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Berlin gears up to repeat botched election

Ben Knight in Berlin
February 12, 2023

The unprecedented fiasco of Berlin's September 2021 election caused international headlines. Now the German capital is preparing to repeat the vote, with authorities doing all they can to repair broken trust.

A Berlin ballot
Berlin goes to the polls for an unprecedented repeat election on February 12Image: Jens Kalaene/dpa/picture alliance

Berlin goes to the polls for an unprecedented repeat election on Sunday, with what many think is the credibility of Germany's democratic institutions on the line.

Authorities in the German capital have been under extra scrutiny since last November, when the state's Constitutional Court annulled the state and municipal elections held on September 26, 2021, and handed down a damning verdict on a badly mishandled election day: Delays forced people to stand in line for many hours, as some ballot stations ran out of ballot papers and hastily photocopied more, other ballots had the wrong candidates listed on them, some stations had to close temporarily, while others remained open longer than they should have — making it possible to vote even after first results had been published. Meanwhile, the Berlin Marathon — held on the same day — hampered attempts to resupply them.

Berlin election rerun: Voters head to polls to fix 2021 fiasco

Altogether, the court concluded, votes for around 60% of the seats in Berlin's state parliament were affected by the problems. Although no wrongdoing was alleged, it was, as many politicians have admitted since, deeply embarrassing. Never before has an election in Germany been botched so badly that it would have to be repeated.

Nor are all the legal issues resolved: The federal Constitutional Court last week dismissed a bid to stop Sunday's election repeat, but it also deferred making a final decision — opening the possibility that this new election could also be annulled.

And there is still a question dangling over the results of the federal election, which took place on the same day. The federal parliament, the Bundestag, decided last year that the election would have to be repeated in 431 of Berlin's 2,256 polling stations. But it's unclear when that will happen, since the decision is subject to yet another appeal in the federal Constitutional Court.

Politically, the election fiasco is proving particularly disastrous for Berlin's Social Democrat Mayor Franziska Giffey, who now finds herself trailing in the polls behind the candidate for the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Kai Wegner.

Franziska Giffey, a middle-aged woman in a dark suit, looking uneasy
Mayor Franziska Giffey is hoping to be able to stay in officeImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

More time in the voting booth

Berlin's election organizers have a tight schedule to stick to. The court set a 90-day deadline for the new election, which is a challenge. "Normally we'd have a year to organize an election," said Stephan Bröchler, the man shouldering the pressure. Bröchler, a professor of political administration who became Berlin's new election director last October, spent nine months on the commission investigating the original election disasters.

"It sounds banal, but one of my first jobs was to make sure we had enough paper so that we can print the ballots," he told DW. "And we've increased the number of voting booths. There will be at least three voting booths at each polling station; in 2021 it was two."

Bröchler said that this time, they're planning for four minutes in the voting booth for each voter, a minute more than in 2021. This might prove to be crucial, since one of the reasons for the long lines on the last election day was the fact that many voters were taking more than five minutes to sift through the various ballots. "That was a big problem," said Bröchler.

Stephan Bröchler holding up a ballot paper
Stephan Bröchler, a professor of political administration and Berlin's new election director, is confident that things will go smoothly on SundayImage: Jörg Carstensen/dpa/picture alliance

German authorities often schedule elections for several levels of government on the same day, partly to boost turnout. On September 26, 2021, four separate votes took place in Berlin: the federal election, the state election, municipal elections and a referendum on expropriating major housing companies.

That meant voters were handed no fewer than six ballot papers, as two of those votes — the federal and state election — comprise a mixed electoral system (one vote for the direct candidate and one for the overall party). Luckily for Bröchler, the court decided that only two of the votes had to be repeated (for now) — the state and the municipal elections — meaning voters will only have to rifle through three ballot papers on Sunday.

Big spending to ensure smooth election

Marie Jünemann, of the NGO Mehr Demokratie ("More Democracy"), welcomed Bröchler's appointment and his work in the last few months. "For us, the much bigger question is why no one is taking political responsibility," said Jünemann. "Of course, the previous election director stepped down, but there were no consequences for those in political responsibility at the time, such as in the Interior Ministry."

Bröchler should, at least, have enough resources this time round. Mayor Franziska Giffey has issued a special €39 million ($42.5 million) fund to ensure a hitch-free election on Sunday. Some of this money has been spent to recruit a small army of volunteers to ensure that each ballot station is properly staffed. Instead of between seven and nine volunteers per station, there will be up to 14.

These volunteers have been tasked with checking voter IDs and registration, handing out ballots and making sure the votes are placed in sealed envelopes in a sealed box. That box is only opened at 6 p.m., after polling has ended, and then manually counted by a team of volunteers inside the polling station.

The city is also stumping up more cash to encourage these volunteers: Instead of €60 ($64) for the day's work as was previously offered, they are to be paid €240, plus an extra €25 if they attend a training seminar. "I mentioned it to my students at the university and they all signed up straight away!" said Bröchler.

More hiccups lead to 'maximum transparency'

Despite the extra preparation, there have already been several organizational snafus ahead of the repeat vote. 

An informational flyer printed in early January had the wrong election date on it. A couple weeks later, when 49 people applied for postal votes, they received two sets of ballot papers. And in the district of Neukölln, an ineligible candidate for the Free Democrats, who had left the city since 2021, was included on 1,700 postal ballots papers.

"We had over 4,000 names of candidates to check, and after the 18 hours that the people here were working, that annoying mistake happened," said Bröchler.

The election director has made a point of being open about these issues. "I've been going public more and more," he said. "To explain what we're doing, why we take which decisions, and to proactively explain where mistakes have happened."

Jünemann said Bröchler's handling of these mistakes has given her some confidence. "He's betting on maximum transparency — that's good," she said.

One of Bröchler's most headline-catching decisions was to invite international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to check on his work so far, and decide whether a team should be sent to Berlin on election day. "So much went wrong in the '21 election, and so much trust was lost, I thought it would be good to bring in an additional quality control," said Bröchler.

After a three-day visit, the OSCE released a short report concluding that it had a "high level of confidence" in the Berlin authorities and had decided not to send observers on February 12. "That was disappointing for us," said Jünemann. "I think an observation would've helped to really disperse all doubts."

Bröchler, however, has promised that observers from the European Council would come to Berlin on election day. Eliminating public doubt has become as important as making sure the election runs smoothly. At least this time, there will be no international marathon in the way.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight