February 12, 2023 - Everything that is on the ballot for the rerun of elections in Berlin
For the first time in its history, the City of Berlin must rerun an entire election. The process in 2021 experienced too many errors. Here are the key facts on state and local elections on February 12, 2023 at a glance. By Agnes Sundermeyer and Ute Schuhmacher
Usually, Berlin votes for state and local-level representatives every five years. The election on September 26, 2021, however, fell victim to so many errors that the city has been forced to rerun the elections for members of its State Parliament (the Abgeordnetenhaus, or AGH) and twelve Local Councils (the Bezirksverordnetenversammlungen, or BVV) in their entirety. That was the decision passed down by the Berlin State Constitutional Court in November. New elections must be held in Berlin within 90 days of this decision, according to the regulations of the city’s constitution. The Chief Election Officer for the City of Berlin declared February 12, 2023 as the date for the rerun.
The elections held to appoint members of Germany’s national parliament, the Bundestag, which were originally also held on September 26, 2021, will also be rerun, albeit not in full. The Bundestag itself is responsible for making decisions concerning errors in national-level elections, not the Berlin State Constitutional Court. That body also resolved in November that the election would have to be rerun, in light of the multitude of voting issues observed in 431 of Berlin’s roughly 2,300 electoral districts.
However, the Bundestag’s decision can and indeed now has been appealed before Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court. The process of setting a date for that rerun has therefore been put on hold until the Constitutional Court passes down its decision. Either way it will not be happening on February 12, 2023 as the court will need some time to consider the matter and rerunning national parliamentary elections in Berlin requires preparation.
Another curiosity surrounding these reruns is that the only result from September 26, 2021 that does not need to be rerun in Berlin, despite the myriad issues seen elsewhere, is the “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co” referendum, for the simple reason that nobody voted against. Consequently, the referendum passed.
Let’s take a closer look at the process step by step:
WHO CAN VOTE?
All Germans, i.e. persons with German citizenship, who have reached 18 years of age on polling day are eligible to vote in elections to the State Parliament (the Abgeordnetenhaus). Voters are also required to have resided in Berlin for at least three consecutive months and cannot have been excluded from voting. Persons who are excluded from voting include those who are subject to a court order that denies them the right to vote. Germans living overseas can still participate in the elections provided they have their residence in Berlin.
German citizens can also vote in Local Council (BVV) elections, as can citizens of other Member States of the European Union (EU). However, the latter must have a place of residence in Berlin. The minimum voting age for BVV elections is 16 years old.
WHEN WILL POLLING TAKE PLACE AND WHAT WILL THE PROCESS LOOK LIKE?
Polling stations will be open on Sunday, February 12 between 8:00 am and 6:00 pm. After that, the polling stations will begin the count which is open the public, so anyone who wants to can come along and watch it happen.
Persons who are unable to vote in person can vote by mail in the six weeks leading up to the elections. You need a ballot paper to do this. Mail-in ballot papers can only be applied for in writing, and not by phone. Officials began mailing out information on mail-in voting on Monday, January 2.
On the back of the mailout, which every eligible voter will receive by mail, there is a form to fill in and return, either by regular mail or email. Alternatively, voters can scan the QR code on their letter to automatically register all their personal details as indicated on the letter. Additionally, the ballot papers for all three votes must be placed in the same envelope, as otherwise there is no guarantee of secrecy and the vote is void.
Persons wishing to cast their vote earlier can also vote directly at their local mail-in polling station [berlin.de/wahlen], starting Monday, January 2. These polling stations are generally open on weekdays between 8:00 am and 3:00 pm. All you need to cast your vote is a form of ID.
WHO AND WHAT ARE WE VOTING FOR?
1. Elections to the Berlin State Parliament (Abgeordnetenhaus)
The ‘Abgeordnetenhaus’ is the State Parliament in Berlin. It passes laws, and forms and oversees the government. Citizens can vote for parties as well as for individual candidates who they want to enter this parliament. Consequently, eligible voters cast two votes: one for a party at a state level (or ‘Land’ in German), and one for a direct candidate who is running in their electoral district. A party requires five percent of votes cast to be admitted into the State Parliament.
