Months before Germany elects a new Bundestag, numerous rumours are already circulating around the election: Can votes for dead people be cast in postal voting? Is it possible for supporters of only one party to count votes? And could the chancellor postpone the election for no reason at all? The #Faktenfuchs clarifies what is true about the rumours and how safe elections in Germany are from fraud.
Rumours resemble unverifiable allegations by Trump on US elections
Many of the narratives that are currently being spread on the internet are reminiscent of allegations that were also spread about the US election - including by Donald Trump himself. Months before the election, he claimed that the US election would be "the biggest fraud in the history of elections". This has not come true - the #Faktenfuchs has also reported.
How reliable is postal voting?
As in the USA, postal voting is also the focus of criticism in Germany. It is "much easier to manipulate", as users say in the comment columns, and election fraud is "pre-programmed".
In fact, people may be less free to vote at home than in a polling booth. The German constitution states: "The members of the German Bundestag shall be elected by universal, direct, free, equal and secret suffrage." Secrecy is "possibly endangered" in postal voting, says political scientist Joachim Behnke from Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen. It could not be ruled out that other people in the household might realise how someone votes. But the expert considers it very unlikely and rare that people who would not have been entitled to do so fill in the ballot paper.
Federal Constitutional Court rejects criticism of postal voting
Because of such concerns, the Federal Constitutional Court has already received and reviewed several complaints about postal voting. The court last ruled in 2013 that postal voting was "constitutionally unobjectionable". The court does say in its verdicts that public scrutiny is less in postal voting than in the polling station.
But: This is a matter of balance for the court. Postal voting allows more people to take part in the election - for example, old and sick people who can no longer make it to the polling station, or people who live abroad. According to the court, this principle of universality of the election outweighs the risks of postal voting, such as the possibility that secrecy may be compromised.
Is election-deciding fraud possible in postal voting?
Behnke says there is a "slight danger" that forgeries could occur in individual cases of postal voting. But that someone could cast thousands of votes unnoticed and thus successfully change the entire outcome of elections is considered unrealistic, according to Bavarian State Returning Officer Gößl: "We have complete electoral lists and know exactly where an application for a postal vote has been submitted. There is no way to create people besides the electoral list." Political scientist Behnke also says that fraud in postal voting cannot take place "across the board, systematically and in favour of one party" - and that would be necessary to influence the overall outcome of an election.
Can votes from dead people and coma patients be counted?
In addition to the fundamental doubts about postal voting, users also expressed concrete concerns that postal voting papers could, for example, also be requested and filled out for coma patients or even for dead people. They also refer to a case from the Munich district of Pasing, where a voting card was sent to a deceased woman.
If someone receives a voting card, it is because that person is on the electoral list. The municipalities take care of that. And it is possible that in some cases a mistake has been made and a death has not yet been entered or has been entered incorrectly. But: This voting card, which was directed to the deceased woman from Munich, is not yet the ballot paper. She would have to apply for it herself - and she can no longer do that. If someone else applies for the ballot paper on behalf of the dead person, it is a criminal offence in accordance with the Criminal Code.
Votes of dead people cannot be counted - with one exception
In one exceptional case, however, it is possible for votes of deceased persons to be legally counted: According to the Federal Electoral Law, the vote of a voter who participated in a postal vote before his death is not invalid if the voter dies before or on election day.
Even comprehensively cared for people can vote
And what about the rumour regarding coma patients who would be voted for by post? In general, there is only one reason in Germany why a living person may not vote in an election: If a court has denied that person the right to vote (§ 13 in the Federal Electoral Law). One does not lose one's right to vote if one needs care in all matters, as some people with a severe disability or even in a coma do.
But just because someone has the right to vote in theory does not mean they can vote. A caregiver can only cast a vote on behalf of a coma patient if the patient has evidently expressed a clear will. In fact, the Federal Electoral Code states that assistance is limited to technical help in "announcing an electoral decision made by the persons entitled to vote themselves". Thus, someone who is unconscious and in a coma for the entire period in which voting is possible will not be able to vote - even if they theoretically have the right to do so.
Is it possible that only representatives of a specific party count votes?
Users also spread rumours about the counting of votes in the federal elections, for example: "What is the good of elections if the Greens count the ballots?" However, it is not permissible that representatives or supporters of only one specific party count ballots. The parties propose who should be an election worker. And the Federal Electoral Code stipulates that the municipalities should take the suggestions into account in the order of the parties' second-vote results from the last federal election. This way, representatives of different parties are on-site and can check each other. Votes are counted in accordance with the four-eye-principle, says Thomas Gößl, the Bavarian State Returning Officer: "This prevents an individual from saying: I am going to make votes B out of votes A. That would be discovered in the polling station and would not work."
In addition, everything that happens after 6 pm on election eve takes place in public. Anyone who wants to see for themselves how the votes are counted can do so at any time: Every citizen has the right to observe elections. And you can also volunteer as an election worker (find out more about the exact requirements in Bavaria here).
Why do recounts often not produce the exact same result?
Mistakes, however, can happen - as in any process that involves human activity, says Joachim Behnke. An example of an error would be that an election worker missed a line when transferring the results into the computer. To detect such errors, the reports from the municipalities are checked through a second way, for example by telephone. And if a result sounds improbable, they ask again.
No evidence of election fraud
But a mistake is not the same as intentional election fraud, says Behnke: "Fraud would mean that there was a criminal intention behind it to make the wrong person the winner of the election." And according to the independent organisation OSCE, which has been observing the federal elections in Germany since the 1990s, there is no evidence of such election fraud: "There have never been any indications of fraud, manipulation or extensive forgery", says OSCE election observer Link, neither on the postal vote nor on the count. This also emerges from the OSCE reports on elections in Germany.
Can the Chancellor postpone the election because of the coronavirus?
Some of the rumours on the internet also deal with the coronavirus: for example, it is claimed that Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to postpone the election "indefinitely" or even cancel the election altogether. This alludes to a conspiracy narrative that has been heard and read again and again in recent months at demonstrations against the coronavirus measures and within some Telegram channels: that the corona crisis is allegedly a pretext to undermine democracy.
But Angela Merkel cannot simply postpone the election and remain in power. The German constitution (Article 39(1)) specifies the period when a federal election must take place: "at the earliest forty-six, at the latest forty-eight months after the beginning of the legislative period". This means: The deadline for the next federal election expires exactly four years after the beginning of the current legislative period at the latest. The Federal President fixes an exact date. And Frank-Walter Steinmeier has already done so: the federal election will take place on Sunday, September 26, 2021.
Once the date is fixed, the government can no longer postpone it. The basis is the Federal Electoral Law, which was passed by the Bundestag and could only be changed by the Bundestag itself. If that were to happen, a case could be brought to the Federal Constitutional Court and the court would then decide whether the change was permissible.
Months before the election date, rumours are already circulating around the federal election. Many of them are similar to the allegations from the USA. The main criticism relates to the postal vote. The Federal Constitutional Court also says that public scrutiny of postal votes is less than at polling stations. But according to the court, it is more important to enable as many people as possible to vote.
Votes of dead people can only be counted if they voted themselves before their death. It is not permissible for votes to be counted only by supporters of one specific party. Independent international election observers of the OSCE have not found any evidence of fraud, manipulation, or forgery in federal elections since they began in the 1990s. It is not possible for Chancellor Merkel to postpone the federal election indefinitely.
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