Degrees of Freedom: Electoral Manipulation in Imperial Germany

“Stop the steal!” The 2020 US election illustrated that concerns about electoral fraud – real or imagined – can impact even the world’s oldest democracies. The Trump campaign exhausted all legal avenues to contest the vote count in six states. The campaign lost virtually all its legal challenges, but the myth of a stolen election lives on. At the same time, giving all citizens the opportunity to vote is no simple matter – as Trevon discusses here, voter suppression has a long and tragic history in the US.

In this post, I’d like to share some of my research (with Daniel Ziblatt) on electoral misconduct in Imperial Germany (1871-1912). I will sketch out the main forms of electoral misconduct drawing on a rich body of data on petitions submitted by German voters to the Reichstag’s Committee on Election Disputes (Wahlprüfungskommission). I also discuss how district-specific conditions shaped the prevalence of different forms of misconduct. Although Imperial Germany’s elections were far more orderly than those in other countries during the same period, they exhibit important parallels to elections in contemporary autocracies in which public officials and private employees interfere in the electoral process.

Progressive franchise in an authoritarian state

Imperial Germany adopted universal male suffrage in elections to the National Parliament, the Reichstag, in 1871. Men aged 25 or older could vote, regardless of their property ownership. All votes counted equally. Germany’s laws were thus extremely progressive; only France and Greece had franchise as inclusive as Germany’s at the time. By contrast, the United Kingdom retained property qualifications until the end of WWI and the United States effectively disfranchised African Americans until at least the 1960s. In Germany itself, this was a revolutionary reform, particularly when compared to Prussia’s three-class franchise that remained in place until 1918.

At the same time, the Reichstag was subordinated to the non-elected executive and its powers were limited to approving and amending legislation. For this reason, Karl Liebknecht famously considered the Reichstag “a fig leaf covering the nakedness of absolutism.” Between 1878 and 1890, the associations, meetings, and publications of the Social Democratic Party were banned. The secret ballot in Germany was introduced as late as 1903, or 74 years after France and 33 years after the UK.

Unsurprisingly, Reichstag elections were not free and fair. What is remarkable, however, is that electoral proceedings were public and any eligible voter could file a petition about the occurrence of misconduct within ten days of the election. The costs – postage, travel, lost wages for witnesses – were covered by the state in which the election occurred. These petitions were reviewed by the Reichstag’s standing committee on electoral disputes, which investigated the allegations, publicized violations that had sufficient evidence, and occasionally rescinded disputed mandates.

German voters and parties made ample use of this right. In 1890, the Reichstag received 73 petitions. By comparison, an average number of petitions submitted after a congressional election in the US at the end of the 19th century was thirteen.[1] By the end of the imperial period, challenged mandates were accompanied by a long paper trail, with protests and counter-protests, and the Reichstag committee spent a considerable amount of time reviewing evidence, interviewing witnesses, and tallying the exact number of votes affected by each verified violation.

Disputed mandates in German elections (1871-1912). Borders of the Weimar Republic are marked in blue.

As a result, extensive records on alleged violations are available for the entire imperial period. As Daniel Ziblatt and I document in this working paper, a fifth of all seats in the Reichstag were challenged, often due to multiple violations. We draw on the excellent study by Robert Arsenschek in our coding of different forms of electoral misconduct. While the Reichstag petitions are not an unbiased source, their content sheds light on German electoral practices and socio-economic factors that facilitated specific forms of electoral misconduct.

How bureaucrats and employers interfered in the electoral process 

There are various ways of classifying electoral violations, but in the German context focusing on who was responsible is particularly promising. In the majority (57%) of disputed mandates, state officials sought to influence the results in favor of the pro-regime parties. They did not engage in patronage or vote buying, however. They supported the pro-regime parties by distributing their ballots, endorsing their candidates in public meetings, and subsidizing their campaign efforts. They also banned meetings and confiscated ballots of the opposition parties and threatened sanctions for supporting the wrong candidate. Most of their efforts targeted the Social Democrats and, during the Kulturkampf, the Center Party. The beneficiaries were the German Reich Party, the German Conservative Party, and the National Liberals. The Landrat, a senior official at the district level, was perhaps the most frequently mentioned authority in violating electoral procedures.

