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Anyone who’s followed a general election in Germany knows the campaign’s fairly predictable heiße Phase (“hot phase”): Posters go up around the country, then top candidates meet for a primetime debate before crisscrossing the country in a frenzied bid to turn out as many voters as possible before election day.
This year, postal voting is already scrambling that rhythm.
The high number of mail-in ballots this year, which experts say could reach upwards of a third of the electorate, means campaign rallies and events are gearing up earlier, election night projections may be less accurate and candidate missteps at the wrong time could mean wasted votes for those casting them early.
In what’s proving to be an already unpredictable campaign for top chancellor candidates like the Christian Democrats’ Armin Laschet and the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock, the role of mail-in voting is another volatile factor to reckon with in the lead-up to election day.
Although there’s no set date on which voters can expect to receive their mail-in ballots, this week, according to Germany’s election officer (the Federal Returning Officer), marks the beginning of that period. Typically, the earliest a ballot would arrive is six weeks before the election (in this case, that would have been on August 16) — but in many cases, it will be more like five weeks (August 23). Either way, those choosing to vote by mail can start doing so within the next week or two, which means the major parties vying for the chancellery are running out of time with a large chunk of the electorate.
“In general, it will probably mean that the parties focus less on one big effort in the final stretch of the campaign, with big appearances and lots of events to try and mobilize voters in the last two weeks before Election Day,” said Daniel Hellmann, of the Institute of Parliamentary Research in Berlin. “Since there will definitely be many more people who vote by mail, the parties will also shift things forward and intensify their campaigns earlier.”
If state-level elections earlier this year are any indication, the increase in postal voting could indeed be big come September. In both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which voted in March, the proportion of voters who opted for a postal ballot more than doubled from the last election (from 21.1 percent to 51.5 percent in Baden-Württemberg, and from 30.6 percent to 66.5 percent in Rhineland-Palatinate).
Who votes by mail?
Although the coronavirus pandemic is certainly contributing to increased interest in voting by mail, it’s not the only factor: Postal voting has been on the rise in Germany for decades.
Originally introduced in (West) Germany in 1957, voting by mail was primarily for those who had a specific reason they couldn’t cast their ballot in person. That requirement was dropped in 2008, and experts say the proportion of those voting by mail has risen steadily since reunification in 1990. In the 2017 general election, an all-time high of 28.6 percent of the electorate cast their ballot by mail.
“Before the pandemic, it was already the case that we had a growing proportion of people voting by mail, and that number continues to trend upward,” said Hellmann. “Under normal circumstances, election officials could have expected something in the range of 30 percent to one-third of the electorate voting by mail,” he added, noting that the figure is likely to be even higher due to the pandemic.
There’s been relatively little research done on who exactly votes by mail and why, making this year’s postal voters somewhat of an unknown factor. But Aiko Wagner, a research fellow in the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin’s Democracy and Democratization unit who wrote a report analyzing the 2017 postal vote, said it’s possible to discern a few broad trends.
In general, mail voting is noticeably more popular in western Germany than in eastern Germany. Retirees and students tend to disproportionately vote by mail, as do self-employed people and those with higher incomes. And those who have a stronger trust in the democratic system are more likely to vote by mail.
“It’s not that voting by mail means these voters tick differently: They don’t necessarily have other criteria for making their decision, nor do they have hugely different preferences when you compare them to in-person voters,” said Wagner. “They’re just a slightly different group of people: A bit older, a bit more western German, and because of that, a slightly different election result.”
As a result, the 2017 results showed a 5-point advantage with postal ballots versus in-person voting for the center-right CDU/CSU (the bloc most often chosen by older voters and retirees), as well as small advantages for the Greens (often favored by students) and the liberal Free Democrats (perhaps the choice of some self-employed and wealthier people).
Still, apart from the CDU’s advantage, the only party with a significantly lower postal voting rate is the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) — which is no surprise, given that its leaders have frequently and repeatedly expressed skepticism about the authenticity of postal ballots. (The fact that the AfD is strong in eastern Germany is also likely correlated with the fact that fewer people vote by mail there.)
Longer campaigns, election night projections
As for the impact on the campaign, voting experts and pollsters see two main ways the mail vote can impact this year’s race: By forcing campaigns to shift their events forward and intensify things earlier, and by potentially making the initial projections (known as Hochrechnungen) on election night somewhat less accurate.
Campaigns’ busy travel schedules have already begun in earnest, likely spurred on in part by a desire to appeal to the electorate’s earliest voters.
The Greens started their nationwide campaign tour last week, with top candidates Baerbock and Robert Habeck planning to hit the road almost daily until September 26. Other candidates seem to be following suit: Olaf Scholz — the candidate from the center-left Social Democrats — has made several campaign swings across the country, while the CDU’s Laschet, after postponing some events to respond to the deadly flooding in his home state, is also back on the trail.
Earlier this summer, CDU General Secretary Paul Ziemiak put it this way: “Once postal voting begins, every day is election day for us.”
Both the Greens and the SPD feature explicit appeals for mail-in voting on some or all of their campaign posters, many thousands of which are being posted in cities and towns across Germany this month. And other parties, including the Free Democrats and the Left party, have sections about postal voting on their websites.
Michael Kellner, the Greens’ campaign spokesman, told the German broadcaster ARD the new dynamics mean the campaigns need to be “present for six weeks” instead of just the final two or three.
Gathering postal votes in the weeks before election day “is like a squirrel gathering nuts in the fall for winter,” he said.
A question of timing
With so many campaigns hoping to change the narrative after a tough summer, the rise in postal voting means they’ll have limited time to do so — and fewer opportunities to recover from any campaign-trail flubs, which have been common among top candidates in the campaign thus far.
Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at the German polling firm Forsa, said the organization’s data suggests postal voters make up their minds earlier and plan to cast their votes earlier. When Forsa recently asked people about their voting intentions, 60 percent of those who planned to vote by mail said they’d do so immediately upon receiving their ballot.
“The higher share of people voting by mail, and the fact that those voting by mail decide or vote very early once they get their papers, means that parties should focus also on those early deciders,” said Matuschek. “They cannot and should not only focus on those voting at the very last moment.”
What’s more, big-ticket moments in past elections, like the three-way primetime debate between Laschet, Baerbock and Scholz on September 12, may come too late for them to have the same kind of impact among a large chunk of the electorate.
For Scholz especially, who has received relatively little attention thus far but has recently seen a big rise in his favorability ratings, the primetime debate is an opportunity to shine — but one that may come too late for some of the people he’s hoping to reach.
On the plus side, late-stage candidate missteps or scandals might not have as much of an impact when so many voters have already sent in their ballots. That was the case this spring in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, where the CDU’s late-breaking “mask affair” had less of an impact on the results than expected.
“If the rate of postal voting rises, there are of course fewer people who will change their mind in the final days,” Wagner said. “Their ballots are already gone, they’ve already cast their votes.”
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