Know the 'signs' of a local election, 2016 edition

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- It seems you just can't read a magazine, click through your TV channels or swipe your thumb on your cellphone without seeing an advertisement, news story or viral video about the 2016 American presidential election.

You'd think being stationed overseas would remove you from such electoral rumblings. Now your drives through the scenic Eifel landscape are littered with more posters asking for your vote! Well, maybe not necessarily YOUR vote, unless you're a German citizen of voting age. (Of course, if you're an American of voting age, I'm sure you're already registered to vote. If not: head on over to www.fvap.gov.)

Still, the signs of a local election are upon us, and this time, they're for the Rheinland-Pfalz state election set for March 13, 2016.  This election highlights the similarities and differences between the American and German systems of voting.

HOW AND WHEN THEY VOTE

Rheinland-Pfalz is one of the 16 Lander, or states, within the Federal Republic of Germany. This election is similar to one of the 50 state elections we have in America. Where we would vote for a governor and members of our state's legislature, the citizens of Rheinland-Pfalz will elect a minister-president and members of the Landtag. 

The Germans vote on a Sunday, traditionally a day of rest and when the majority of shops are closed. This translates to higher voter turnout than in America, when we usually vote on the first Tuesday of November. For example, the last state election received 61.8 percent of the voting population in Rheinland-Pfalz, as opposed to, say, the 33.7 percent of Texans who voted in the 2014 state election.

What also makes the German system of voting so different from ours is that they do not vote directly for a governor or even chancellor. They're given two votes: their first vote is for their direct local representative and their second vote is for a political party, which can be different from their first vote.

The winners of the first vote are based on the majorities in each constituency. The second votes are tallied across the state in which seats are calculated and awarded based on proportional representation. This is why so many parties fervently ask for your second vote over your first. The Germans usually declare the winners of each seat and the party makeup the same night of the election, too.  

WHO WINS THE ELECTION

But here's where the election gets interesting: the governor is always not the person from the party with the largest amount of votes. A government is formed by the party or parties who agree to work together to form a majority of seats in the Landtag.

In America, we mainly have two parties who compete for offices across the country. The Germans also have two main parties, but they're accompanied by various political parties made of unique causes and regional identities. This is where the round of deal-making takes place, because the smaller parties can be referred to as "King maker." Their support can be crucial to one of the larger parties receiving a working majority.

However, there's a catch for the smaller parties: you need at least five percent of the vote to gain representation in a Landtag. If your party gets 4.9 percent, you get zero seats in government.

AN ELECTORAL EXAMPLE

Let's illustrate this: say Party A receives 40 percent; Party B, their main opponent, receives 35 percent; Party C, the preferred party of Party B, receives 16 percent; and Party D, the preferred party of Party A, receives 9 percent.

Party A would look like the largest party, but they're still short of the 51 percent needed for a majority. They have to make a deal with one of the other three parties to form a government.

Party A prefers to work with Party D, but they only make 49 percent of the seats. They could work with Party C, but Party C prefers to work with Party B.

The winner in this case would be Party B and Party C who collectively make 51 percent of the vote, despite Party A winning the most seats.

GRAND COALITION

Now, Party A could turn to Party B to form a government. But that party happens to be their opposite regarding a political philosophy. If they formed a government, they'd have 75 percent of the seats--clearly the broadest representation of any possibility.  But this is neither party's preferred option, as compromises have to be ironed out to make a government palatable for all involved members.

Yet it is still possible, particularly if both parties cannot form a government with their preferred smaller parties or because they deem making a deal with another party, no matter how large, would not be politically feasible based upon that other party's ideology.

In fact, the current composition of the federal German government reflects this after the 2013 election results. This "grand coalition," or "Grosse Koalition" in German, happened for just the third time since 1966. It's so much a part of German language that the word "GroKo," which is also a play on the word "crocodile" in German, became the country's Word of the Year in 2013.

And, yes, you could have more than two political parties working together. The Germans use colors to describe their political parties and governments. For example, you can have a "traffic light coalition" of Red-Yellow-Green parties or a "Jamaica coalition" of Black-Yellow-Green. It may sound silly, but the colors represent more than just the rainbow spectrum; they represent the political ideology one too.

A HISTORIC VOTE

Regardless of who wins Sunday's vote, the choice is already one for the history books. It's the first election in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany in which the two leading contenders for minister-president are women.

This is not only taking place during the 10th year of the first female chancellor in German history's government, but also during Women's History Month for America. It's a fascinating time to be stationed in Rheinland-Pfalz!

So, as you drive by the signs and perhaps see or read about the results Monday morning, just know that the process, while both similar and different from ours in America, is still a reflection of our democracy and a tribute to the women and men of many nations who fought to preserve and defend it.

Again, if you're an American of voting age and have questions about voting, please go to the Federal Voting Assistance Program website at www.fvap.gov.