To vote or not to vote

” I can´t come on Saturday morning”, I said to Francesca. “I have to wait till the election material arrives.” “Which election?” she asked.

She can´t vote. I can. Or must. Having to vote sometimes isn´t easy, as the options often aren´t really attractive. This time, they are especially unattractive, because we voted for the Minsterpräsident of Hessen 12 month ago and then the elected party couldn´t form the government because of  internal conflicts. Therefore, on Sunday, once again, we are called to the ballot box.

This call is strong. Not exactly a siren´s song, though. More and more Germans resist the urge to vote. Voters participation is decreasing, from an average 80 to 90 percent till reunification  to 60 to 80 percent today. The non-voters are on the rise.

Sometimes I would like to be a non-voter, too.

I can´t.

Every time I start to think: “Why should I vote on Sunday?  I can´t make up my mind Wer das kleinere Übel ist – who is the best out of a bunch of no-goods”, my conscience strikes back. Or is it a Pawlow´s reflex, started by the white postcard Wahlbenachrichtigung I find in my postbox six weeks before an election? It tells me that the next election is coming soon and that I should prepare myself to go on Sunday the Xth to our neighborhood school to vote. The card looks very “amtlich” and doesn´t say what to do if you can´t make up your mind. It only tells you what to do when you aren´t in town: to get the forms for a vote-per-mail system.

What  I usually do with my Wahlbenachrichtigung is to lose it. If I want to, I can be impressively unorganized. But it doesn´t help. I get this Wahlbenachrichtigung  because everybody in Germany is registered in the community he lives in. First thing you do when you move in Germany is to go to the Rathaus (city hall) and tell them you are now living in their town. The new adress is registered on the identity card you always have to carry with you. Before each election, a list is made of who lives in town and who is older than 18. Everybody on this list is entitled to vote and gets a Wahlbenachrichtigung. Unfortunately for me, a copy of this list is kept at the polling station as well. Therefore, I just have to go there, show my identity card, and an election helper checks if I´m on the list. If I am, I can vote.

It took me about twenty years till I realized that I – in theory – have the option to non-vote, too. The way I grew up, voting was one of the things you just do, a morale imperative, like brushing the teeth in the morning, never to be questioned. Of course, I learnt at school the history of our voting system, its complex structures of proportional majorities, and its role as a foundation of democracy. Alas, action doesn´t necessarily follow knowledge. What gets me into the polling place every election Sunday is the habit of doing it.

It started with social control. In the little village I grew up, the election helpers knew the list of voters by heart. Not to show up on election day would have been embarassing. Later, I wanted to vote, because I wanted to take part in important decisions. Today, I doubt that my taking part is important, but: “You never know”.

I would succed in non-voting more easily if the way to voting wouldn´t be so smooth. The government makes it really easy for every German to follow his conscience and to fulfill his Bürgerpflicht, his duty as a citizen. The polling takes place in local schools nearby. Election day always is a Sunday, when most people don´t have to work. On this day, voting places stay open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. As there is one station to every 1000 prospective voters, there aren´t any lines you have to wait in.

The whole process runs exclusively on manpower. No computer or any other kind of maschine is employed in the election process. To help in an election is one of very few things in Germany you can´t say “No” to when asked.Though, in general, no citizen has to be forced, because the political parties are eager to help. They send their members to make sure that the other parties don´t play dirty. Thus, a very effective system of check and balances guarantees the correct counting of every vote.

This year, I actively took  part in the process, too–if  sitting on the sofa and waiting for the man from the Wahlamt to to deliver the election material classifies as actively taking part. My spouse is one of the volunteers responsible to manage a polling station (another reason I have to vote). Therefore, election day in our family started this Saturday morning with the doorbell ringing.

When I opened the door, I couldn´t believe my eyes. I knew I would be handed important documents, state documents, the basic tools of our democracy. I expected at least two bodyguards and a steel casette, plombed and sealed. Instead, I opened the door, faced a frail middleaged women, and was handed  a grey cardbord box. This box, I placed on the kitchen table and looked at it in disbelieve. The sides were stapled together. Pack-thread closed the lid. No red seal or lead plomb secured the content. This box must have been designed for the first general election in 1919 and been in use ever since.

“Anybody can open the box and manipulate the material”, I exclaimed when my spouse came home.  

“What do you want to manipulate the material for?” My spouse has been trained in polling-station-management before Christmas. “Fill in the crosses beforehand? Then you still have to smuggle the forms into the ballot box. This is nearly impossible as there must be at least three people in the polling place at any time. Even if you succeeded, the manipulation would be detected when the votes were counted and checked against the number of people who showed up for voting”. 

In fact, a recent court decision stated that the old fashioned way of counting by hand, publicly, the process controlled by the citizens, the members of rivalling parties and in a second counting by civil servants, offered much more security than any computerized process could.

What a pity. If I could send my vote from my iPhone, I would enjoy voting much more.

But this is another story.




Filed under World

2 responses to “To vote or not to vote

  1. That’s a very neat story! I really like the “by hand” methodology that is employed. As much as I enjoy computers I am appalled by the privatization of our Voting Computers. If the people cannot see the software that is controlling how we vote we cannot know that our votes are being counted correctly.

    Even if you could vote via iPhone I think that having a real ballot in your hands gives you the feeling that you are making a difference and doing your civic duty in voting. Thanks again for the wonderful peak into the life of a German!

  2. You are right. I realized this when I watched my 8 year old son. He was present when the votes were counted. The next evening, I found him reading the newspaper–for the first time ever. He wanted to know the overall election results and compared them to what had happened in “his” polling place. He is hooked and can´t wait till he is old enough to vote.


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