Postal elections are experiencing a breakthrough. The pandemic means that growing numbers of people are in favor of postal voting. However, there is an alternative: Virtual elections such as digital membership polling in parties. In this blog post, we outline the legal situation with virtual elections and the opportunities that arise for parties.
The breakthrough for postal voting
On March 14, 2021, a new state parliament was elected in the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, and many of the electorate opted for postal voting. A trend is emerging: Since the beginning of the corona pandemic, the demand for postal votes has risen continuously. Originally, postal votes in political elections were intended to be a supplement to the ballot box. The aim is to increase voter turnout through greater flexibility in voting. Eligible voters can cast their votes before the actual election day and do not have to visit their polling station.
Postal voting after virtual voting
In March 2020, Germany introduced a special law for combating pandemics. The law aims to help companies stay in business. They are permitted to hold virtual meetings and elections of any kind.
For example, a board election can be conducted by virtual election, but for legal reasons it must subsequently be confirmed by a postal or ballot-box vote.
In January, the CDU elected its party leadership digitally with POLYAS. The party had the expectation that an election at its party conference should operate completely digitally. However, the party was unable to fully assert this political demand and so they decided to confirm the leader with a subsequent postal vote. To ensure that the candidate who won the online election would also be elected by postal vote, the candidate on the ballot paper for the postal vote could only be the winner of the online election.
Virtual elections in parties
In political parties, the membership vote is of great importance. A membership vote promotes internal party democracy, it strengthens the feeling of belonging among the membership base, and the party gains media attention. The organization of these votes, however, is very complex and often excludes very busy party members who are unable to attend and vote at every party conference.
With a virtual election:
- Give your membership a flexible opportunity to voice their opinions and participate in important decision-making processes
- Let your party members benefit from a low-threshold form of voting
- Simplify internal democratic processes
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The Political Parties Act in Germany for virtual meetings and voting
Right now, the popularity of postal votes is on the increase. And yet they are not very sustainable, nor do they save time or expense. This is where online voting is the better alternative.
On October 28, 2020, the German Bundestag published a paper entitled “Constitutional Admissibility of Online Party Conventions and Electronic Voting” (Verfassungsrechtliche Zulässigkeit von Online-Parteitagen und elektronischen Abstimmungen). It says that conducting party conferences online is “constitutionally unproblematic”. Also permitted are online party conferences including voting.
The German Constitutional Court also permits online elections assuming that the technical requirements are met and electoral principles are observed. A weakened form can be used in the case of an internal party elections or an election in the interests of the general public.
Admissibility of online party conferences and virtual elections
Every association has the right to hold online meetings. Associations can independently adapt in their bylaws to allow for online general meetings. These adaptations are also permissible for parties, although there are peculiarities of party law to be considered. In Germany these consist of the Political Parties Act and Article 21 of the Basic Law.
The Political Parties Act was introduced in 1967. This law states that a party conference is the “central organ of a party”. Therefore, parties are now allowed to organize online party conferences and virtual elections. When the law was written, nobody foresaw digitalization. The law states that virtual elections and online party conferences are legally compliant and permitted. It is only the parties that have to make internal changes to their bylaws.
The German Constitutional Court has allowed virtual elections within certain limits. Important aspects are:
- Voters need to understand each step of the virtual election
- Security standards must be equal those of any ballot-box vote
- Internet access must be available
- Principles of secret voting
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