Actors accused of undue influence in imperial elections. Larger size means higher frequency.

The Prussian bureaucracy, interlinked with local notables, was particularly notorious. In district Reichenbach-Neurode (Breslau province) in the 1878 election, the police and administrative officers not only confiscated Social Democratic ballots, but also briefly detained their distributors; they also harassed workers into supporting the Conservative candidate.[2] In Nienbarg-Neustadt district (Hannover province), the royal prefect instructed his subordinates “to do everything to ensure that the National Liberal candidate is elected, as this was the order from above, and to unseat the Guelphs (Deutsche Hannoverische Partei) from the Reichstag.” Post and railway officials were threatened with punishment for failing to bring victory to the National Liberals.[3]

Private employers and landlords were accused of influencing the vote in one fifth of disputed mandates. For example, in Bochum-Gelsenkirchen (Province Westfalen) in the 1878 election foremen and overseers of the local smelter herded workers to the polling station and distributed the ballots of the liberal party right before the workers entered the polling station, threatening dismissal to those who did not vote for their candidate.[4] In Wanzleben (Province Sachsen) in the 1907 election, the estate inspector and the owner of the local sugar factory confiscated Social Democratic ballots and leaflets from workers’ houses before the election, distributed liberal ballots instead, and on election day marched workers to the polling station.[5]

The Reichstag was not always eager to punish such violations. Deputies from the very parties that benefited from state and private influence spent hours debating whether a given official had police powers and campaigned in official capacity, investigating whether he wore a uniform. Allegations about private influence were often dismissed because the deputies viewed the employment relationship as consensual and expected the employee to be able to terminate employment at will. As more and more opposition candidates entered the Reichstag, however, the rules on electoral misconduct became stricter.

Types of manipulation by actor over time

In 5% of the disputed mandates, clergymen were accused of seeking to influence election outcomes. In Krefeld, Ludwig Seyffardt, a National Liberal and a Protestant, lost to August Reichensperger, of the newly founded Center Party, in 1871. The aggrieved liberals accused the clergy of painting liberals as “non-believers and pagans,” marching voters to the polls directly from mass, and publicly chastising those who leaned in favor of the liberal candidate as “bad or lukewarm” Catholics.[6] The Conservatives’ and Liberals’ frustrations about electoral preferences of the Catholic peasants and miners, who increasingly defied the local notables, were behind many such allegations. Fears of Catholic influence inspired the Pulpit Law of 1871, which criminalized electioneering by the clergy and became the first salvo of Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church by the Bismarck regime (it would last until 1887).

Nearly a third of mandates were challenged predominantly for procedural reasons. Frequently mentioned procedural infractions were voting by ineligible persons, including individuals under 25 years of age, migrants, welfare recipients, immigrants, and people with disabilities. Failure to display voter lists in time or closing the polls too early as well as the inadequate staffing of the electoral board were also common. Such violations were often alongside the allegations of official or private misconduct. Voters and parties also complained about outlandish ballot boxes, including cigar boxes and cooking pots; strangely shaped ballots, and about the absence of isolating spaces (Isolierzelle). Only some procedural violations were intentional; many resulted due to insufficient state capacity in the countryside. Easy to spot and prove, procedural violations were often invoked when voters and parties hoped to overturn a narrow election.

The Geography of Manipulation

The costs and benefits of electoral misconduct in Imperial Germany varied with district-specific conditions. Religious affiliation may have been the single most important variable in German politics before and after WWI, and this carried over to the patterns of manipulation. Significantly fewer violations were reported in districts with a larger Catholic population. The state and private employers intervened less heavily in the predominantly Catholic districts because the pro-regime parties had little chance of winning there. At the same time, overt clerical influence was criminalized during the Kulturkampf, which may have improved the electoral process. Of course, it is also possible that electoral influence from the pulpit was underreported for fear of social sanctions or because parishioners did not view the recommendations of their priest as a negative influence.

