Fewer and fewer German citizens are going to the polls, a trend officials attribute to the rigid rules in the voting system. The social democrats are now considering more innovative models, including mimicking Sweden’s practice of voting “while out shopping”. EURACTIV Germany reports.
In terms of voter participation, Germany’s last elections were a disaster; 48% in the Brandenburg regional poll, 53% in Thuringia, 49% in Saxony and 48% in the EU elections.
The numbers are a serious concern in the eyes of Roderich Egeler, the country’s federal returning officer, or “Bundeswahlleiter”, who is responsible for overseeing elections at the federal level.
He called on politicians to make urgent changes to voting regulation.
“Anything that brings voters to the polls is good policy,” Egeler said. He spoke on Thursday (18 September) in Berlin at the presentation of the representative election statistics on this year’s European elections.
People’s lifestyles have changed fundamentally over the past few decades, Egeler pointed out, including weekend working hours and more leisure activities. “We must loosen the rigid rules for elections. We should not change the election process, but voting locations could be chosen differently, for example”, the returning officer said.
He praised the Swedish model in particular, which the Social Democratic Party (SPD) now wants Germany to imitate.
Under the Swedish system, citizens are allowed to cast their vote over the course of an entire week. And polling stations are located in supermarkets or at the post office.
According to Egeler, voting could also take place in frequently-visited public buildings. “Something like this could open new doors and lead to higher voter participation,” Egeler said.
SPD Secretary General Yasmin Fahimi also hopes to make Germany’s elections more compatible with people’s daily lives.
They should be able to cast their vote “while out shopping”, she said.
“We don’t want voter-bashing; we want to dismantle obstacles,” Fahimi explained.
She called on the other parties to join the initiative.
Media reports indicated the SPD intends to submit a recommendation soon for a non-partisan “Joint Initiative to Increase Voter Participation”.
Recommendations are “a drop in the ocean”
But election researcher Markus Steinbrecher considers the plans “a drop in the ocean”.
Steinbrecher believes voting stations in shopping centres would only raise voter participation to a certain extent. “Maybe two to three percentage points, but definitely not more,” he told euractiv.de.
The cause of low voter participation is not the effort it takes to go to the polls, he said. Three other factors are much more relevant: (1) rising dissatisfaction with politics, the parties and the politicians, (2) a lack of interest for politics among much of the population and (3) the disappearing alliance between social groups and political parties.
“Just because someone is from the working-class, for example, doesn’t mean he automatically goes to the polls and votes for the SPD,” Steinbrecher explained.
“A sustainable and long-term increase in voter participation can only be achieved if politicians work more effectively,” the sociologist contended.
“Political parties and candidates must make it clear, which agenda and which coalition they stand for. Alternatives and differences must be clearly recognisable,” he said.
Previous experiments have not always proved successful. At the turn of the century, Britain ran pilot schemes in 32 local authorities with polling booths opening at supermarkets two days prior to voting. In some of them, turnout actually fell.
Compulsory or online voting are not the solution
Meanwhile, many European countries enforce compulsory voting. In Belgium for example, voter participation in the European elections was close to 90%.
“Of course compulsory voting would be a possibility to raise participation. But that harbours the risk that even more people will let their frustration out in the voting booths and give their vote to populist or even extremist parties,”Steinbrecher argued.
In his view, compulsory voting in Belgium’s parliamentary elections is to blame for the success of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).
Egeler said he rejects compulsory voting in Germany because it is incompatible with the country’s Basic Law.
Online voting systems are another method Egeler does not dismisses. Voting procedures on the internet would be difficult to reconcile with the German Constitutional Court’s conditions, he explained.
The Bundestag’s centre-right alliance has been less vocal on the subject.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) party-leader, said on Monday (15 September) that she was sceptical of Egeler’s and the SPD’s plans.
Merkel said she does not yet see a formula for success, motivating more people to the polls.
A request by EURACTIV Germany, for possible recommendations, was left unanswered by the centre-right party.
The fact that Egeler supports reforms for existing voting rules could also have to do with a growing number of absentee voters. Their numbers reached 23.4% in the European elections – a development that worries Egeler.
Although absentee voting ensures that everyone has the possibility to cast a vote, Egeler said, the ballot should be filled out in secret.
An important factor in the eighth European elections was how many European citizens participated. Turnout for the European elections fell by almost 19 points between 1979 and 2009, from 61.99% to 43%.
Trust in the EU has also hit low records in the past years, as has trust in national politics. The European Parliament has conducted a large-scale attempt to boost turnout in the 2014 elections, investing in a social media campaign.
The single candidates for the position of the Commission president was part of this attempt to spur voters' interest.