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This question about Bundestag elections (How does the German Bundestag election system work?) does a good job at summarising Bundestag elections. Long story short: 299 directly-elected candidate from local electoral districts, 299 party seats filled from lists on a proportional vote in each Land, and some overhang seats to balance it all off.

The point of the directly-elected candidates is clear: so that people may be represented by someone locally, someone who may be their point of contact and who they can take their grievances to. Fair.

My question is about the other 299 seats: with a system of overhang seats, why do we need them at all? Can we not have more electoral districts (say 400 or 500) and then use the second vote to provide enough overhang seats to ensure proportionality?

In the previous question, a comment said "The list mechanism allows parties to get e.g. their budget expert in even if he or she is no charismatic speaker." Is that all or am I missing something? Putting party politics aside, wouldn't it ideally be better to just have directly-elected seats and the overhang ones (which would indeed become more numerous)? So there would still be seats filled from lists but way less then now, and that would prevent list candidates from having a sure seat in Parliament just because they have the favors of their party.

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    I’m not sure you understand what is going on. If there were only majority seats (which are won almost exclusively by two parties), the minor parties would have no seats at all. – chirlu Apr 28 at 7:45
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    Keep in mind that we still have the second "party" vote. So, a small party not getting a seat in any direct/local election but gaining, say, 4% of the second/party vote would get seats from the overhang seats and have 4% in the end. My question is, do we really need to have 299 seats reserved for lists? What do they add, since proportionality can be guaranteed without them? – Paul Tison Apr 28 at 7:58
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    OK, so I’ve had a look at the linked question in the meantime and see where you got that idea about overhang seats. Unfortunately, I can’t agree with your assessment that the answers on that question do a good job in explaining the election system. – chirlu Apr 28 at 9:06
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    Fair enough, I was bundling "overhang" and "balancing" seats. The question still stands. Read my question: I am not saying there should be not lists, but wondering why we need the fixed batch of 299 seats. Currently, parties get X number of seats from the 299 direct seats (first vote) + Y% of the 299 party seats (second vote) + potential more seats to ensure overall proportionality. In your example, FDP gets 0 seats out of 299 from 1st vote + 10,7% of 299 from 2nd vote + extra seats to ensure an overall 10,7%. If we ensure overall proportionality, why do we need the 2nd batch of 299 seats? – Paul Tison Apr 28 at 9:10
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    Ah, that’s what concrete examples are good for. You say: In your example, FDP gets 0 seats out of 299 from 1st vote + 10,7% of 299 from 2nd vote + extra seats to ensure an overall 10,7%. But that’s not how it works. FDP gets (in a simplified world) 10,7% out of the total 598, i.e. 64 seats. To this number of 64, first the directly elected candidates are counted (in this case 0); then the rest is filled from the lists. It starts to get difficult when CSU (6,2% of votes) has a right to 6,2% out of 598, i.e. 37 seats, but has 46 directly elected candidates … – chirlu Apr 28 at 9:29
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The system wasn't created by adding separate “party seats” and isn't described in that way in the law. There is only one sort of seat and they are distributed according to the second vote. Period. That's the driving force behind the composition of the German Bundestag and the most important feature of the system, even if it often gets lost in discussion of a “mixed voting system” and the like. Among those 598 seats, some are filled with the candidates who won a plurality of the vote in their district but their seats are not thought of as a distinct type of seats.

Having a limited total number of seats and directly elected candidates creates situations in which candidates with a plurality of the vote in their district would not have a seat. This is counter-intuitive and feels anti-democratic, hence the overhang mandates. In any given parliament, there aren't that many of them and they do not play a major role in the relative strength of the parties. It's a quirk on top of a mostly proportional voting system. Importantly, overhang seats do not restore the proportionality of the representation, they distort it. So if there were more districts, there would be more overhang seats but less proportionality.

Then, the details of the way the system works (and especially the fact seats are first distributed by province before being allocated to a party) create some paradoxes and, after a court case, the system was altered to add another type of “balancing” seats. This a fix on top of an add-on, historically the system wasn't designed in that way and nobody asked about the point of “party seats” because those were the main seats.

You could perhaps contrive a system where you add many balancing seats to get some specific proportion to the various political parties without specifying the number of seats beforehand but it's difficult to see how that would work or be desirable. You still need party lists to fill up all those balancing seats and you still need people to cast two votes, lest the results be strongly biased by the first-past-the-post logic of the so-called first vote. Furthermore, the fact that the number of elected members of parliament is not set before the vote (and can change during the mandate as rules on their replacement differ depending on how they were elected) does not seem like a very desirable feature. Your idea would just worsen this consequence as well.

There is something to be said for directly elected members of parliament of course but then you end with something like the British or French systems, with a strong bias in favor of the largest parties. From that perspective, they are more seats than districts in Germany to ensure the representation is (roughly) proportional and overhang and balancing seats to fix the paradoxes arising from the direct election of some candidates. On the other hand, the question of why you need “party” seats never arose, they are the most important feature of the system.

