How do elections work in the German Länder? – Electoral Reform Society – ERS

After the voters of Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost of Germany, this Sunday, May 15, it is the turn of North Rhine-Westphalia to elect its parliament or Landtag. With a population of just under 18 million, North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany’s most populous state, with this vote being a crucial test for the still young Scholz government.

But elections in all German states are extremely important. Not only are they among the most powerful sub-national bodies in Europe, but they also have some influence at the federal level through the Bundesrat – Germany’s upper house. So let’s look at the voting systems used to choose these sixteen key state parliaments.

personalized PR

According to the national Bundestag, 13 of the 16 states use a version of the Mixed Member Proportional (MPR) system, known in Germany as “Personalized Proportional”. Most states broadly follow the federal example – a set number of seats are elected by first-past-the-post, with the remainder elected by proportional representation in a compensatory fashion with the ability to add additional leveling seats; voters have two votes, one for a local constituency candidate and one for a closed party list; and there is a 5% disqualification threshold in each state.

But there are some variations. There is no consistent electoral formula, with D’Hondt, Hare-LR and Sainte-Laguë all being used by at least one state, and the default proportion of single-member seats ranges from 49% in Saxony-Anhalt to 71% in North Rhineland. -Westphalia. Moreover, in states where there are small but significant national minorities, parties representing these groups – such as the Danish-Frisian SSW in Schleswig-Holstein – are exempt from the threshold.

And then we come to the two southernmost states of Germany…


At first glance, the Bavarian MMP model is fairly standard – 91 seats are elected in single-member constituencies and a minimum of 89 are elected proportionally. But, as with many things Bavarian, there is definitely a unique twist. The statewide 5% threshold, for example, also applies to First Past the Post seats. This means that it is possible for a party to win the most votes in one constituency, but then lose the seat if their party does not get enough votes elsewhere.

Voting is a little different too. Voters still have two votes, but the second vote is for a candidate on a list rather than for a list itself (open lists rather than closed lists). It is also the sum of the two votes that determines the allocation of proportional seats rather than the second vote alone. Unlike other states, the proportional allocation takes place in seven multi-member regions rather than statewide.


The Baden-Württemberg version of the MMP also brings radical changes to the standard model. The differences start at the polling booth – voters have only one vote that decides both the winner of single-member constituencies and the allocation of proportional seats (which is also done in regions rather than across the board). ‘State).

Above all, however, Baden-Württemberg does not use party lists at all. Instead, proportional seats are awarded to the top performing constituency candidates who did not win a seat, i.e. the second strongest. This obviates the need for the large ballots often seen with open lists and ties proportional candidates to an individual constituency – giving those seats a “second term”.

PR list

There are, however, three states that eschew the MMP in favor of a list PR system – Saarland and the city-states of Bremen and Hamburg, which together constitute three of Germany’s four least populous states. Bremen and Hamburg, as well as the MMP states of Brandenburg and Schleswig-Holstein, also have 16 votes.

The Bremen system is a fairly simple proportional representation system – with voting taking place in two constituencies comprising Bremen and Bremerhaven, the two cities that make up the small state. Voters have five votes which they can be distributed among the candidates as they see fit – including between parties and multiple voting for the same candidate. It’s a mixture of cumulative voting and cross-voting. Unlike the rest of Germany, the 5% threshold is applied individually in the two constituencies rather than statewide. Bremen is also the only state where elections are held every four years, like national elections, instead of every five years.

In Hamburg, 71 seats are elected in 17 three- to five-member constituencies, with the remaining minimum of 50 seats allocated statewide on a compensatory basis – all using list PR. Hamburg uses the same “cumulative splitting” system as Bremen, except Hamburgers get ten votes – five for constituency candidates and five for state candidates.

The Saarlanders, however, do not get the flexibility offered to voters in Bremen and Hamburg – instead using a closed list where voters simply vote for parties. 41 seats are elected in three multi-member districts, with the remaining ten top-up seats being nominated statewide – all using the D’Hondt method. Saarland election in March was notable for providing the SPD with a rare single-party majority and seeing the Greens fall below the 5% threshold by just 23 votes!

The German states certainly show the wide variety of different ways in which proportional electoral systems can work and even co-exist!

James R. Rhodes