Apolitical Politics

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On the eve of American elections, I thought I'd discuss another nation's electoral system, in an entirely non-partisan sort of way.

So: You know who has a really cool electoral system? Germany. It's an incredibly clever system that combines the best of proportional representation parliamentary systems and American-style first-past-the-post single-member districts. It's somewhat complicated to explain, but bear with me.

First, the broad structure. Germany has a Federal system, ala the United States. It's divided into 16 self-governing states (Or Bundesländer). One cool thing about this, by the way: 13 of those are traditional States in the American sense of "vast tracts of land with cities and countryside and such." But three of them are just cities that get counted as states in themselves. It would be like if, say, New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago each got two senators each, separate from New York, California, and Illinois. The three lucky cities are Berlin, Bremen, and Hamburg. The other 13 states, which I will recite because I memorized them in high school German class, are Brandenburg, Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schleswig-Holstein, Niedersachsen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Saarland, Hessen, Thüringen, Baden Württemberg, and Bayern.

Each state selects representatives to send to the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat. Bundesrat representatives are selected by the state governments, like US Senators were before the Seventeenth Amendment. So people only select their Bundesrat representatives indirectly, based on who they put in charge of their state government. Each state gets equal representation in the Bundesrat. The Bundesrat's powers, however, are heavily circumscribed; they basically only have a say in matters where the federal government needs cooperation from state governments. So the Bundesrat is basically just the state's emissary to the federal government.

The big show, as it were, is the Bundestag, the lower house. There are roughly 600 seats in the Bundestag. Half are single-member districts, and the other half are proportional balancing seats. Germany is divided into 299 electoral districts, just like American house districts. When you go to the polls, you place two votes. First, you vote on which candidate you want to represent your district, and they have regular American House-style elections, with parties putting up candidates in each district who try to sway voters based on the force of their personality.

After choosing who in the local election the voter wants to represent them, the voter is then asked which party they want to cast their vote for. This determines the party representation in the final parliament.

Here's where things get tricky. First, they go through each of the electoral districts and figure out who won in each one. Once that's done they have half of the parliament's seats decided. They then look at the party votes. They figure out what percentage of the population voted for each party, figure out how many seats out of 600 the party should therefore get, and distribute the other 300 seats to make the party totals match their portion of the vote.

It's a bit confusing because the 300 proportional representation seats are designed to balance with the 300 single-member-district seats, rather than being a separate pool. An illustrative example: Suppose in an American election the Republican Party wins precisely 51% of the vote nation wide, while the Democrats get 49%. Suppose, astoundingly, that the vote is exactly evenly spread throughout every district; the Republicans receive 51% of the vote in every individual election across the country. Under the American system, the Republicans would win each individual election and thus have 100% of the votes in the House. The German system would handle it differently. First they would look at each race individually. The result would be 299 Republicans elected from the Single-Member District pool. Then they'd look at the party vote, 51% to 49%. 51% of 600 is 306. The Republicans already have 299 from the single-member-districts, so of the remaining 300 balancing seats they'd get 7 while the Democrats would get 293. The final make-up of the Bundestag would be 306 Republicans and 293 Democrats, exactly in proportion to the national popular vote.

What's neat about this is that it means that you get the practical outcome of parliamentary voting, so parties can't be screwed by gerrymandering, rotten boroughs, and run-of-the-mill aberrant vote distribution. At the same time, each individual district gets to have a representative in the Bundestag that they voted for in their own separate election. You have the national political advantages of a parliamentary system, complete with viable third parties and coalition building, coupled with the local representation and the ability for the voters to pick individual politicians that you get in the American system. At the same time, you don't have to worry about local personalities and idiosyncratic district campaigns determining national politics.

This isn't to say the German system is perfect, but it does seem to have been the beneficiary of being a late-mover on the whole democracy thing, affording it the opportunity to craft a system based on the experience of what had worked well and what hadn't in countries that were a bit more enthusiastic about popular participation in government.

1 Comment

I'm surprised you find the German mixed member voting system "cool". It was the invention of the British civil servants running the British Occupied Zone of Germany in 1946. They thought (wrongly) that they could solve the ills of the previous closed-list party-list PR voting system by grafting on the single-member single-winner FPTP constituencies.

MMP (or AMS = Additional Member System as we call it in the UK) is superficially attractive to those whose political system is dominated by single-member districts and want to move towards PR. But MMP is not the best way to combine PR and local representation and accountability. Better by far would be to use STV-PR, the Single Transferable Vote system of proportional representation.

STV-PR really puts the voters at the centre of the process, gives them real choice and makes those elected directly accountable to the local voters.

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