Who Can and Can’t vote in Germany?

A third of Berliners do not have full voting rights. An explanation of who can vote and why this must change


There will be three elections and one referendum happening in Berlin on September 26th 2021.

First, there is the general, federal election which elects the Bundestag, the parliament for all of Germany. Second, there is the state-level election which elects the Berlin House of Representatives, the parliament of the city of Berlin. Third, there is the municipal election, which elects the council for every district of Berlin. And on top of that there is the referendum on Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen.

Generally, to be allowed to vote in Germany, you need to be a German citizen who is at least 18 years old. You must also have been officially registered in the place where you’re voting, such as Berlin, for at least three months, and you must not be excluded from voting for other reasons (for example, if a court took away your right to vote because you were deemed legally incapable of making your own decisions – but that’s a whole different issue). So, basically, German citizenship and 18 years old. This applies to the federal election, the state election and also the referendum. For the municipal election, you need to be at least 16 years of age, and in addition to Germans, citizens of other EU countries such as Poland and Spain can also vote. But that’s it.

The news outlet rbb recently ran an article that every third person in Berlin is not allowed to vote. Every third! The largest group of these are non-German citizens (about 790k people). The second-largest group is children below the age of 18. Just to repeat, one third of the inhabitants of Berlin are not allowed to have a say in who will govern them for the next five years.

Now, what does the actual law look like? There are, after all, countries who handle this differently, for example New Zealand does allow foreigners who live in the country permanently to vote. So, lets consider the legal situation in Germany. Short disclaimer, I’m not a lawyer, but what I’ve found is Article 20 paragraph 2 of the Basic Law of Germany (the constitution), which says: “All state authority is derived from the people.” “The people” in the Basic Law means the German people, which means people who have German citizenship, and there are rulings of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court which underline this. Elections are an act of state authority, so this means that only German citizens are allowed to participate in elections, and this goes for the federal level and the state level. This also applies to state-level referenda if they are to be legally binding.

An exception is made for EU citizens at municipal level. This was written in the EU Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 and the EU countries had to implement it. Indeed, Germany changed its Basic Law to reflect this (they added to article 28 paragraph 1: “In county and municipal elections, persons who possess the citizenship of any member state of the European Community are also eligible to vote and to be elected in accordance with European Community law.”)

However, if you wanted EU citizens to be allowed to vote in other elections, or non-German and non-EU citizens to be allowed to vote in any election or referendum, you would need to change Germany’s Basic Law. For this, you need a two-thirds majority. And that is, unfortunately, extremely unlikely given the current political climate – you can’t do it without the CDU. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia tried something like this in 2017 and failed. Of course Die Linke will continue to fight for voting rights for non-Germans, and there are also other avenues besides changing the Basic Law that we can use to try to broaden participation, which other speakers will tell you more about.