The number of representatives who actually sit in the Berlin State Parliament following each election is not the same in every legislative period. There are 130 seats available in the State Parliament. Representatives receive a proportion of those seats depending on what percentage their party receives in the election.
However, in addition to the second vote, in which voters choose a party, there is also the first vote, in which voters can select candidates directly. There exist so-called overhang seats for candidates who win this first vote but are low down or do not appear at all on their party’s ticket. This means that it is possible for a party to gain significantly more seats in the State Parliament than they are initially due based on their share of votes cast. However, in order to maintain a balance of power between the parties throughout the entire plenary session, other parties are then also awarded additional seats, known as leveling seats, the reason being that the current State Parliament is made up of 147 representatives.
So far, then, this election to the State Parliament looks just like any other. But because this election is a rerun of the 2021 elections, there is one major difference, namely that the legislative period (which began after the 2021 elections) is still running. It is not due to end until 2026, unless early elections are called before then.
2. Elections to Local Councils (Bezirksverordnetenversammlungen)
The Local Councils (Bezirksverordnetenversammlungen, or BVV) are municipal parliaments that govern the various districts (Bezirke) of Berlin, comparable to town councils (Stadtrat) and municipal councils (Gemeindevertretung) in other states in Germany. Berlin is made up of twelve districts: Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Lichtenberg, Marzahn-Hellersdorf, Mitte, Neukölln, Pankow, Reinickendorf, Spandau, Steglitz-Zehlendorf, Tempelhof-Schöneberg and Treptow-Köpenick.
However, these Local Councils are not a parliament in the true sense of the word. Unlike the State Parliament, they have only limited rights. For example, they are not permitted to pass any new laws. Local Councils pass decisions on institutions or areas which are the sole responsibility of the district. This includes green areas, school buildings and youth centers in the area, as well as so-called folk high schools (Volkshochschulen) and libraries. Youth welfare and public order offices also fall under their remit.
There is one Local Council for each of Berlin’s twelve districts. They are normally elected every five years, with voting held on the same day as for the State Parliament.
In Local Council elections, candidates are not elected directly. Instead, voters cast their vote for a party or coalition that is standing in their district. A party requires three percent of votes cast to be admitted to the Local Council. The Local Council is then formed from fractions according to their share of votes. Each Local Council comprises no more than 55 councilors. There may be fewer councilors than this: If a party wins more seats than they have candidates on their ticket, the corresponding seats are left empty.
3. Impact on key posts
Being a rerun, this election is not entirely identical to a normal election. The most important political offices are appointed for the duration of the legislative period which generally lasts five years. This period ends every time new elections are held but not in the case of a rerun. The incumbent Mayor of Berlin Franziska Giffey (SPD) will therefore remain in office, together with her entire senate, after the rerun. In principle, this will continue to be the case for the duration of the legislative period.
However, should the split between the parties change after the election is rerun, resulting in a different government being entitled to begin negotiations on forming a coalition, and should these negotiations be successful, there are two ways in which this new government can take office. One is for the incumbent Governing Mayor to volunteer her resignation, thus paving the way for the election of a successor. Alternatively, she can be removed from office by a vote of no confidence. According to the Constitution of Berlin, a vote of no confidence requires a majority of representatives to pass.
If the incumbent Mayor loses her post, all her senators are also automatically removed from office. The reason for this is that, according to the Constitution of Berlin, the parliament elects the incumbent mayor but not the senators who are appointed by the incumbent mayor and whose term in office is bound to the term of their mayor.
District mayors (Bezirksbürgermeister/Bezirksbürgermeisterin) are appointed by a majority of representatives on each Local Council. It is possible that the strongest fraction will push through their candidate. However, what we are seeing more and more of is fractions of parties on Local Councils who have received fewer votes working together. They can form so-called voting alliances (or Zählgemeinschaften in German). If this voting alliance has a majority on the Local Council, they can elect the mayor of their district.
Since in a rerun the legislative period even at a Local Council level simply continues, all district mayors and town council posts will initially continue to be held by those representatives who are currently in office. This will be the case even if the split between parties on the Local Council changes as a result of the rerun. New district mayors or town councils can only be elected if the respective officeholders volunteer their resignation or are removed from office by their Local Council. The latter, however, requires a two-thirds majority.