District-level predictors of electoral manipulation based on multivariate regression analysis with state fixed effects.

Employment concentration and economic underdevelopment predict the frequency of private manipulation by employers. As argued by Isabela Mares in From Open Secrets to Secret Voting, occupational heterogeneity (a proxy for employment concentration) reduced employers’ ability to sanction their subordinates for supporting the wrong candidate. In more agricultural districts, the local population was more dependent on local economic elites, which facilitated manipulation.

Election-specific factors also mattered. Manipulation typically targeted the Social Democrats. Narrow electoral margins were both the cause and the consequence of electoral misconduct. For state and private actors, manipulation carried fewer advantages in uncompetitive elections. At the same time, for voters and losing candidates protesting misconduct was unlikely to pay off when the margin of victory was large.

Imperial Germany in a comparative context

Imperial Germany was an outlier in its own historical period. In contrast to US elections, where lynching and other forms of intimidation were used to discourage Blacks from voting, German elections were orderly, with no risk to life and limb until the rise of the National Socialists in the 1930s. Vote buying was extremely rare: an occasional glass of schnapps or a free sausage was the extent of bribery. Moreover, ballot fraud was nearly absent. Allegations of ballot fraud affected just a handful of votes; investigation of these incidents resulted in few convictions.

From a historical political economy perspective, however, there are many parallels between electoral misconduct in Imperial Germany and electoral misconduct in contemporary authoritarian regimes. Across the world, pro-regime parties secure mandates because state employees – election officials, tax collectors, and the police – coordinate and finance their campaigns, inflate their vote shares, or promote their platforms in state media.

For example, the pro-Putin United Russia Party enjoys disproportionate access to state administrative and financial resources. The Kremlin routinely induces employers to mobilize their subordinates to vote or to collect signatures for pro-regime candidates. In my home country Belarus, public sector employees – from teachers to factory directors – not only exert undue influence but also do not shy away from outright ballot fraud. The state also represses the opposition by prohibiting their rallies, detaining opposition candidates, and shutting down independent media. These parallels again illustrate why historical political economy is such a fascinating field.

As long as these phenomena persist in contemporary states, historical electoral misconduct will remain an important area of research.

[1] Margaret Anderson. 2000. Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial Germany. Princeton University Press, p. 24.

[2] See Bericht der Wahlprüfungskommission Nr. 152 in Verhandlungen des Reichstages, Bd. 61, 1880, pp. 825-31.

[3] See Bericht der Wahlprüfungskommission Nr. 702 in Verhandlungen des Reichstages, Bd. 246, 1908, pp. 4466-84.

[4] Bericht über die Wahl des Abgeordneten Berger.” 7 Sitzung (7.10.1878) in Verhandlungen des Reichstages, Bd. 51, 1879, p. 103.

[5] Bericht der Wahlprüfungskommission Nr. 1205 (Wahl Rieseberg), Bd. 253, 1909, pp. 7419-37.

[6] Wahl Reichensperger, 17. Sitzung 18.04.1871, in Verhandlungen des Reichstages, Bd. 19, 1871, pp. 269-71.


  • Volha Charnysh

    Charnysh is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She studies political attitudes and behavior in culturally diverse societies using micro-level historical data. She is particularly interested in the legacies of displacement, repression, and genocide. Her regional focus is Europe and Eurasia. She is currently working on a book about the enduring political and economic consequences of one of the largest episodes of forced migration in history: post-WWII population transfers in Central and Eastern Europe. Her work has been published or is forthcoming at the American Political Science Review, Comparative Political Studies, British Journal of Political Science, and European Journal of International Relations. Charnysh received a PhD in Government from Harvard University in 2017.

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