The roots of the current American electoral system date back to the days of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Undoubtedly, many things have changed over the last 221 years and I would like to pose the question: Are major reforms of the national election system sensible and overdue? The way that America conducts its elections is very different from that of many other countries in the Western world. Comparing the American system to other strong democracies, such as Germany, unveils a number of fundamental — and very interesting — differences in the representation of candidates, the party system and general voting procedures themselves.
First of all, the German electoral system stresses the principle that all power comes from the electorate. A direct voting system determines the composition of the state parliaments (Landtag) and the national parliament (Bundestag) according to proportional representation. Germans do not vote for single candidates and electors, but cast their vote for one of the many parties including, for example, Conservatives, Social Democrats, the Green Party or the Liberals.
With two distinct votes per person, every voter has direct influence on firstly, the representation within his electoral district and secondly, the percentage-wise representation of seats in the Bundestag by the various parties. As long as a party receives a minimum of 5 percent of all voters’ votes, it is eligible for proportional representation within the national parliament. Currently there are five parties represented in parliament. The chancellor position, currently held by Angela Merkel, is appointed by the Bundestag. To achieve absolute majorities in Bundestag decisions, parties form coalitions cooperating with another party to work towards common goals.
The decisions about which candidates will be eligible to get a seat in the Bundestag are based on a ranking list established by majority votes within each party in every state.
The emphasis on the proportional representation of parties allows for a far more accurate depiction of and a greater diversity of choices for the electorate. This would be particularly valuable in this election where such a great number of important issues are at stake — namely the healthcare system, the Iraq war, energy security and the current economic situation. The fact that even minorities have a chance to have a say in government, in contrast to a “winner-takes-all” mentality, gives every voter’s voice an impact and does not completely disregard votes cast for the party that did not achieve the majority in one’s electoral district.
Another advantage of voting for a party instead of specific candidates is the fact that you make a statement about the general political course of action you would like to see; you support the political philosophy and aims of the party. In contrast to individuals whose ideologies and interests might evolve or be influenced, the party will pursue the same basic goals throughout its legislative period.
It also makes it unnecessary for politicians to waste their energy, time and money on election campaigns boosting up their individual popularity in emotionally charged election debates. In the entire campaign process, American politicians run the danger of making themselves dependent on donations from powerful industrialists, of becoming vulnerable to committing to personal favors and being corrupted by intensive lobbying. In Germany, parties are mainly financed from taxpayer money (dependent on their parliamentary representation) and from membership fees.
With a voter participation rate of 77.7 percent in the last German national election, in contrast to 43.6 percent in the last U.S. presidential election, the German citizens seem to be proud to actively participate in politics and to see their input being recognized and realized. Perhaps a “fairer” representation of everyone’s interests within US politics could also boost American political activity? Wouldn’t it be nice to truly believe that your vote really mattered — each and every time you left the ballot booth?