Postal ballot

Who may vote by postal ballot?

Persons entitled to vote who are listed in a voters’ register may exercise their right to vote by postal ballot provided that they apply for a polling card to be issued.

Since the 2009 European and Bundestag Elections it has no longer been necessary to give an important reason for being absent on election day.

Persons who have not been entered in the voters’ register for a reason beyond their control may also apply for a polling card to be issued and vote by post if certain conditions are met (see under polling card).

When, where and how is the application filed?

Persons entitled to vote who wish to cast their vote by post should submit the application for the issue of a polling card and postal ballot documents to the local authority of their main place of residence as early as possible. There is no need to wait for the voter’s notification to be delivered.

No specific form is prescribed for the application, it may be submitted in writing, also by e-mail, or personally. It has to indicate the family name and surname(s), date of birth and home address. It is not possible to apply by telephone.

Persons entitled to vote who are disabled may avail themselves of another person’s assistance to submit the application.

Postal ballot documents can be applied for until 6 p.m. on the last Friday before the election.

In exceptional cases it is possible to apply for a polling card and postal ballot documents to be issued until 3 p.m. on the day of the election, especially

  • in cases where due to provable sudden illness the voter finds it impossible or unreasonably difficult to go to the polling station.

Postal ballot documents may be issued only after final approval of the nominations has been given and after the ballot papers have been printed.

Persons entitled to vote who go to the municipal authority to collect their postal ballot documents may cast their votes there and then.


What documents are required to vote by postal ballot?

Upon application, the following documents will be handed over or sent to the postal voters:

  • a polling card which must be signed personally by the local authority official authorized to issue it and which must bear the official seal. The official seal may be embossed. There does not have to be no signature if the polling card is issued by an automatic device; the name of the designated official may be printed on the polling card instead,
  • an official ballot paper,
  • an official ballot paper envelope (usually white),
  • an official return envelope (red) indicating the full address to which the ballot letter has to be sent, the issuing authority of the municipality and the polling card number or the polling district,
  • a detailed postal ballot instruction sheet containing all the necessary information and clear illustrations about what the person wishing to vote by post needs to do.

Anyone who closely observes the instructions on the sheet can be sure that there will be no reasons for the ballot letter to be rejected (see below).

How is the vote cast by postal ballot?

This is how voting by post works:

  • mark the ballot paper yourself (in Bundestag elections: two votes – first vote for one of the candidates for direct election in the constituency listed in the left column, second vote for the distribution of seats among the parties in the Bundestag in the right column; in European elections: only one vote for the distribution of seats among the German deputies by parties in the European Parliament),
  • put the ballot paper into the ballot paper envelope and seal the envelope,
  • indicate place and date on the “affirmation in lieu of an oath pertaining to the postal ballot” on the polling card and sign it,
  • put the polling card and the ballot paper envelope into the red official return envelope,
  • seal the red official return envelope, put it in the post unstamped (outside the Federal Republic of Germany: stamped) or hand it in to the authority indicated on the envelope.

Detailed information on the postal ballot and clear illustrations are provided on the postal ballot instruction sheet which all postal voters will receive together with the documents needed for the postal ballot procedure.

When must postal ballot letters be sent off?

It is of utmost importance that the ballot letter is sent by mail in good time as soon as possible after receipt of the postal ballot documents or handed in to the authority indicated on the official return envelope. It must be received by the competent authority not later than 6 p.m. on the Sunday on which the election is held because polling comes to a close at 6 p.m. and the counting of votes begins. Postal ballot letters received later will not be considered in the counting of votes.

If sent by mail, the ballot letter should be posted in Germany not later than on the third working day before election to make sure it is received in time. Postal voters may also hand the postal ballot letter in or have it handed in at the authority indicated on the official return envelope. In any case the postal voter bears the risk of the postal ballot letter not being received in time. Postal ballot letters may be posted free of charge within the Federal Republic of Germany. Postage has to be paid for letters posted abroad.

In view of longer mail delivery times abroad it may be advisable to send the postal ballot letters by airmail. To this end an airmail sticker (Priority/Prioritaire) has to be placed on the envelope.

Which postal ballot letters will be rejected?

Under the postal ballot procedure, postal ballot letters have to be rejected if

  • the postal ballot letter is not received in time,
  • there is no or no valid polling card in the official return envelope,
  • there is no ballot paper envelope in the official return envelope,
  • neither the official return envelope nor the ballot paper envelope is sealed,
  • the official return envelope contains several ballot paper envelopes but not an equal number of valid polling cards bearing the prescribed affirmation in lieu of an oath,
  • the voter or the person rendering assistance has failed to sign the prescribed affirmation in lieu of an oath for the postal ballot on the polling card,
  • no official ballot paper envelope has been used,
  • a ballot paper envelope has been used which obviously differs from the other envelopes in a manner endangering the secrecy of the ballot or which contains a distinctly tangible object.

The senders of postal ballot letters that are rejected are not counted as voters; their votes are deemed uncast.

Postal voters at Bundestag and European elections 1
Bundestag election European Parliament election
Election year number % 2 Election year number % 2
1949 3      
1953 3      
1957 1,537,094 4.9      
1961 1,891,604 5.8      
1965 2,443,935 7.3      
1969 2,381,860 7.1      
1972 2,722,424 7.2      
1976 4,099,212 10.7      
      1979 3,064,640 10.9
1980 4,991,942 13.0      
1983 4,135,816 10.5      
      1984 2,763,673 11.0
1987 4,247,949 11.1      
      1989 3,757,364 13.2
1990 4,435,770 9.4      
1994 6,389,047 13.4 1994 3,954,873 10.9
1998 8,016,122 16.0      
      1999 3,847,138 14.0
2002 8,765,762 18.0      
      2004 4,103,759 15.5
2005 8,969,355 18.7      
2009 9,421,406 21.4 2009 4,953,139 18.4
2013 10,758,677 24.3      
      2014 7,541,419 25.3
2017 13,430,468 28.6      
      2019 10,725,200 28.4
2021 22,146,336 47.3      

1  From 1990: territory of the Federal Republic of Germany as of 3 October 1990.
2  Of all voters.
3  Voting by postal ballot was not possible.

Legal bases

Bundestag election:

Sections 36, 39 of the Federal Elections Act (BWG)
Sections 20, 25 to 31, 66, 74, 75 of the Federal Electoral Regulations (BWO)

European election:

Section 4 of the European Elections Act (EuWG) in conjunction with Sections 36, 39 of the Federal Elections Act (BWG)
Sections 19, 24 to 30, 59, 67, 68 of the European Electoral Regulations (EuWO)

Last update: 18 December 2023