  • Thanks for the reply. The back-and-forth with chirlu did help to clarify that too. I guess I had read wrongly that there was a fixed batch of 299 seats for party lists and that, in itself, did not make sense to me. I personally would be ok with trading away a bit of the proportionality for a fixed size of Parliament. That would mean no balancing seats. It's a matter of perspective and priority. Coming from a country with no proportionality, this would already be a huge leap forward, and I am not sure the absolute 100% proportionality trumps all other concerns. – Paul Tison Apr 28 at 12:07
  • @PaulTison The German system is by no means the only method(s) for implementing a mixed member proportional voting system. For example the Welsh and Scottish regional assemblies in the UK have a fixed size. But that is getting rid of the overhang/balance seats, not the list ones. – origimbo Apr 29 at 9:49
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There are two common electoral systems which are proportional representation and plurality voting.

  • Proportional representation:
    • It gives a voice to regionally diverse groups. If ten or twenty percent of the voters support a party nationwide, with no regional concentration, that party gets ten or twenty percent of the seats (after rounding) even if they do not reach a plurality in any one district.
    • It makes it easier for new parties to form. A new party can organize themselves, try to get a couple of percent, and send representatives to parliament who have a voice. The Grüne and the AfD did that, the Piraten failed after some state election successes. This would have been much harder if their votes had been discounted until they reach a plurality in any one district.
    • It helps to encourage coalition governments which represent a broad consensus. For decades before Reunification, it was the FDP with either the SPD or the Union. This kept the socialist tendencies in the SPD and the authoritarian tendencies in the Union in check. This is retained in the German system.
  • Plurality voting:
    • It helps to create clear majorities. While it is not universal, it tends to encourage two-party systems, with the "coalition talks" being done before the election when the candidate and party platform is determined. After that, one or the other side wins. This is lost in the German system.
    • Plurality voting gives each district a clear representative. People can call "their" MdB with any complaints they have.

Germany wants all the advantages of proportional representation and still keep some of the advantages of plurality voting. This leads to the current system, which used to work nicely as long as there were two large parties and a couple of smaller ones.

To make this happen, they could do away with the seats "reserved" for party lists, but that would result in a wildy fluctuating size of the parliament. That can be a problem if they want to staff not just a budget subcommittee and one on taxes but also fisheries and culture. Right now the size is also fluctuating, but only upwards and not downwards.


Follow-up with some numbers:

In the last Federal election the CDU/CSU got 32.9 percent of the proportional vote, but 77.3 percent of the district pluralities.

If there had been 500 districts and none reserved for the proportional representatives, the Bundestag would have to be increased to 1,175 members to reach the desired proportion. A more than twofold increase.

With 299 districts and 299 seats reserved list distribution, the overhang added a bit over 100, which is less than a 20% increase.

  • Not a bad answer but it could be helpful to explain which benefits of plurality voting the system retains (i.e. your fifth bullet but certainly not the third one) and mention the 5% threshold (which neuters the new-party advantage of true PR as practiced in most other European countries ; AFAIK only Turkey is more restrictive than Germany in this respect). – Relaxed Apr 28 at 11:59
  • Incidentally, the size of the Bundestag can, in fact, fluctuate downwards, cf. Nachrücker-Urteil. – Relaxed Apr 28 at 12:04
  • @Relaxed, I've edited with some numbers. I'm worried about siginifcant fluctuations, not a seat here or here. – o.m. Apr 28 at 12:11
  • Yes, that's why I wrote "incidentally", it's not a major flaw in your answer. But it's not insignificant that the complexity of the system creates all these little quirks. – Relaxed Apr 28 at 12:13
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It helps to look at the German voting system by considering German history rather than comparing it directly to other modern systems like the English first past the post.

In the second empire of 1871, elections to the Reichstag indeed followed the majority vote system; however, a candidate required a 50 % share of the votes to be elected and if nobody reached that in the first round a runoff was held. Throughout the second empire, there were calls to introduce a proportional vote but that was never implemented.

In the Weimar Republic from 1919, a proportional vote was instead introduced. In the interest of brevity I will merely describe it as follows: the number of votes a party achieved divided by 60,000 and rounded according to standard rules pretty much equalled the number of seats the party would get. (There were restrictions that resulted in the USPD not gaining a single seat from its 235,145 votes in 1924 but these would be too much for this question.)

After the war, the constitutional convent of the western occupied zones decided to, in principle, stick to proportional representation but with a fixed-size parliament rather than a varying-size one as in the Weimar era. Thus, in principle only the national vote share determines how many seats of the currently 598 a party receives. To ensure regional representation and distribution across the states (federalism), the national vote share is broken down to a state vote share and the seats are actually filled on a state level.

However, representation at state level does not ensure representation of all parts of the country in parliament—a feature automatically implemented in the British system where each MP directly represents exactly one certain bit of land, all of which together add up to the UK (ignoring Sinn Fein and the likes). Thus, it was decided to make a certain part of the seats directly elected ones with voting districts. While voting districts are still much larger than their UK counterparts (but smaller than their US counterparts) each part of the country has exactly one locally elected MdB (Mitglied des Bundestages, member of the Bundestag) that e.g. local businesses or citizens can address with any issues they have.

Thus, in a nutshell the full chain of thoughts is:

  • 598 seats in parliament for proportional representation
    • 299 of which are designated for regional representation in a first past the post system.

It might be worth mentioning that the overhang seats in the current system only exist because a strictly proportional representation (as is desired) cannot be achieved with directly elected candidates only. There will always have to be some seats filled by some other mechanism. How to achieve this is a political discussion, the current system is Germany’s current answer.

  • Not sure I see how the history connects to anything else. The explanation of overhang mandates also seems slightly wrong, as is often the case. – Relaxed May 2 at 16:11

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