Democracy & Justice

What is active and passive suffrage? How does the electoral system work?

Elections are a fundamental part of any democracy. They give citizens a say and thus the opportunity to influence the government and their own future.

by Franziska Otto

What is suffrage?

"Suffrage" or "electoral law" refers to all the legal provisions that lay down the procedures for democratic elections. It thus regulates who is entitled to vote and who is entitled to be elected, how often there should be elections and how elections are conducted.

The German Constitution (the Grundgesetz) defines five principles that characterize elections. Elections are to be universal, direct, free, equal and secret. But what does that mean in practice? Elections are "universal" when all citizens have the right to vote, regardless of gender, income, religion or political affiliation. Nevertheless, there are a few restrictions, for example, in federal elections people are only allowed to vote starting at the age of 18; in some state elections the minimum voting age is 16.

"Direct" means that voters elect their representatives directly. On the ballot paper, they place their cross directly next to the name of the person who is to represent them in parliament (the Bundestag). There is no intermediate instance, as for example in the USA, where voters first vote for a so-called Electoral College, which in turn elects the president.

Voters are able to vote for the candidate of their choice without undue influence or external pressure (for example, they are not paid to vote for a certain candidate), therefore elections are "free". Elections are "equal" because each vote has the same worth and weight. "Secret" means that voters fill in their ballot without being observed. That is why there are booths in polling stations. Furthermore, a distinction is made between passive and active suffrage.

What is passive suffrage?

Citizens have the right to be elected to a parliament as representatives of the people. This right is also called "passive suffrage". In order to become a member of parliament, certain requirements must be met. For example, to be elected to the German Bundestag, a person must be at least 18 years old and a German citizen. To be elected Federal President, a person must have reached the age of 40.

Most candidates for a parliamentary office are nominated by their party; however, one does not have to belong to a party to be eligible. In any case, they must be nominated by an electoral proposal.

In addition, the candidate must have been nominated by a political party.

What is active suffrage?

"Active suffrage" is probably what comes to most people's minds when they think of "elections". It is the right to vote. To exercise this right in Germany, eligible voters must be at least 18; in some state elections, people as young as 16 may vote. Moreover, you can only vote in the constituency in which you are listed on the electoral roll. In extreme cases, a person can be disqualified from voting by a judge's decision (for example, for treason or electoral fraud).

In addition, in some countries, such as Belgium or Greece, voting is compulsory. In practice, this means that people who do not go to the polls face a fine (in Belgium, for example, up to 80 euros). Now, what happens if you are sick on election day? In that case, you can apply for a proxy so that another person can vote for you. The effect on voter turnout is quite mixed. While in Belgium, 90% of those entitled actually go to the polls, which is significantly more than in Germany (for comparison, the turnout in the last Bundestag election was 76.6%), in Greece the turnout in the last parliamentary election in 2019 was only 57.92%.

How did the history of electoral law evolve?

Generally speaking, electoral law has faced a very turbulent history. Most of the time, if democratic elections existed at all in a country, this right was only granted to a small and privileged group of people. Over the years, and as a result of various reforms and revolutions, more and more people were allowed to vote for their representatives.

The same was true in Germany. For example, on May 30, 1849, Prussia decreed a three-class electoral system for the House of Representatives. Depending on how much tax a man paid (because women were not allowed to vote), he was assigned to one of the three classes. The first class consisted mainly of landowners and nobles, the second class of merchants and the third class of all other entitled voters. The latter included 83% of the electorate. In turn, each of these classes decided on one-third of the electoral college, meaning that rich citizens had much more decision-making power than those with low incomes.

It was only after the end of the First World War and the abdication of the German Emperor that major changes in electoral law were introduced in Germany.

When did women gain the right to vote in Germany?

Germany's path to women's suffrage was a long one. For a long time it was forbidden, or at least very difficult, for women to participate in political decision-making. In fact, until 1908 the Prussian law on associations completely barred women from being members of a political party. Even later, bans on associations and meetings made it almost impossible for women in many federal states to become involved in parties or political organizations.

This only changed with the Imperial Election Act of 30 November 1918 (Reichswahlgesetz), which granted all German citizens over the age of 20, including for the first time women, the right to vote and to stand for election. The very first election where this change came into effect was the election to the Weimar National Assembly on 19 January 1919. Thirty-seven women were elected to the new parliament at that time, which corresponded to a share of 8.7%. Part of the reason for this low percentage was that although many parties had women on their electoral lists, they were placed very low on them, making it more difficult for them to actually win a seat in parliament. Even in today’s Bundestag, elected in 2021, women are significantly underrepresented with a share of only 34.7%.

How is the right to vote regulated in Germany?

In Germany, the right to vote is enshrined in the Constitution ("Grundgesetz") in Article 38. It determines the principles that elections must follow and stipulates that members of the Bundestag are representatives of the people and that they are only to be subject to their own conscience.

How does the electoral system work?

The electoral system regulates the way in which voters cast their ballots and how these votes then affect the composition of parliament. Germany has a mixed electoral system that combines both proportional representation and majority voting. In every election, whether at the federal or regional level, eligible voters have two votes. The first vote, in the left-hand column, directly elects a candidate from the voter's own constituency. The second vote, in the right-hand column, selects a party's national list. The number of these votes determines how many seats the respective party receives in the final House of Representatives. In the case where more candidates are elected by the first vote than seats obtained by the second vote, this is compensated by so-called overhang seats (Überhangmandate).

The two choices can be completely independent of each other, which means that a voter can, for example, vote for the SPD with the first vote and for the state list of the CDU with the second vote. After the polling stations close on election day, the ballots are counted. As soon as a district's result is determined, the election administration passes it on to the local authority. The latter forwards it to the district electoral administration, then to the state electoral administration and finally to the federal electoral officer, the Bundeswahlleiter.

How free and fair is an election in Germany?

Elections in Germany are generally considered to be free and fair. Political campaigns are characterized by strong competition. This gives citizens the opportunity to find a party that represents their interests. According to the electoral law, elections are public and citizens have access to all stages of the process.

Nevertheless, there is need for improvement in German electoral law. For example, there are major differences in the rules for running a political campaign, especially at the municipal level. This makes it particularly difficult for smaller parties to fully comply with the requirements.

There are also deficits with regard to campaign financing, as there is no legal definition of the underlying concepts. This makes it almost impossible to trace which private individuals, companies or associations representing certain interests (for example, the German Association of the Automotive Industry) have participated in the financing. In addition, expenditure cannot be analyzed as a result. More transparency would be necessary here, because it not only leads to accountability, but can also strengthen trust in elections - and thus ultimately trust in the democratic process.

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