EXPLAINED: How to cast a postal vote in the German elections

The list of eligible voters in the German elections was finalised on Sunday, meaning postal ballots could start to be sent out on Monday. Here's how to cast an absentee ballot in the September elections.

EXPLAINED: How to cast a postal vote in the German elections
Electoral assistants count postal votes in Magdeburg at the regional elections on June 6th, 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hendrik Schmidt

In the past, German voters needed a specific reason – such as being out of the country – to vote by post, and postal voting rates have historically been low. Though the rules on postal voting were relaxed in 2013, only 29 percent of eligible voters cast an absentee ballot in the 2017 elections.

However, in light of the rising infection rates and ongoing Covid pandemic, the number of postal votes could rise significantly in 2021. If you’re thinking of casting your ballot at the nearest post box rather than a polling station, here’s what you need to know beforehand.

Who can vote by absentee ballot?

In principle, all eligible voters, “without the existence of a special reason,” can vote by post. In 2013, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled in favour of a new law to allow all eligible voters to cast an absentee ballot. 

According to the court’s judgement, allowing postal voting serves the goal of achieving the broadest possible voter participation and therefore complies with the principle of universal voting rights that is set out in the Basic Law. 

In order to vote in the Bundestagswahl (the federal elections on September 26th), you must be over-18 and hold German citizenship. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Who can vote in German elections

How do you get the documents?

Whatever you do, don’t try to apply for them at the Federal Election Commissioner’s office.

Instead, you can obtain the documents from the local authority at the address where you’re registered. A form for applying for the ballot paper you need will be enclosed with the so-called ‘election notification’, which should reach eligible voters by the beginning of September.

If you’re itching to cast your vote as soon as possible, however, you don’t have to wait for it. The Federal Election Commissioner advises people to apply for a ballot paper “as early as possible” – and by 6pm on Friday, September 17th, at the very latest. You can do this by emailing your local Bezirksamt with your name, date of birth and address.

What do you have to keep in mind when filling out the form?

When you get your election notification, you should receive a ballot paper, your ballot, an information sheet and two ballot envelopes: one in blue, and one in red. 

The information sheet explains how absentee voting works.

Make sure you sign and date your ballot after writing down your first and second preferences, or your vote may not be counted. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Willnow

In short, you’ll need to mark your first- and second-choice votes on the ballot paper in private. Fold the slip, put it in the blue envelope and seal it. Date and sign the ballot paper. Put the blue envelope plus the ballot paper in the red envelope, seal it and put it in the mailbox without a postage stamp – or take it to the place indicated on the envelope.

READ ALSO: How Germany’s new legion of foreign voters are gearing up for the election

Can I be sure that my vote will be received?

Yes, the red colour of the envelopes is designed to make them easily identifiable as postal ballots.

According to the Federal Election Commissioner, Deutsche Post has given a guarantee that ballot papers that are posted the day before the election will be delivered on the Sunday of the election. If it’s not possible to post the red envelope in time, it can be handed in on election day at the location indicated on the envelope.

Do postal votes have a higher chance of being discounted in the election?

Definitely not. In fact, in the last federal election, 0.9 percent of first votes cast by mail were invalid – compared with 1.4 percent of those cast on election day. Of the second votes, the figure was as low as 0.5 percent (by mail) compared with 1.2 (by ballot box).

How many people vote by absentee ballot in the first place?

Since 1957, the proportion of absentee voters has risen from just under five percent to almost 29 percent in 2017. As mentioned above, this figure is set to rise yet again this year due to the ongoing pandemic.

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How the Greens want to replace Germany’s €9 ticket deal

New proposals drafted by the Green Party have set out plans for two new cheap travel tickets in Germany as well as a shake-up of the country's travel zones. Here's what you need to know.

How the Greens want to replace Germany's €9 ticket deal

What’s going on?

Germany’s €9 travel deal has been hugely popular this summer, with an estimated 30 million or so passengers taking advantage of the offer in June alone. Now the last month of the three-month offer is underway, there are hopes that the ticket could be replaced by another deal that offers simple, affordable travel on a regional or national basis.

There have been a few ideas for this floating around, including a €365 annual ticket and a €69 monthly ticket pitched by German transport operators. Now the Green Party has weighed in with a concept paper setting out plans for two separate travel tickets to replace the €9 ticket. The paper was obtained by ARD Hauptstadtstudio on Friday. 

Why do they want two different tickets?

The first ticket would be a regional one costing just €29 a month and the second would be a €49 that, much like the €9 ticket, would be valid for the whole of Germany.

This would allow people who mainly stay in their local region to opt for the most cost-effective option while long-distance commuters or those who want to travel further afield could opt for the nationwide offer.

Presumably the ticket would once again be valid for local and regional transport only rather than long-distance trains like the ICE. 

To simplify the system even more, the Greens also want to introduce new travel zones for the regional monthly tickets.

READ ALSO: Has Germany’s €9 rail ticket been a success?

How would the travel zones change?

According to the paper, Germany would be divided into eight regional zones that would include the Berlin-Brandenburg area, the eastern German states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt and the northern states of Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. 

The zones take passengers “statewide at a minimum”, the paper says, for example in the larger states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and North-Rhine Westphalia.

However, as the map below shows, states will also be clustered together to make larger regions.

One of the major draws of the €9 ticket has been the flat-rate system that allows passengers to travel anywhere in the country using the same ticket. This appears to be what the Greens are trying to replicate with their proposals. 

READ ALSO: What happens to Germany’s €9 ticket at the end of August?

How would this be financed? 

As you might expect, the Green Party is placing less eco-friendly forms of transport in the crosshairs as it looks for cash to fund the cheap tickets.

The first way to free up cash would be to end tax breaks for people with company cars. In addition, taxes on CO2 emissions would be increased. 

This would result in “additional revenues for the federal government and the states, which could flow seamlessly into the financing of cheap tickets”, the paper states. 

However, the Greens don’t set out how much money they think this would bring in or how much the discounted tickets would cost the state in total. 

Is this definitely going to happen?

At the moment, it seems that the Greens are the main voices in the coalition government pushing for a longer term travel deal – and they continue to face opposition from the pro-business FDP.

Unfortunately for the Green Party, the FDP happen to be heading up two crucial ministries that could both play a role in blocking a future offer: the Finance Ministry and the Transport Ministry. 

However, with four out of five people saying they want to see a successor to the €9 ticket in autumn, Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) is currently under pressure to come up with a replacement as soon as possible. 

A passenger sits on the platform a Berlin Hauptbahnhof

A passenger sits on the platform a Berlin Hauptbahnhof waiting for a train. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Joerg Carstensen

At a press conference a few weeks ago, he promised to discuss this with the state transport ministers after analysing how successful the ticket had been.

In particular, researchers will want to look at how many people ended up leaving the car at home and taking the bus or train instead.

Though the data on this is inconclusive at the moment, some studies have shown reduced congestion on the roads while the ticket was running.

In a survey of The Local’s readers conducted last month, 80 percent of respondents said they had used public transport more with the €9 ticket and 85 percent said they wanted to see a similar deal continue in the autumn.

Of the options on the table so far, a monthly €29 ticket was by far the most popular choice.

READ ALSO: ‘Affordable and simple’: What foreigners in Germany want to see after the €9 ticket