Barbara Anna Bernsmeier, EU-Russia Civil Society Forum

It was in late March when conversations about “election workers” (so called Wahlhelfer*innen) first appeared within my circle of friends. And the word popped up more and more in the following months. The reason? The Berlin senate had announced that people signing up for helping at the elections would get prioritised for Covid-19 vaccinations. A light on the horizon, back when the vaccination date seemed as far away as a trip to Bali. And Berlin was in need of volunteers for these (super-)elections: on September 26th, 2021, next to the national elections to Bundestag, Berlin citizens were invited to cast their votes for Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Representatives) and for the twelve Bezirksverordnetenversammlungen (District Assemblies) plus the referendum to expropriate large real estate corporations.

Traditionally in Germany, organisers of all processes in polling stations on election days are volunteers: They distribute ballot papers, ensure that citizens vote properly. At the end of the day, they count the ballots in order to determine the results for the electoral district. Election workers are searched on a voluntary basis or appointed by the municipal election authority.

Back in April, the Berlin senate made public of being in need of 34.000 election workers – around 14.000 more than usual, due to the higher number of postal voters because of the Corona crisis. However, recruiting did not seem to be a problem and a couple of weeks before the elections, interested people were rejected or nobody got back to them. One week before the “Super-Election Day”, I received a notification to fulfill my duty as “Wahlhelferin” in the central Postal polling station of the district Mitte [1].

The station was based in the canteen of the technical university, where apparently no students had eaten since March 2020 and the following online semesters. It did not seem to be a problem however to cram around 400 election volunteers into the canteen – without a hygiene concept or any common understanding about masks (yes or no?), windows (better open, but dangerous as ballots could fly away) or distances. I immediately caught myself being an absolute beginner when looking for a mobile coffee and cake trolley. I watched in amazement as long-serving teams set up their buffets – and fed me with cinnamon buns in solidarity.

Our small team consisted of 9 people and represented a brilliant and efficiency-loving group of lawyers, teachers, pensioners, programmers, students and managers. We were responsible for one election district in the neighborhood of Wedding with around 650 votes in total that all had come in via post. Which showed us the first big problem: to properly vote, all 5 bulletins needed to be put into a blue envelope (closed of course!) and together with the signed declaration be put into a red envelope. And this is truly not self-explanatory to everyone. An explanation of the election documents in easy language and in English plus other foreign languages must definitely be implemented in the next few years. So, within our team, quite some decisions about what to consider invalid and valid occurred.

Two hours after we started counting, we received a “material package” – containing rapid corona tests and other things. Luckily, our two “electoral chairs” had really thought about materials and brought what we needed: Scotch tape, paper clips and folders. I can say (not without pride) that even though having received our ballots as one of the last teams, we managed to finish as one of the first ones. I saw more and more people leaving with tired faces – without having counted till the end. When we left the university building at midnight, it was still buzzing like a beehive at many places.

The results of the elections in Berlin were overshadowed in the days that followed by more and more inconsistencies coming to light: lack of election workers, wrong bulletins, hour-long queues, alarmingly high number of invalid votes in some localities. As a first consequence, the election commissioner resigned shortly after these happenings. As of 28 October, legal objections can be lodged against the elections.

I for myself am ready for my next assignment as an election worker – with more knowledge, better equipment, new acquaintances and a large stock of cinnamon buns.

Photo: Jens-Olaf Walter


[1]  It turned out later on 26 September, election workers were not enough and people received calls in the very morning of this day.