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Rigged to work

Anne Peters /aiSeptember 21, 2013

The voting process in Germany is strictly regulated to rule out any possible election fraud. Even electronic voting machines, which could malfunction, have been banned by the country's Constitutional Court.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"Germany's election process is quite transparent," said Klaus Pötzsch of the electoral committee responsible for the organization and running of any federal or EU election in Germany. The committee is trying to make sure that nothing goes wrong. "For instance you could look at the situation in the polling stations. In each station we have eight to nine volunteers helping out."

Around 630,000 such volunteers will be at polling places for the federal elections on Sunday. Anyone 18 or older can volunteer, but local authorities might also recruit you to help - and you can only turn down their request if you have a very convincing reason.

Before polling stations open, the volunteers will check to ensure ballot boxes are indeed empty. During the election they'll make sure that everybody has an ID with them and can show the documents every citizen receives by mail proving that they are eligible to vote.

Voting booths (photo: Stefan Thomas)
Germany says no to computers, worried they'd make the system vulnerable to fraudImage: picture-alliance/dpa

From polling station to electoral committee

The volunteers also take care that voters won't be influenced. If, for instance, members of one of the political parties were to try to campaign inside the polling stations, they'd have to be stopped.

The volunteers themselves also have to be impartial on election day - which doesn't mean they can't be members of a party. In fact, an intentional mix of volunteers from different political parties is often preferred in order to guarantee the impartiality of the team as a whole.

At 6 p.m. sharp, the polling stations close and the votes are counted according to a rigid system. "The result then will be passed on from the polling station to the local election authorities who will in turn pass it on to the next level until all the results trickle in at the federal electoral committee."

Problems with postal vote

This transparency is supposed to protect the election against fraud. Usually, it's something that works fine, though Pötzsch said he cannot rule out that there couldn't be small isolated instances where things don't work the way they should.

Manipulation of absentee ballots, which are growing in popularity among Germans, could be easier than election fraud at the ballot box. In cities, as many as 30 percent of voters prefer to cast the ballot by mail rather than heading down to the polling places in person.

Klaus Pötzsch
"Transparency is key," explains Klaus PötzschImage: Destatis

A care-taker in an elderly home might be doing the voting for one of his patients, a husband or wife might tick the box for their spouse. In 2002, local elections in Dachau were rigged when more than 400 postal votes had been manipulated. The fraud only came to light because the 400 ballots had been filled out with the exact same ballpoint pen.

Voting machines unconstitutional

Germany has in the past used voting machines, as is done in the United States and Brazil. But in 2009, the country's highest court has banned computers from the voting process on the grounds that the process had to be public. The same goes for counting the votes: "Every single vote has to be read out loudly and noted in a public protocol. Transparency is key," said Pötzsch.

"Public" here means that anyone can attend the counting process. And should there be doubts about the results from a certain polling station, it has to be possible to recount the votes. This was, according to the court's ruling - not possible when voting machines were used.