How Districts Plus Has Worked for German Elections

by Rebecca Franklin, Devin McCarthy // Published May 3, 2013


FairVote has posted several times recently about the benefits that a Districts Plus electoral system (also known as mixed member proportional representation) can confer: namely, combining the advantages of local, personal representation with overall proportionality. But you don't have to take our word for it. Districts Plus-like systems have been proven to be effective in national elections in some of the world's most robust democracies.

Headlining that list is the Federal Republic of Germany, which has used a version of mixed member proportional since the Bundestag was established in 1949 under the guidance of the United States. Germany's current system allows voters to cast two votes: one for a representative in their single-member district, and another for a nationwide party list that will compensate parties for any distortions caused by the single-member districts. Thus, Germans have both local representatives and a parliament that accurately represents the political views of the whole of Germany.

Despite its success, the German electoral system has attracted some undeserved negative attention of late - enough that in November of 2012, Foreign Policy ranked Germany at the bottom of its list of the five electoral systems worse than the Electoral College. But this criticism has been enormously overstated.

Here's the background: on July 25, 2012, Germany's Constitutional Court ruled the current electoral system unconstitutional due to the problem of "overhang seats." It was the second time that the court had declared the system unconstitutional in four years, and it temporarily left Germany without an electoral law.

The issue, in short, was that Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party was winning so many constituency (single-member district) seats that the party list seats were unable to compensate for the distortion. After the 2009 election, the 598-seat Bundestag proportionally reflected the votes that each party received in Germany's states. Because the CDP won more seats via constituencies than its proportion of the vote in several states, however, these extra or "overhang" seats were added to the Bundestag, creating a legislature of 622 seats.

Of course, the extra seats created a small degree of disproportionality in CDP's favor. The overhang seats also led to the unusual phenomenon where voting for a party in a region where they won overhang seats could actually lead to that party winning fewer nationwide seats, which is what the court objected to.

It's worth remembering that these problems only seem significant in the context of an electoral system that is almost completely proportional and in which opportunities for strategic voting are minimal. In the U.S., our distorted and strategy-prone electoral system wouldn't register an issue this miniscule. Given that context, Foreign Policy's dubious honor is absurd.

Fortunately, Germany now seems to have addressed the small flaws in its system, as the Bundestag passed a new electoral law in February that guarantees that parties will receive "balance seats" to compensate for any disproportionality caused by overhang seats. While this new law may result in a larger legislature, it will ensure that the Bundestag more accurately reflects the votes of the German electorate.

The overhang seat controversy has shown that Germany is able to recognize the flaws in its electoral system and correct them. The United States would do well to follow its lead. While a German-style Districts Plus system could not be implemented nationwide in the U.S. without a constitutional amendment, it could realistically be used by many state legislatures that suffer from distorted outcomes and uncompetitive elections. In fact, FairVote has proposed such a plan for the Michigan State House of Representatives.

To be a voter in Germany is to know that your vote will always have an effect on the outcome of an election, regardless of how competitive your local district is. Even when large parties such as the Christian Democrats prevail in the Bundestag elections, other parties and viewpoints are still able to win representation and influence policy. American voters need look no further than Germany to see just how much better their experience with democracy could be.