Could the agony of electoral reform go on and on and on after all? without ever ending? In the meantime, it is to be feared that the Bundestag’s new electoral law commission will not come to a cross-party solution on how to prevent the Bundestag from ever growing to new sizes. It is possible to decide on a new right to vote with a simple majority. But that would be bad for the legitimacy of a reform model.

A proposal came out of the traffic light groups last week. By capping – or not allocating – direct mandates, overhangs are avoided and thus compensation mandates as well. The Bundestag would have 598 seats permanently, i.e. the “normal size”. That in itself is good and correct. But there are more or less well-founded constitutional and electoral doubts about the proposal.

Friedrich Merz made a counter-proposal on behalf of his CDU/CSU parliamentary group. However, the trench system he brought up again – half direct mandates by majority vote, half list mandates by proportional representation, but without offsetting – is questionable. Only the Union has sympathy for it in Germany. And that’s the end of it. There is no majority for this in the Bundestag. After all, this electoral system also guarantees a permanent Bundestag size of 598 seats. Seen in this way, traffic lights and the coalition have agreed on a common point.

What stands in the way of a solution on this basis, but what the Union clings to with a strange attachment, is majority voting. In the current version of personalized proportional representation, majority voting and the proportional representation system are combined in such a way that the constituency winners determined via the first votes always receive a direct mandate, which is why there can be overhangs that disrupt the proportional representation determined via proportional representation (second votes). The core problem is therefore the main feature of majority voting, namely the direct mandate guarantee.

And this problem arises from the connection between the party system and the electoral system. Both influence each other. According to the wording of the Federal Constitutional Court, the electoral law that has been in force since 1949 is based on proportional representation. Their priority meant that the party system was also able to develop according to the rules of a proportional representation system. In the long phase of the party system dominated by the Union and SPD, i.e. between the mid-1950s and the 1980s, the model worked well because the party system was similar to that in a country with majority voting – majority rule usually concentrates the number of parties, and mostly dominate two.

But then the Greens emerged alongside the FDP, then the PDS/Left Party, and later the AfD. The Union and SPD remained the strong forces, but now with second vote results, which are not usual in majority voting systems for the winners. You have to achieve more than 40 percent to really be ahead in terms of mandates. In the 2021 federal election, the SPD got 25.7 percent, the Union 24.1 percent.

A system with a majority rule only works to a limited extent, and the result is the giant Bundestag. The new traffic light model attempts a stronger subordination of one principle to the other, but fails because majority elections continue to be held in constituencies. And one of their principles is the direct mandate guarantee. The Federal Constitutional Court recently again demanded that an electoral system must be understandable and characterized by clear norms. Anyone who circumvents the core rule of an electoral system may collide with this requirement.

It would now be obvious to do without the majority voting component in personalized proportional representation. One would then end up with list systems. But personalization is also possible in these, i.e. the allocation of votes to certain applicants. This can be done, for example, via open lists in which individual candidates can be ticked. Or you take into account the results of first votes if you want to continue having elections in constituencies. This is then done by creating lists based on the ranking of first votes, which was used in the earlier electoral law of Baden-Württemberg. In this case there are a few variants.

Overturning majority rule entirely could have a liberating effect. But the parties shy away from cutting out this stubborn part of the electoral law. One reason may be that the pure proportional representation with lists in Germany still bears some of the responsibility for the failure of the Weimar Republic. This cannot be completely dismissed, but the far greater deficit of the Weimar democracy was the lack of willingness to cooperate on the part of the parties in the parliaments. We no longer have that problem today. The coalition ability is large across the board. The old adage that majority voting per se makes a democracy more stable because it concentrates the number of parties is no longer so convincing today.

This has an impact on the character of parties. Look at Great Britain, the classic country of majority voting. The British Conservatives are not a homogeneous party – at least three currents can be identified: the moderate People’s Party Tories, the quite radical market liberals and the nationalists and EU opponents, some of whom are far right. The CDU and CSU would be different parties in a majority voting system. Labor in Britain is made up of two main groups – the centre-leaning Social Democrats and the left-leaning Socialists. In Germany, left-of-center forces are divided between three parties.

Majority elections lead to political disputes being carried out more within parties. Proportional representation, on the other hand, means that political disputes can be fought between parties. The latter is better for a democracy that thrives on transparency.