Prussian three-class franchise

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After the 1848 revolutions in the German states, the Prussian three-class franchise system (Dreiklassenwahlrecht) was introduced in 1848 by the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV for the election of the Lower House of the Prussian state parliament. It was completely abolished in 1918. This franchise was used in Prussia, Brunswick, Waldeck and Saxony (the latter until 1909).

Those eligible to vote were men aged over 24, divided by their direct tax revenue into three classes. These three classes were calculated according to how much tax one paid, by dividing the entire range of taxes into thirds. The first class ranged from the highest tax payer on down until one-third of total tax revenue was reached; the second for those with a lower income, down until another one-third of total tax revenue was reached; the third, finally, for the bottom third of tax payers. While the latter were generally poor people paying little to no taxes individually, it could happen that a well-to-do person living in a particularly rich tax district ended up in the third class, which happened to chancellor Bernhard von Bülow in 1903.

Voting took place in public, orally; there was no secret ballot. It was also indirect; representatives known as electors (Wahlmänner) were voted for, each class electing a third of all the electors. The classes of course contained widely differing numbers of people, even though the number of electors was the same for each one: in 1849 the first class constituted 4.7% of the population, the second class 12.7% and the third class 82.6%. This distribution meant that a first-class vote had 17.5 times the value of a third-class vote. A three-class franchise system was also used for local elections in parts of Prussia, one result of which was that the industrialist Alfred Krupp was the only person able to vote for the electors in the first class in Essen.

Prussia's controlling position in the German Empire meant that the system was at the heart of debates about reform. Extending suffrage would, however, have meant the downfall of the ruling conservative politicians, elected by the wealthy voters the three-class system favoured. Thus, despite popular dissatisfaction, the Prussian franchise persisted.

In 1917, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, German Chancellor and Prussian Prime Minister, drafted a reform to the voting system. Trying to placate the public and avoid revolution, Kaiser Wilhelm II proclaimed a watered-down version of this reform in his Easter Speech on April 7, which, by specifying no fixed date, failed to satisfy the public. The three-class system remained until the German Revolution of November 1918, when the Weimar Republic was formed. Article 17 of its constitution proclaimed proportional representation for women and men over the age of 20, with a secret ballot system.

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