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The three-class franchise system (German: Dreiklassenwahlrecht) was an indirect election system used from 1848 to 1918 in the Kingdom of Prussia, and for shorter intervals in other German states. Voters were grouped into three classes such that those who paid most tax formed the first class, those who paid least formed the third, and the aggregate tax revenue of each class was equal. Voters in each class separately elected one third of the electors (Wahlmänner) who in turn voted for the representatives. Thus it was a form of apportionment by economic class rather than geographic area or population.
The system was introduced by the government of Frederick William IV of Prussia on 30 May 1848 after that year's revolution. Only men over the age of 21 were qualified to vote. Direct voting was conducted orally in public places—there was no secret ballot. In 1849 the first class constituted 4.7% of the population, the second class 12.7% and the third class 82.6% of the population. This distribution meant that each first-class vote had 17.5 times more influence on the outcome of their election than each third-class vote. A three-class franchise system was also used for local elections in parts of Prussia. In one case, the industrialist Alfred Krupp contributed so much to the tax revenue of Essen that he was the only member of the first class in that district.
Later, Wilhelm I, the first German Emperor, modernized the system of election for the Landtag (lower house) of the Prussian parliament. This reform ensured that 90% of parliamentary seats would be chosen by secret ballot on the basis of one vote per person. Wilhelm I's intention was to prevent nepotism and lobbying. He also wanted to encourage wealthy people to serve in government or pay for their representative. While the third class was usually composed of the poor, paying little to no tax, affluent districts would categorize relatively well-off people into the third class of those districts. This happened to chancellor Bernhard von Bülow in 1903.
In the German Empire, however, this system became heavily focused on raising and lowering tax rates, which politicians and the wealthy were interested in voting on. However, the wealthy did not have the power to monopolize civil laws[clarification needed] because they represented a minority of the population. Civil laws were passed by one vote per person, and in practice, taxes were adjusted via political negotiation. Prussia's controlling position in the Empire meant that the three-class system was at the heart of debates about reform. Extending suffrage in a different way would have meant the downfall of Wahlmänner elected by the wealthy voters favored by the three-class system. Thus, despite popular dissatisfaction, the Prussian franchise persisted.
In 1916, 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 diluted 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 the Weimar Constitution proclaimed proportional representation, secret ballot and equal suffrage for both sexes over the age of 20, which ended the law.
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Using data on individual-level roll call votes from parliamentary minutes of the Prussian House of Representatives during the period 1867 to 1903, researchers computed scores for MPs measuring political ideology. They find that voting behavior can be classified into two dimensions: a liberal–conservative dimension and a secular–religious dimension which combine to correctly predict 96% of roll call votes. Linking estimated ideal points with biographical information of MPs and with constituency-level variables, they analyze the driving forces of the Prussian political economy during a period of fundamental changes towards capitalism, secularization, and from liberalism to protectionism. They find different forms of inequality to be associated with competing political ideologies casting a more nuanced light on the three-class system of franchises.[better source needed]
The Prussian franchise contrasted sharply with the franchise for the empire, which granted the vote to all men above the age of 25 irrespective of income. The constituencies drawn in 1871 were never redrawn to reflect the growth of cities, meaning that the empire's rural areas were grossly overrepresented from the 1890s onward. Despite this, the imperial franchise was still considerably more equitable than that of Prussia. The king of Prussia was also German emperor, and the minister-president of Prussia was (with the exception of two brief periods) also chancellor of the empire. As a result, the king/emperor and minister-president/chancellor had to seek majorities from legislatures elected from radically different franchises.
- Ludwig Windthorst, Speech in Favor of Reforming the Prussian Suffrage, in the Prussian House of Deputies, 26 November 1873.