German election 2021: a comparison with Scotland’s voting system

By Richard Wood

Germany votes for a new Bundestag on Sunday 26 September 2021, bringing an end to the Merkel era after sixteen years. The country uses a proportional voting system (Mixed-Member Proportional) which is very similar to Scotland’s Additional Member System, however, there are some clear differences.

The German system has its flaws, like Scotland’s, but it is significantly more representative than First Past the Post used at Westminster and earlier in the week in Canada.

READ MORE: German and Canadian elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight

Here’s how the German and Scottish systems compare.

The Scottish electoral system (AMS)

The Scottish Parliament has 129 seats in total. 73 of these are single-member districts where the candidate with the most vote wins, essentially First Past the Post. The other 56 are list seats designed to reduce the inherent disproportionality of the FPTP element. Voters get two ballots – one for each of these types of seats.

Scotland is divided into eight electoral regions with each region providing seven regional list MSPs, meaning that everyone in scotland has eight representatives.

The list seats in each region are distributed once all the constituency seats in that region are counted and are calculated via the D’Hondt method. However, crucial they also take into account the number of constituency seats won by each party in that region. This ensures broadly proportional outcomes overall. This mechanism ensures that regional votes match regional seats.

In practice this means that parties overrepresented in constituency seats (as in their seat share exceeds vote share) pick up fewer regional seats. The SNP do extremely well in constituency seats but other parties get their fair share in regional seats as seen in the 2021 Scottish election where the Scottish Labour and Scottish Conservatives won most of their seats via the regional allocations.

The broad proportionality of AMS makes the system more representative that the appalling First Past the Post system used at Westminster and in Canada on Monday.

READ MORE: Canada votes – the problems of First Past the Post exposed

However, AMS does have a number of faults. These include the proportionality mechanism only ensuring regional not national broad proportionality, no addressing of overhang seats and limited voter power (party lists are completely closed). Other problems include the fact that parties could “game the system” due to two-vote divergence as well as the two classes of MSP that the system produces.

The German electoral system (MMP)

The German system is very similar but also has significant differences with Scotland’s.

Both Scottish AMS and German MMP combine FPTP with a compensatory element to ensure a level of proportionality. Although not perfect, they can be classed as forms of Proportional Representation.

But unlike Scotland, Germany does not have a fixed number of seats.

As in Scotland, German voters get two ballots, one for each element. 299 German seats are elected via FPTP (the CDU/CSU and SPD dominate these constituencies).There are also a further provisional 299 list seats but this number is usually larger.

Germans vote for their lists in each of the 16 states (like in the 8 Scottish regions). These seats are allocated accounting for constituency seats to ensure proportionality. However, the system has a further mechanism to ensure overall seats match overall votes in each state.

Parties often win more constituency seats that they are entitled to under a hypothetical distribution of list votes. Other parties are allocated additional seats to level this out and further seats are added to ensure that the party list vote matches seat distributions. This is done to ensure proportionality at both the state and national levels.

This means that the size of the Bundestag (German parliament) changes in size after each election. This has faced some criticism but it does ensure a high degree of proportionality. In contrast, Holyrood is fixed at 129 members.

There is also a 5% threshold for *most* parties to win list seats. This is not the case in Scotland but there is an unofficial threshold at around that mark due to there only being seven list seats to allocate in each region.

The main advantage German MMP has over Scottish AMS is that extra commitment to proportionality. However, this has a major drawback as it can create incredibly large chambers. More politicians is not exactly popular with voters as a general rule. The outgoing Bundestag has 709 members in total (2017 to 2021).

The Bundestag also has other problems associated with AMS, notably the two types of member and closed party lists. The prospect of gaming the system is at least limited by additional seats allocated to ensure that party list votes match seats won by each party.

That all said, Germany’s commitment to proportionality is truly commendable.

Room for improvement in Scotland and Germany

Scotland’s AMS has done a reasonable job for 22 years but it definitely needs reform. Holyrood could learn from Germany and add levelling and overhang seats. This would be a significant improvement as it would improve proportionality and limit the possibility of gaming the system. We could also learn from the German state of Bavaria and introduce open lists for the regional vote component, strengthening voter power at the ballot box.

These could be positive steps forwards, however, they are arguably sticking plaster solutions.

Instead, Holyrood should learn from elsewhere and adopt a superior voting system to AMS. The Single Transferable Vote or Open List Proportional Representation with levelling seats would improve representation and empower voters across the whole country.

You can read about my petition to improve Scotland’s broadly proportional but imperfect voting system (and the response) here.

Scotland and Germany have similar voting systems which both ensure a strong element of proportionality. The extra commitment to proportionality in Germany is extremely commendable. Both systems have done well to improve representation but both have flaws and improvements can be made.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservative MSP supports better Proportional Representation at Holyrood

Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight

Upgrade Holyrood’s Richard Wood has written a new article for (published 9 September 2021), highlighting the upcoming German and Canadian elections and the need for Proportional Representation in the UK.

The full article can be read here: Canadian and German elections put contrasting voting systems in the spotlight.

Two leading democracies go to the polls later this month, both facing far from certain outcomes. The end of the Merkel era places Germany at a crossroads with a diverse range of multi-party coalitions on the table. Meanwhile, Canada’s election is Justin Trudeau’s gamble to turn his minority government into a majority one, despite polls suggesting this could backfire and hand power to the country’s Conservatives.

Held within a week of each other, these elections are two very different interpretations of democracy due to their contrasting electoral systems. They show how the UK has two possible futures ahead. The Canadian route, based around First Past the Post (FPTP), typifies just a semi-representative democracy. And the German route, based around Proportional Representation (PR),which ensures an accurate link between votes cast and seats won.

Richard Wood (2021)