Citizens' Assembly on electoral law in Germany?

Timo Klostermeier / pixelio.de

Does the grand coalition in Germany want to reform the controversial federal electoral law with the help of a randomly drawn citizens' council? On 8 January 2021, a draft proposal to this effect became known. In autumn 2020, the CDU/CSU and SPD had decided to set up a reform commission. In a motion introduced to the Bundestag on 20 April 2021, however, it is only stated in vague terms that "an appropriate participation of citizens in the work of the commission (...) is to be ensured". An 18-member commission, meeting in public, is planned.

The CDU/CSU will have three members, the SPD two, and the other parliamentary groups one each, plus nine experts. The reform is not only about the size of the parliament, but also about a possible lowering of the voting age to 16 and the "promotion of equal representation of women and men". An interim report is to be submitted by 30 September 2021, and a final report by 30 June 2023.

Bundestag too big

The German Bundestag is too big. Instead of the planned 598 members, there are currently 709 representatives. Actually, no one in the Bundestag wants such a large parliament. All parliamentary groups agree that the electoral law must be changed in order to prevent the parliament from becoming even larger. The only thing they cannot agree on is HOW. On 8 October 2020, the Bundestag passed an electoral law reform with the votes of the CDU/CSU and SPD. However, this change is not a permanent solution. Depending on the election results, experts expect the parliament to grow further. The reform commission and the citizens' assembly are therefore now to set things right.

Parties and parliamentary groups are naturally biased when it comes to electoral law. For how many seats a party gets in the Bundestag depends not only on the election results, but also on the electoral law. For example, it is a question of whether other parties receive compensation if a party gets more seats in parliament than it is entitled to. This is the case if more MPs are elected for a party in the constituencies via the first vote than the second votes counted nationwide would allow. Depending on the electoral law, these so-called "overhanging mandates" can be fully or only partially compensated for by "compensatory mandates" for the other parties. Or an upper limit is set for the Bundestag mandates, regardless of how many MPs would actually have to sit in parliament according to the election results.

Citizens' Assemblies in Canada

In Canada, citizens' assemblies have already been given the task of formulating guidelines for the electoral law. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, the government set up a randomly drawn citizens' assembly in 2004 to discuss changes to the electoral system. The citizens' assembly consisted of 161 members. One man and one woman were randomly selected from each of British Columbia's 79 electoral districts. In addition, there were two Indigenous members and a chairperson. The members of the Assembly were randomly selected, which ensured gender balance and equitable representation by age groups and the geographical distribution of the population.

The Citizens' Assembly went through a 12-week "learning phase" with presentations by experts, group discussions and access to a range of sources on voting rights. The work included a review of the different electoral systems in use around the world and their various impacts on the political process. This was followed by a public consultation period lasting several weeks. Citizens' Assembly members held over 50 public hearings and received a total of 1,603 written submissions. The members then deliberated on the electoral system to be recommended, identifying three criteria they considered most important: adequate representation of voters, provincial districts and voter decision-making.

Reform proposal

As a result of the deliberations, the Citizens' Assembly proposed to replace the existing first-past-the-post electoral system with the Single Transferable Vote system. This was to eliminate the problem of ineffective votes in the pure majority voting system and to bring about a better representation of all votes cast. This procedure determines several winners per constituency. It explicitly serves the election of persons, not the election of party lists.

This recommendation was put to the voters in a referendum held at the same time as the 2005 provincial elections. A "super majority" was required for the result to be binding. This included the approval of 60 per cent of all voters and simple majorities in 60 per cent of the 79 districts. In the referendum, the second of these thresholds was met with the approval of 77 of the 79 voting districts. However, the proportion of votes in favour was 57.7 per cent, which was below the 60 per cent mark. The Citizens' Assembly's recommendation was therefore not implemented.

Citizens' Assembly in Ontario

The Citizens' Assembly in British Columbia was nevertheless a model for a similar citizens' assembly in the Canadian province of Ontario. It compared the electoral system in use at the time with possible alternatives. In May 2007, the assembly recommended by a majority of 94 : 8 that Ontario should introduce a mixed form of majority and proportional representation with first and second votes, as is used in Germany. However, the Citizens' Assembly's recommendation was rejected by voters in a referendum on 10 October 2007. Sixty-three per cent of the voters voted against.

According to participation expert Peter MacLeod, the most important factor for the "no" vote in Ontario was a lack of identification with the Citizens' Assembly. "The strongest link to a 'yes' vote was not knowledge of the specifics of the electoral system, but familiarity with the Citizens' Assembly," MacLeod explains. In British Columbia, he says, identification with the citizens' assembly there was incomparably higher. MacLeod is one of Canada's leading experts on citizen engagement and deliberative democracy, and the founder and chair of MASS LBP. Since 2007, this organisation has been working to engage citizens in difficult policy decisions. At the same time, it is pioneering the use of randomly drawn citizens' assemblies.

Currently, the initiative "Fair Vote Canada" is calling for a citizens' assembly on the national electoral law in Canada, in which the MPs are also determined by majority voting. As a result, many electoral votes are lost and small parties are disadvantaged. "Fair Vote Canada" wants Canadians to discuss alternatives.

A Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Law for Germany

Citizens' assemblies on electoral law enable a broad consultation on an important question of democracy without party-political interests being in the foreground. Citizens, whose composition is a reflection of the population, can formulate their demands on an electoral system. Members of parliament learn which criteria an electoral system must fulfil in the opinion of the voters. Since citizens' assemblies are accompanied by intensive media coverage, their deliberations are an important learning process for society as a whole.

"Randomly drawn assemblies make sense when there are blockades in politics. In Germany, for example, the development of a new electoral law would be a good example," says Prof. Hubert Buchstein, political scientist at the Institute for Political Science and Communication Studies at the University of Greifswald. "In view of its political controversial nature, it is worthwhile to remove the right to vote from the party dispute and outsource it to a randomly drawn citizens' assembly. Such an independent, party-politically neutral body, supported by 'normal' citizens and advised by experts, can ensure that considerations about one's own (re-)election chances do not play a role," he already wrote in 2017 together with political scientist Dr. Michael Hein on the Verfassungsblog. Parliamentary decisions on electoral law suffered from a "neutrality deficit", he said. "As is well known, questions of electoral law are questions of power. If they are decided in parliament, this is inevitably influenced by the parties' assumptions about future advantages or disadvantages," the two democracy experts said. The electoral law experts Prof. Florian Grotz and Prof. Friedrich Pukelsheim also advocate a citizens' assembly on the subject of electoral law in an essay podcast for the FAZ.

So there is a lot to be said for letting people in Germany have their say on the subject of voting rights through a citizens' assembly.