Manual voting in a high-tech country - Marites Danguilan Vitug

by Marites Danguilan Vitug

Posted at Sep 29 2009 03:27 PM | Updated as of Dec 16 2009 11:21 PM

BERLIN—Before voting closed at 6 p.m. on Sunday (Sept. 27), members and supporters of political parties started to gather in their headquarters or rented halls for their traditional election-day party. Win or lose, they got together over cocktails, some in joy, others in sadness.

The day began quietly as polling stations opened without fanfare and a brilliant sun shone as summer tiptoed away. Voting was quiet and uneventful. I asked an officer at a polling station if this was typical and if she expected any distractions. She was surprised and replied she didn’t understand what I meant. It was clear that they have never known any other kind of election here, the type we are so familiar with: disorderly, with sparks of violence, and large doses of fraud.

In the evening, the scene in each party was pretty much the same, except for the emotions. Big TV screens surrounded the halls and wine and champagne flowed.

At the Free Democratic Party (FDP), who turned out to be the biggest winner—they gained the most number of votes since the Federal Republic was formed 60 years ago—the excitement was palpable. As soon as the public TV station announced the results of the exit polls at 6:15 p.m., the crowd roared with cheers. Colleagues embraced each other; some couldn’t contain their happiness and shed tears.

(The exit polls are highly accurate here and are considered to reflect the final election results, which are usually announced a few hours after the close of voting.)

The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) immediately conceded defeat, their worst since the war.

This was followed by a beaming Chancellor Angela Merkel’s acknowledgment of victory, although her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) got less votes than in 2005, their last elections. “We achieved something fantastic,” Merkel said to her supporters. “We achieved a stable majority for a new government. We can party tonight…”

Finally, Guido Westerwelle, leader of the FDP, thanked his party and briefly talked about the work ahead as they were poised to form a coalition with the CDU. Westerwelle, 47, is set to be the next vice-chancellor and foreign minister. He is openly gay and has announced this years ago. German voters do not see his sexual preference as an issue.

It was all over by 7 p.m. Germans knew who their next chancellor was, what the shape of the new coalition would be. They could go to sleep well; there were no uncertainties.

The voting rate was low at about 71 percent, compared to 77.7 percent four years ago. (Total voting population is 62 million.) It is a cause for concern, some analysts say, and they attribute it to this year’s lackluster campaign. Still, Germany can celebrate a successful election, another milestone to its party democracy.

Swift count

For all its high-value technology, though, Germany is not keen on electronic voting. They’ve tried it in some state elections in the past but the Constitutional Court (equivalent of our Supreme Court), struck it down early this year. “We don’t think it’s safe, it’s susceptible to hacking, and the vote can’t be kept secret,” says Andreas Schmidt von Puskas, an election officer. 

Yet, manual election takes place without major hitches and counting is swift. There are more than 600,000 workers in 80,000 polling stations all over the country.  All of them are volunteers; only their meals and transport are paid for. When I asked about how they manage to count so fast, one polling officer said, “It’s rather complicated,” and pointed me to a counting manual. 

The final votes are sent electronically to a main office using software that is designed specifically for use in elections. We (journalists from various parts of the world invited by the Federal foreign office to observe the elections) were shown a nerve center in a room in the glass-walled parliament, where the final counts were received from various constituencies. Pasted on the wall was an illustration of how the data were sent and received.

What really mattered was: their infrastructure was in place, there were sufficient number of people to shepherd the entire process—all done in an orderly and transparent manner.

Party-list vote

From elections to politics, Germany has all these figured out. They are strong advocates of proportional representation as seen in their enduring practice, the party-list vote. They cannot imagine a party representing the majority. Theirs is far from the Coke-Pepsi type of politics like the Republican-Democrat contest in the US.

Five major parties—the CDU, SPD, FDP, The Left Party, and the Greens—all sit in parliament with the SPD and the CDU as the biggest. They form coalitions after the elections, depending on the number of votes each party gets.

Each party campaigns on distinct issues but they try to achieve a consensus when they enter into partnerships. Chancellor Merkel and her CDU is set to form a center-right coalition with her allies, the FDP, commonly referred to as the Liberals. They campaigned for tax cuts, a return to nuclear energy, social justice, and tougher rules for finance.

When Germans went to the polls on Sunday, they chose their leaders in two types of vote: direct vote for a person (state level) and the party-list vote (federal level). The second is considered the more important one because the party is the core unit of their democratic system.

It is not unusual to have a chancellor who is a product of the party-list vote.  Their leaders rise through the party and prove their mettle in party politics. The popularity of a candidate is never isolated from that of the party.

Thus, personalities figure less than parties during elections, and members of parties rarely shift loyalties. “Party membership is almost like a birth-to-death thing, it’s part of a family inheritance,” says Delia Albert, our ambassador to Germany, and former foreign affairs secretary.
When some left-wing members of the SPD moved to the socialist Left party, that came as a surprise. The SPD, which was the CDU’s coalition partner in the past four years, has severely weakened and came out the biggest loser.

The day after the elections, as autumn crept in and the leaves began to change colors, Germany faced a new chapter in their politics. 

As for me, it’s out with old stereotypes. A country with a painful history of extreme intolerance has become a democratic powerhouse.