By Julian Dierkes
I was an international election observer in 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2013. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to travel to Mongolia for the most recent election. But, I’ve never observed any aspects of elections in my home country, Germany, other than as a voter.
I am currently spending the academic year 2016-17 in Germany and the city state of Berlin voted on Sept 18 for the city parliament and thus the state government. Of course, this is not comparable to the Ikh Khural election in that it was only a state election, but still elections run somewhat similarly, I suppose. My time in Germany will have ended by the time of the federal election in the fall of 2017, so I will not have a chance to observe anything then.
Unlike a Mongolian election, there do not seem to be any formal observers in German elections. No party observers, no NGO observers, no international observers.
The counting of the votes is publicly accessible, however, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity of going to a polling station just before it closed to ask whether I’d be allowed to stay for the count. Since the law specifies that the counting is held publicly, I was allowed. Clearly, I asked in German and I’m not sure what would have happened if I had asked in a foreign accent, but for me this was certainly an easy and relaxed opportunity to observe.
The strongest impression I got, particularly when comparing to the Mongolian elections, that German elections are “old-school” and very relaxed. Clearly, the level of trust in the intentions and abilities of the administrative team is high and there is very little general suspicion of the process.
None of the innovations that we see in Mongolian polling stations exist in Germany.
No (party) observers, no video broadcast of the inside of the polling station, no “black machines” (or any other kind of machines), no ink to the finger to show that a voter voted, really no electronics.
Instead, voters’ bring in their notification of the upcoming election (with their name, and the show their national id). This is verified against a printed roll of voters. Voters are then handed their ballot. In the case of this election, there were three ballots, one for a direct candidate for the Berlin parliament, then the party vote for the proportional representation route to the Berlin parliament, then the party vote for the district parliament.
After the vote finishes, the election committee (including positions of a chair, vice-chair, and protocol-writer) opens the ballot box quite unceremoniously. No national anthem here. But also no video-taping and arguments about procedure that I saw in Mongolia when I was able to observe the counting process. Certainly also no fear about electricity being disconnected or anything like that. There was a very small number of spoiled ballots, but these were announced, shown, and did not lead to further discussion.
Counting proceeded in a relaxed, but careful manner, though I only observed the first stage of counting, the proportional representation party vote.
As is the case in Mongolia, it’s always important to recognize the people that make elections work. Whether it is volunteers, observers or public servants, they all deserve our thanks for their dedication, hard work, and contributions to democracy!
Trust in political institutions plays a huge role in how elections unfold. Even though Germany has some recent memory of the manipulation of votes (Nazi-Germany, as well as the German Democratic Republic), there appears to be a very high level of general trust in the election system which means that it is fairly unsupervised and there are few checks.
By contrast, Mongolians trust “the system” much less (as is evident in polls as well) and a lot of the mechanics of voting are intended to inspire more trust with limited success.