Plenary Session Vot­ing

Erhobene Hand zur Stimmabgabe während Plenarsitzung

© Bundesrat | Henning Schacht

The votes of each federal state must be cast en bloc, as stipulated in the Basic Law. That means that the government in each federal state must reach an agreement on how to cast its votes before the vote is held in the Bundesrat. Decisions on how to vote in the Bundesrat can generate serious tensions, particularly in federal states governed by a coalition, and can try a coalition to breaking point.

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En bloc voting

The position of each federal state is expressed in the Bundesrat rather than the views of individual Bundesrat members. The rules on casting votes en bloc also ensure that the votes of a federal state do not cancel each other out, with some members voting in favour of a bill and others against it.

Voting instructions can only be issued by the government of each federal state. The Basic Law states that voting instructions in the Bundesrat may not be issued by either the Minister-President, who is only empowered to issue instructions on legislation in his or her federal state, or by the Land parliament. The government in each federal state is therefore responsible vis-à-vis the parliament in its federal state, which may call it to account because of the stance it has adopted in the Bundesrat.

The vote caster

Each federal state's votes are cast by its Bundesrat members. Generally speaking, before Bundesrat sessions the government in each federal state determines who will cast the votes for the state; alternatively, Bundesrat members may decide amongst themselves during the course of the plenary.

As a general rule, only one member, who is known as the vote caster, votes on behalf of each federal state. He or she casts all of the federal state's votes, even if no other representatives from the Land in question are present at a meeting.

In the vast majority of cases, a decision by each federal state government determines how the federal state’s votes should be cast in the Bundesrat.

However the cabinet may sometimes allow the vote caster room to exercise his or her discretion, so that the vote caster can reach an agreement with other federal states, support a compromise proposal, or take account of new circumstances that may have arisen after the cabinet meeting.

Only en bloc votes valid

The Basic Law calls for votes to be cast en bloc and respects the practice of vote casters, organised independently by the federal states, without encroaching on the constitutional rights of the federal states by laying down rules and regulations in this sphere.

As the Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 2002, the Basic Law's stance on this question means that an objection to the way a vote caster is voting can be raised in the Bundesrat at any time by a Bundesrat Member from the same federal state; in this case, the preconditions for working with the vote caster system no longer apply.

In the plenary session, the Bundesrat President accepts the vote of one individual member of each federal state as being tantamount to the vote cast by the federal state as a whole, provided that another member of the same federal state does not vote differently. However, if the Bundesrat members from a particular state do not all vote the same way, the vote cast by the federal state in question is not valid; differences of opinion within a federal state are not indicated when the outcome of a vote is recorded in the Bundesrat.

Abstentions

In principle it is not possible to adopt a "neutral stance" by abstaining in the Bundesrat. Article 52, Sub-section 3 of the Basic Law states that decisions in the Bundesrat may only be taken with an absolute majority, and that amendments to the constitution even require a two-thirds majority.

An abstention therefore has the same effect as voting against a motion - and the significance of this depends on the wording of a particular point put to the vote.

Vote counting

Votes are generally cast by a show of hands in the Bundesrat. Due to the large number of votes to be taken in each meeting, the Bundesrat President generally only counts votes in favour of a motion to determine whether these votes constitute a majority or not.

Abstentions and votes against a motion that do not affect the absolute majority are therefore not counted separately.

The Bundesrat does not as a general rule record how each federal state casts its votes during the plenary session. Some federal states do however publish their voting decisions online (in German): Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Brandenburg, Bremen, Lower Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate, Schleswig-Holstein, Saarland, Saxony, Thuringia.

A roll-call vote of the Länder is taken for amendments to the constitution and other particularly important decisions. That means that each federal state casts its vote, in alphabetical order, by calling out its voting position.

In this case, the vote cast by each state is recorded in the minutes. The Bundesrat's Rules of Procedure do not provide for secret votes.

Glossary