EXPLAINED: Why Germany’s post-election forecast may not reflect the final result

EXPLAINED: Why Germany's post-election forecast may not reflect the final result
Voting is underway at the German federal election on September 26th, 2021. (Photo by THOMAS KIENZLE / AFP)
As Germany goes to the polls on Sunday in an unpredictable race to vote in a new chancellor to succeed Angela Merkel, we look at why there might be a greater disparity between the forecasts and projected results this year and unpack the vote-counting process.

This year there are 60.4 million people who are eligible to vote in Sunday’s federal election to elect a new Bundestag parliament and, ultimately, a new chancellor. Some have already voted by post, but the remainder will make their choice at one of the 60,000 polling stations around the country.

Recent polls put the Social Democrat (SPD) candidate Olaf Scholz in the lead, a tiny margin ahead of Merkel-backed conservative alliance (CDU-CSU) candidate Armin Laschet, with the Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock taking third position.

How does the election forecast work?
It is based on anonymised exit polls – the voter’s gender and age is recorded – carried out at polling stations on Sunday and is published by opinion research institutes.

When can we expect it?
It’s the first hint of the results to come and is usually published when polling stations close at 6pm.

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What about the first projections then?
These are usually worked out 20 to 30 minutes after the forecast. The first projection is available within an hour of polling stations closing and the results are updated on a rolling basis.

And what are these based on?
Projections are worked out from the actual number of votes cast in the election. The intermediate counts from representative polling stations across the country are extrapolated. As more votes are counted, the reliability of the projections increases. It’s important to note, though, that they don’t represent a final result.

So why might there be a greater difference between the two this year?
It’s all down to the higher-than-usual number of postal votes, which obviously won’t be taken into account by the polling station surveys carried out on the day.

With rising infection rates, the Covid-19 pandemic is thought to have played a big part in many voters’ decisions to vote by post, with around 40 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots in absentia this year – including Merkel herself.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Who’s voting in the 2021 German federal election?

The 2017 election saw just 28.6 percent of voters use a postal vote.

When does the vote count start and how long does it take?
Votes can only be counted once the polling stations have closed, i.e. after 6pm. The count may go on until 8pm or even longer as there’s a state election in Berlin and a referendum in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. 

Does this apply to postal votes too?
It does. The postal voting board checks the red envelopes from 3pm on Sunday and, providing the ballot paper has been signed and the inner blue envelope hasn’t been damaged, the blue envelope is popped into a ballot box to be counted after 6pm.

When might we see the preliminary official final result?
When all polling stations have forwarded the counting results to their constituency, they are sent to the Federal Returning Officer. Once they have the results of all 299 constituencies the officer can announce the preliminary official final result. This is usually overnight or the next morning. 

In the 2017 Bundestag election, the preliminary official final result was available at 5.25am, at 3.15am in 2013 and at 3.35am in the 2009 election. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany’s complex electoral system works

What has to happen before we get the final official result?
Quite a lot! Polling station counts are re-checked and each electoral committee has to document the counts using a specific form. This record has to be signed by all the members of the electoral committee.

Then it’s the district electoral commissions’ job to check whether these written records have been completed properly and in full. They add up the votes from the polling stations in their constituency and prepare a new report for the State Returning Officer (Landeswahlleitung).

This officer also checks the reports and prepares one of their own on the count. These are all sent to the Federal Returning Officer (Bundeswahlleiter). The official final results will be announced on the basis of the reports – which the Federal Returning Officer also checks – from the 16 states.

So when should we get the final result?
Because of the complicated, multi-layered verification process, it’s usually a few days before the official final result is announced. 

In the 2013 and 2017 federal elections, the final official results were not published until two weeks after the election, but the proportion of votes in the preliminary and final official votes was identical.

The process can’t take too long, either: the German Bundestag meets for the first constituent session of the new parliamentary term no later than 30 days after the election.


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