – with the vote taking place in two constituencies comprising Bremen and Bremerhaven, the two cities that make up the tiny state. Voters have five votes which they can spread between candidates however they like – including between parties and casting multiple votes for the same candidate. This is a mixture of cumulative voting and panachage. Unlike the rest of Germany, the 5% threshold is applied individually in the two constituencies rather than statewide. Bremen is also the only state where elections are every four years, like national elections, as opposed to every five.

In Hamburg, 71 seats are elected in 17 constituencies of between three and five members, with the remaining minimum of 50 seats allocated statewide in a compensatory manner – all using List PR. Hamburg uses the same ‘cumulative panachage’ system as Bremen, except Hamburgers have ten votes – five for constituency candidates and five for state candidates.

Saarlanders, however, do not get the flexibility offered to the voters of Bremen and Hamburg – instead using a closed list where voters simply vote for parties. 41 seats are elected in three multi-member constituencies, with the remaining ten compensatory seats appointed statewide – all using the D’Hondt method. Saarland’s election back in March was notable for providing the SPD with a rare single-party majority and seeing the Greens fall short of the 5% threshold by just 23 votes!

The German states certainly showcase the wide variety of different ways that proportional electoral systems can work and even coexist!

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