German court annuls Berlin election results after failures in sections


The Constitutional Court in Berlin ruled on Wednesday (16) that the German capital must hold its local elections again next year. Due to chaos at hundreds of polling stations in the city last September, the court decided to make the vote invalid. Now, the election will have to be repeated within 90 days.

Chief Justice Ludgera Selting said the decision had to be taken due to the “frequency and severity” of the misdeeds committed, which were so widespread that they may have altered the outcome of the election. Selting also spoke of “serious systemic flaws” in the organization.

Wilko Zicht, who chairs the non-profit electoral organization Wahlrecht, said the court’s decision was correct. “Democracy is based on the fact that the results are accepted, and that is only possible if you can trust the results,” he told DW. “And those mistakes couldn’t have been corrected any other way.” He further argues that it would not have been fair if the election was repeated only in the sections where problems were reported.

Zicht also believes that Wednesday’s decision should strengthen – rather than weaken – confidence in democratic institutions. “I think the danger would have been greater if the verdict had been different,” he commented. “So you really could have argued: even if something clearly went wrong, how could they just move on and not repeat the election?”

widespread electoral chaos

Berlin held four ballots on September 26, 2021: the federal, state and district elections, as well as a referendum on the expropriation of large real estate companies. While there were no allegations of fraud, the logistical challenges clearly proved too great for many polling stations: there were widespread reports of delays and irregularities that violated election law.

Some ballots ran out, others showed the wrong candidates or were hastily photocopied, while some polling stations had to be closed during the day or remained open longer than they should have been. There were reports of pollsters allowing in voters who only wanted to vote in federal elections.

The fact that Berlin also hosted its international marathon on the same day, making access to some sections difficult, exacerbated the chaos. As a result, Berlin’s top election official resigned a few days after the election. But the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), now in opposition, demanded that Berlin’s then interior secretary, Andreas Geisel, also resign – even after he had gone to another department.

That would be a step too far, Zicht said. “There is a good reason for the Home Secretary not to organize elections,” he said. “I can’t see that any mistake was made because of his decision. Organizing an election is not witchcraft as other states manage to do it very well.”

This Wednesday’s verdict does not affect the federal election won by Olaf Scholz: as only the German parliament, the Bundestag, has authority over national elections, the decision of the Berlin court was limited to state and district elections. The referendum on the expropriation of large real estate companies, which had been approved, was also not affected, as there was no contestation against the result.

On 10 November, the Bundestag decided to repeat the federal election in 431 of Berlin’s 2,256 polling stations. This is unlikely to have a significant effect on the national outcome, although one or two MPs may lose their seats.

It is also unclear when exactly the election can be held again, as the issue is still subject to a possible appeal at the Federal Constitutional Court based in Karlsruhe, which is likely to take several months.

Opposition parties such as the conservative CDU and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are expected to file a lawsuit to have the election repeated in more Berlin polling stations.

Berlin mayor faces new challenges

But repeating the entire Berlin election will obviously have major consequences for the city’s government. This is because the vote decides the composition of Parliament, which consequently chooses who will govern the capital.

The current mayor, Franziska Giffey, leads a coalition of her Social Democratic Party (SPD) with the Greens and the Left party.

But recent polls in Berlin put the SPD in a tight race with the Greens and the CDU. If the Greens win the majority, Bettina Jarasch, the current transport secretary in Giffey’s office, would become mayor, likely at the head of the same coalition. It would also affect the composition of the Bundesrat, the upper house of the German parliament, which represents the governments of the 16 states.

A total of 35 appeals against the results were filed with the court over the election held in September last year, although the court’s nine judges decided to hear only four of them: appeals from the state electoral administration, the administration of the Secretariat of the Interior and the subtitles A Left and AfD.

It is very rare for an election to be rerun in Germany, but there is precedent: Hamburg’s 1991 state ballot had to be re-run after a court found that the CDU had violated candidate-picking rules.

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