You might think that simplicity would be at a premium in national elections. The architects of the German electoral system thought otherwise.
Germans will vote for members of the federal legislature (the Bundestag) in the autumn of 2017, not once, but twice, simultaneously! The electoral system is a complex hybrid, and we will not know how many MPs (Members of Parliament) there will actually be until after the votes are counted and the results calculated.
Voters receive a ballot with two distinct sets of choices. The first contains the names of candidates vying to represent a voter’s district in the legislature; the winner is elected by a first past the post tally of ballots cast in that district.
Then citizens vote for their preferred political party, with results calculated on a national basis according to a variation of proportional representation; parties may seat members provided they receive at least 5% of the vote nationally, or have three or more of their candidates elected in the first vote.
There are nominally 598 seats in the parliament, half chosen in each phase of the election. However, as many as 800 legislators may eventually be seated owing to two unique features in the electoral law, the Ausgleichmandat, by to which parties are “compensated” based on the proportion of so-called second votes they receive, and the Überhangmandat, by which a party could win more seats in the first vote than its proportion might otherwise allow in the second vote.
The leader of the party receiving the most seats overall is then called upon to form a government, either alone or in collaboration with one or more additional coalition parties, subject to a vote of confidence in the house.
A similar system has existed in Germany for some time now, but was found to be unconstitutional in 2009 and revised in 2013. It is complicated, but supporters claim that it is also fairer than simple systems in use in other countries.
(Note furthermore that insofar as Germany is a federal state, there are elections at different administrative levels throughout a given calendar year. In 2017 there will be three regional elections before the national election to take place in the fall.)