The Briefing

German elections 2021 — what you need to know!

First and second votes, overhang seats, and 5 percent hurdle...

September 9, 2021
Reading time 2 min.

🌈 A quick taster for you:

  • With the first vote, you are voting for a specific candidate in your constituency.
  • With the second vote, you are voting for the party list.
  • The second vote determines the proportional distribution of seats.

🧐 Why do I care?

Elections for the German national parliament (which is called the Bundestag) will take place on 26th September 2021.
All residents who have German citizenship, are over 18 years old, and who have lived in Germany for at least 3 months before the election have the right to vote. Everything else you need to know is down below!

🔍 What exactly is happening here?

  • The most important thing first! Bundestag elections are free and fair, which means that every individual can freely decide which party or person he, she, or they choose. 
  • How many votes does each person get?
    In the Bundestag election, you have the opportunity to place two votes.
    With the first vote, you vote for a candidate from your constituency. Each party can nominate one candidate per constituency — and the candidate who receives the most votes is given the mandate to become a member of the Bundestag. Half of the Members of the Bundestag are elected in this way. Therefore, because there are 299 constituencies, there are 299 members of the Bundestag who have been voted directly by their constituents. But the other half of the Members of the Bundestag are elected via party lists in Germany’s sixteen states. 
    With the second vote
    , you’re not voting for a specific candidate — but you’re voting for the party list in your state. Each party has a ‘party list’, and this is simply a list of people who that party would like to send to the Bundestag. It’s the proportion of second votes that determines how many people from each party list end up in the Bundestag. The second vote is therefore the more important vote, as it decides the proportional representation of seats in the Bundestag! For example, if a party receives 30% of the second votes, then they will receive 30% of the seats in the Bundestag. Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s a little more complicated: A party is only given their share of the second votes if they win more than 5% of the second votes, or if they received the highest amount of second votes in more than 3 constituencies. 
  • Why is there a 5% hurdle?
    The main aim of the 5% hurdle is to prevent too many small parties from entering the Bundestag, as this would result in too much fragmentation. 
  • And what are overhang seats and balancing seats?
    Okay, this is a bit like explaining the offside rule in soccer — which always sounds more complicated than it actually is. But let’s give this a go.... for example, say a party wins 6 constituencies based on first votes, but the percentage distribution of second votes means it is only entitled to 4 seats. In this case the party can add two overhang seats in the Bundestag. BUT that would mean the ratio of the second votes is out of whack, and needs to be balanced again! Therefore other parties receive balance seats, so that the number of seats each party has is aligned to the percentage of the second votes that they won.  
  • Fun Fact: Germany has the largest parliament in the world, i.e. the most members in one parliament. Only China has more! There are currently reforms in progress to make the Bundestag smaller again. In addition to the 598 classic seats, there are currently 110 overhang and balance seats — which makes for a bombastic 709 members!

🤓 What does this mean for me?

We can each feel happy that we have the right to vote freely — and we should therefore make sure that we use our vote. So, either scan the QR code on the election documents that you’ve been sent and apply for a postal vote... or go and vote in person on 26.09.2021 at your local polling station. Whichever way you choose, the most important thing is simply that you vote!

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