How does proportional representation work in Germany?

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 18th December 2018

Elections to Germany’s Bundestag – Germany’s House of Commons – are held under Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP).

This electoral system seeks to combine features of Westminster style first past the post voting – in particular each constituency having one MP – and proportional representation – with parties’ seats in parliament determined fairly in proportion to how people voted.

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In the UK, this system is called the Additional Member System (AMS) and is used to elect the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, and the London Assembly.

How does Germany’s electoral system work?

Mixed Member Proportional Representation (or AMS in the UK) is a mix of Westminster’s First Past the Post electoral system and Party Lists. Members of the Bundestag are elected every four years by all German citizens over the age of 18.

German citizens have two votes:

Ballot Paper
Ballot paper for the 2005 federal elections in Germany.

The first vote is for the voter’s local MP (see column on the left in the ballot paper below), and is elected through First Past the Post, as in the UK. This system tends to return few, large parties to the Bundestag and ensures – at least in theory – that there is a tight and direct link between voters and MPs.

The second vote is for a party, not a single candidate (column on the right in the ballot paper below). This means that, as well as the winning candidate for local MP, each German state sends a team of MPs to the Bundestag, based on how much of the vote share they won. This vote is generally considered to be the most important as it determines the percentage of seats a party will get in the Bundestag and thus its relative strength. Each party publishes an ordered list of candidates in advance to fill these positions.

How do votes translate into seats?

The first vote determines the election of 299 members of the Bundestag. As in the UK, candidates only need to obtain more votes in their district than anyone else in order to win (even if the majority did not vote for them), while votes for losing candidates are effectively wasted and do not count towards the election of any candidate.

The second vote decides the allocation of the remaining 299 seats, which are filled in proportion to the share of parties’ votes in the election. The amount of local MPs won by the parties using the first vote is also taken into account. Unlike First Past the Post, no votes are lost in the list system as parties gain seats in relation to their share of the vote.

If a party wins five local constituencies, but its fair share of MPs based on the second vote is eight MPs, the top three candidates on its list are elected.

To prevent party fragmentation and small splinter parties from gaining representation, parties must obtain at least five percent of the vote (or three directly elected local MPs) in order to enter parliament.

What are ‘overhang’ seats?

Being able to vote for a constituency MP and a party list means that voters can split their first and second votes among parties. For instance, you may want one party to be in power, but think your local candidate from that party is terrible. While this can increase voter choice, vote splitting can also distort proportionality.

In fact, sometimes the number of seats parties obtain through first votes can exceed the share of seats they should have received based on second votes, which – as mentioned above – set the percentage of seats a party should have in the Bundestag. Candidates who win a constituency seat are guaranteed a seat in parliament, so parties get to keep these ‘overhang’ seats.

Following a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, reforms were implemented in 2013 to make up for this distortion. Other parties are now given ‘balance’ or ‘levelling’ seats to ensure representation in the Bundestag is in line with second votes.

It is because of overhang and balance seats that the 2017 federal election returned 709 members to the Bundestag – 111 more than the constitutional minimum of 598 MPs.

Concluding remarks

Germany’s Mixed Member Proportional system is an improvement on our Westminster-style electoral system, as it incorporates proportionality and fairness through the party list system, ensuring that parliament reflects the country’s political views, while maintaining the personalised, local link typical of First Past the Post.

But MMP is a compromise solution that still retains some of the worst features of Westminster’s electoral system, such as wasted votes. Though an improvement on ‘pure’ First Past the Post, the party list system means that parties have a lot of control over who gets elected. What makes matters worse, the system incentivises vote splitting, which leads to disproportionalities in election outcomes.

Only the Single Transferable Vote – the ERS’s preferred system – can ensure that parliament reflects the diversity of British political views and that MPs have a strong local link with their voters. What’s more, voters have maximum choice over whom to vote for – with ranked choices removing the incentive for vote splitting.

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