Who can participate in elections?
Free elections are fundamental components of democracy. Through elections, all citizens can regularly participate in the political process and have a say in politics. The parties elected by the majority of voters are allowed to form a government for a definite period. If citizens are dissatisfied with the government's policies, they can vote them out in the next election.
What do I need to know?
- At the Parliament Election ("Bundestagswahl"), the members of the parliament are elected. They, in turn, elect the Federal Chancellor.
- The State Elections ("Landtagswahl") take place every five years-although not simultaneously- in all the 16 federal states. Bremen is the only city in which the election happens every four years. The state parliaments have different names in different cities: In Hamburg and Bremen it is called "Bürgerschaft". In Berlin, it is called "Abgeordnetenhaus" or "House of Representatives", and in all other federal states it is known as "Landtag".
- In Municipal Elections ("Kommunalwahl"), people elect political representatives for the local councils and town councils, as well as mayors and district administrators. As an EU citizen, you can take part in the municipal elections, even without German citizenship.
- German nationals, like all other EU citizens, elect their representatives in the European Parliament ("Europawahl") every five years. In the European elections, each citizen can only choose and vote for one party.
In the Bundestag election, all people who are over 18 years old and have German citizenship can vote.
In the State elections (“Landtagswahlen”), all people who are over 18 years old and have German citizenship can vote. In Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Bremen and Hamburg, you can vote from the age of 16 - German citizenship remains a requirement.
All German citizens and EU citizens who have lived in Germany for more than three months can vote in the municipal/ local elections (“Kommunalwahlen”). The minimum age depends on the state. In Saxony, Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse and Bavaria, only people aged 18 and over are allowed to vote. In other federal states, you can vote in local elections from the age of 16.
Furthermore, all adult EU citizens are allowed to vote in the European elections.
Anyone who is over 18 and has German citizenship may run as a candidate and get elected. State election in Hesse is the only exceptions: candidates must be at least 21 years old and have German citizenship.
In principle, elections in Germany are always held on Sundays, as most people don't work and have time to go to cast their votes. But there is also always the possibility to vote in advance per post. However, you have to apply for the postal vote. As a person entitled to vote, a few weeks before each election you will receive a voting notification where you can find detailed information about postal vote.
In the federal, state and local elections, all voters have two votes: the first and the second vote. With the first vote, voters elect a candidate from their constituency (“direct election”). They give their second vote to the list of a specific party ("proportional representation"). The second vote is more significant as it determines the distribution of seats in the parliaments. The system mentioned above is also known as "personalized election on the basis of proportional representation" ("personalisierte Verhältniswahl").
In state elections, the right to vote and thus also the number of votes differ depending on the federal state. In most federal states, the system of "personalized election on the basis of proportional representation" ("personalisierte Verhältniswahl") also applies to state elections. The voters, therefore, have a first vote and a second vote.
In local elections, the right to vote and thus the number of votes differ depending on the federal state.
In the European elections, you only have one vote to elect a party.
All voters will receive an "electoral notification" ("Wahlbenachrichtigung") by post with the address of the relevant voting stations, no later than three weeks before the election day. The voting stations are temporarily set up in schools or other public buildings. Election booths are set up within the polling stations. When entering the polling station, electoral assistants will ask for your name, ID and electoral notification to mark you out of the voter's list after you cast your vote. This ensures that everyone gets to vote only once. The voter receives the ballot, goes into one of the election booths and marks his or her two choices on the ballot (first and second vote). The cabins are used for privacy so that voters cannot see each other’s ballot. After the voter mark his or her choices, the ballot is folded and cast into the sealed ballot box.
Important: If you have not received an electoral notification despite being eligible to vote, contact your city administration.
If you cannot go to a voting station on the election day, it is possible to apply for an absentee ballot. You will find a form on the back of the electoral notification that has been sent to you. Then you will receive your voting documents per post, so that you can fill them out at home before election day and then send them back.
On the back of your voting notification you will find a form and often also an email address, web address or a QR code. You can use these to apply for absentee voting.
Many helping hands are needed during an election. The election assistants are individuals, who are themselves entitled to vote and all of them work voluntarily. They distribute the ballots, check whether the voter is at the right voting station, and count the votes after the voting time is over. If you are eligible to vote, you can register as a volunteer at your town hall, citizens advice bureau or district office.
Elections must meet the following requirements in Germany:
- Public: All German citizens can elect or be elected if they are at least 18 years of age.
- Direct: Members of parliament are elected directly or through party lists, not by electors, unlike, e.g. in the Electoral College System in the USA.
- Free: There is no compulsory voting, and no one can be forced to vote.
- Equal: Each voice counts same as others.
- Confidential: only the total result is published. The individual choices of voters remain secret.
In the Federal election (and to some extent, state elections) there is a so-called “5% hurdle”(„Fünf-Prozent-Hürde“) the parties have to pass. That means Each party, must, receive at least five percent of the votes or three direct mandates to be able to enter the parliament. The “hurdle” is supposed to prevent the fragmentations which the presence of too many small parties might cause in the parliament.
So-called "overhang mandates" are the reason behind the changing number of Bundestag members after each election.
The second vote each voter cast determines how many seats a party is entitled to in parliament. However, if a party receives more seats via the first vote ("direct mandate") than it is allowed via the second vote, it receives "overhang" seats. As a result, the party in question will send additional members to the Bundestag. To maintain the balance of power between all parties, the other parties receive so-called "compensation mandates" - i.e. they are also allowed to send (some) additional members to the parliament.
As a result, the planned number of 598 MPs is usually exceeded. Since the federal election in 2021, the number of MPs has increased to 736 - which is more than ever before.
The number of overhang mandates and compensation mandates each party receives is calculated according to quite complicated formulas. Our explanatory animation video on overhang mandates offers a simple example.
As a result of the distinctive electoral system in Germany, it is hardly possible for a single party to form a government. To do so, a party would have to win more than 50% of the mandates. So the coalition among parties is a norm. That means two or more competing parties will form a coalition and govern the country together. That's why the parties often communicate their possible coalition partners before the elections.
In each election, the voter turnout is measured, that is, the percentage of eligible citizens who actually took part in the election. The level of participation in the “Bundestag” election is traditionally high in Germany. In the seventies, it was over 90 percent. Since reunification in 1990, it was 80 percent. In 2021, 76.6% of the eligible citizens participated in the election.
Even if you are not allowed to vote, there are many other ways you can become politically active.
- You can, for instance, join a citizens' initiative ("Bürgerinitiative"). In citizens' initiatives, people work together for a cause, such as building a street or protecting a park. After the goal has been reached, the citizens' initiative usually dissolves.
- If you want to get involved politically for a long-term cause, an interest group ("Interessensverband") could be an option. Here you can commit to a specific issue, e.g. for more environmental protection or workers rights.
- You can also join a party, found a partner- or sub-organisation of a German party, or work in local communities at migrant organisations or integration advisory council. To learn more about German political scene, read our chapter political parties in Germany.
If you live in Berlin or plan to visit, you can tour the German parliament ("Bundestag"). Keep in mind that you must register for your tour in advance at www.reichstag-fuehrung.de.