Rethinking democracy


Rethinking democracy

Author Dr Björn Benken in an exclusive interview about replacement votes and their effects

At a time when democracy and electoral processes are constantly being scrutinised, it is important to explore innovative approaches and concepts that can strengthen the democratic system. Dr Björn Benken has worked intensively on the topic of electoral systems and in particular on the introduction of replacement votes. The two publications “Mehr Demokratie durch Ersatzstimme?” and “Integrative Wahlsysteme” shed light on new approaches that could change the political landscape. Dr Björn Benken is co-editing the first-mentioned conference volume with Alexander Trennheuser, and has already published the single volume in 2022.

In this exclusive interview with the author, Dr Benken discusses the questions of whether electoral systems with proxy votes are actually more democratic, whether they are constitutionally permissible and what political effects they could have.

Are electoral systems with proxy votes actually more democratic?

Yes, these electoral systems are indeed more democratic. If voters are given the option of a substitute vote, it is possible to prevent them from ticking a party as their first choice that they do not actually favour and only voting for it so as not to give away their vote. In the new electoral system, the election results would express the true will of the voters much better and small parties would finally get a fair chance in political competition. The entire political culture would change if voting for a small party suddenly no longer carried the stigma of a lost vote. Even frustrated non-voters might consider voting again. Another interesting aspect is that the major parties would then listen more to the supporters of small parties because they hope to receive a replacement vote from them. This has an integrative effect and strengthens social cohesion.

Are they constitutionally permissible?

Without a doubt: yes! It is sometimes claimed that in a system with a substitute vote, some voters would have twice the chance of success. But this is wrong, because the substitute vote is merely compensation in the event that the vote for the party of the first election is cancelled. You can also imagine a substitute vote system as two successive rounds of voting: In the main election round, we look at which parties have more than 5 per cent first preferences and therefore take part in the run-off election, the result of which then decides the distribution of seats in parliament. All voters have two votes without exception, which would refute the scepticism of the Federal Constitutional Court towards this electoral system. As Philipp Barlet impressively shows in our conference proceedings, the legislator is even obliged to introduce an electoral system with a substitute vote because this is an equally suitable, milder means.

What political effects would such electoral systems have?

As there is no system with substitute votes anywhere yet, predictions are very speculative. However, it would certainly happen less frequently that a political camp would not be allowed to govern despite having a majority of votes simply because the votes of small coalition partners would be lost. And the blocking clause would become more permeable – in both directions. It would become easier to get into parliament, but it would also be quicker to get out again. It’s like ventilation: if a breath of fresh air comes in, stale air has to be pushed out elsewhere. Whether more parties would be in parliament as a result of the replacement vote is questionable; and if they are, it is not certain whether this is really a bad thing. Sometimes it is helpful to have more options for forming a government! Imagine if the last state elections in Saxony and Thuringia had had a 10% blocking clause – then there would only be CDU and AfD and LINKE in parliament. Have fun with the coalition talks!

It would be easier to get into a parliament, but it would also be quicker to get out again. It’s like ventilation: if fresh air comes in, stale air has to be pushed out elsewhere.

Dr Björn Benken

The innovative ideas and approaches presented by Dr Björn Benken in his work give rise to an intensive discussion about the future design of our electoral systems. His thoughts on the introduction of replacement votes as a possible step towards a fairer and more representative democracy encourage us to question established norms and practices. Even if the political implications of such concepts are still open to speculation, Benken’s work is undoubtedly an enrichment for the debate on the future of democratic participation. With these books, we bring valuable knowledge into the public arena to encourage reflection on the further development of our democratic processes.