Overview

Size: approx. 84.000 km²

Population: approx. 8,000.000 inhabitants

Austria is a democratic republic whose law emanates from the people. Its head of state is the Federal President. Austria is composed of nine autonomous provinces named Burgenland, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tyrol, Vorarlberg, and Vienna. The provinces have specific executive powers, but no separate court system, and maintain provincial parliaments with select legislative powers. They have their own provincial electoral authorities and electoral legislation. For nation-wide elections, specific federal laws are in force. Basic principles and provisions governing elections on all political levels are laid down in the Federal Constitution. The federal parliament is bi-cameral. It comprises a lower chamber (national council) and an upper chamber (federal council).

  • Nation-wide elections: National Council Elections (= National Parliamentary Elections), European Elections, Presidential Elections
  • Provincial elections: Provincial Parliamentary Elections, Municipal Elections, Mayoral Elections (where applicable)

All elections are in accordance with the principles of universal, equal, direct, secret, free, and personal right to vote.

Key elements of the voting system:

  • nation-wide elections (nation-wide electoral legislature)
  • provincial and municipal elections (provincial electoral legislature)
  • proportional election system
  • list voting system
  • exception: election of Federal President (the candidate receiving more than 50% of all valid votes is elected. If this majority is not achieved, a second ballot is necessary).

Electoral Register:

  • In Austria, there is no need to apply for registration as all citizens with a permanent residence in the country are kept in a permanent register, maintained by the municipalities
  • Every person shall only be registered once in said register. For European Parliamentary elections, a separate European Electoral Register is maintained.

Voting Right:

Active right to vote: 16 or above.

Passive right to vote: 18 or above.

In general, the Austrian citizenship is a pre-condition to enjoy the active and passive rights to vote (exception: in European Elections and Municipal Elections citizens of EU member states also enjoy voting rights)

Extra Information:

Suffrage for Women: In 1918 universal suffrage was extended to women for the first time. In 1919 the first eight women – seven Social Democrats and one Christian Socialist – entered parliament after the elections to the Constituent National Assembly.

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Federal Parliamentary System

The Federal Parliament is bi-cameral:

  • Nationalrat (National Council: 183 members)
  • Bundesrat (Federal Council: currently 61 members)

National Council

Elections to the National Council must take place every five years at the latest. All Austrian citizens who turn 16 on election day are entitled to vote (active voting right).

All Austrian citizens who turn 18 on election day have the right to be elected (passive voting right). Citizens lose their voting rights only if they were convicted of a criminal offence exceeding one year of imprisonment.

Elections take place based on the principles of proportional representation, a closed list system, and preferential votes. All campaigning groups need supportive signatures by three members of the National Council or 2,600 declarations of support in order to run nationwide for national parliamentary elections. The foundation of a political party is not required to stand for an election. Austrian election legislation refers to “campaigning groups” rather than political parties.

183 seats are allocated to the individual groups seeking election based on the percentage of votes they win in the election (“Hare Method”). For the purposes of distributing seats in the National Council, the Republic of Austria is divided into nine provincial constituencies (identical with the nine provinces) which are further divided into 39 regional constituencies.

Seats are assigned in the course of a three-stage process:

  1. Regional Constituencies
  2. Provincial Constituencies
  3. Final nationwide assignment process on the basis of the "d’Hondt Rule" of highest average, applied to each party’s surplus votes; 4 % threshold for parties to gain representation

Federal Council

In contrast to the National Council, the Federal Council is not elected directly elected. Its members are delegated by the provincial diets in accordance with the proportional distribution of political parties in each provincial diet. The number of representatives dispatched by each federal province is determined by the population of that province. The largest province sends twelve and the smallest at least three representatives. As the population of the provinces changes, the number of mandates they are entitled to in the Federal Council also changes. The number of mandates is recalculated every ten years according to the census. Subsequently, the Federal President issues a resolution stipulating how many representatives each province can delegate to the Federal Council. For this reason, the overall number of members in the Federal Council is not predetermined. Currently, the Federal Council numbers 61 members.

The Federal Council issues federal legislation in conjunction with the National Council, and has (limited) powers to veto laws passed by the National Council.

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Instruments of Direct Democracy

The Austrian legal system is endued with three different instruments of direct democracy: Referenda (“Volksabstimmung”), public opinion polls (“Volksbefragung”) and public initiatives (“Volksbegehren”). Austrian legislation strongly supports the active participation of the electorate in all kinds of decision-making processes. Direct democracy mechanisms were first introduced into the national legal framework in 1920. The instrument of public opinion polls was implemented in 1989. To date, no public opinion polls have been carried out. Public initiatives have proven to receive strong interest and support by the public. Since 1963, when the Public Initiatives Act went into force, 34 such initiatives have taken place. In the 2nd Republic, two referenda have been carried out.

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Voting Procedure

Facilitating the Voting Procedure; Postal Voting

The Austrian law maker realised a number of changes and improvements in the legal framework in order to increase voter participation and make democratic institutions more transparent. For instance, the opening hours of polling places are usually adjusted to the needs of the local population and there is a degree of flexibility to keep stations open for a relatively long time during a day. Hence, there is no uniform, nation-wide closing time for polling place. By law, the last stations have to close at 5 p.m. (European parliamentary elections 10 p.m.).

In nation-wide elections, persons being absent from their permanent residence and designated polling station are entitled to obtain a “voting card” which enables them to use any polling place in Austria to cast their vote or to employ postal voting.

Austrian citizens can also exercise their voting right by casting a postal ballot. Postal voting is equally possible from abroad and within the confines of Austria. Voters are not required to appear before an electoral authority or, when abroad, request the confirmation of a witness. They merely have to sign an affidavit on the voting card which states that they cast their vote in person, unobserved, and without having been influenced. The postal ballot has to be mailed to the competent District Election Authority. All voting cards used for postal voting must arrive at the competent district electoral authority or at a polling place within this district on election day at 5 p.m. at the latest.

Voters whose personal mobility is limited (elder people, bedridden persons, certain prisoners, …) can avail themselves of the services of so-called “flying election commissions” (special election authorities) if they require the presence of an election authority. Alternatively, they can also exercise postal voting.

The blind or persons with serious visual defects are provided with a template by the electoral authority as an aid to exercise their right to vote in person regardless of their impairment. Physically or mentally handicapped voters may have a person at their side to guide and help them with the act of voting. Such a trusted third party can be chosen by the voter and confirmed vis-à-vis the polling officer. Subject to the given opportunities every community shall provide for establishing at least one polling station easily accessible for handicapped people.

Zones of prohibition

In the polling station building and in the surrounding area (“zone of prohibition”) any kind of election campaigning (e.g. speeches to the voters, posting or distributing of election pamphlets or of candidate lists), any assembly, or carrying of weapons of all kind is strictly prohibited. The zone of prohibition is to be determined by the community electoral authority

No Compulsory Voting

In the current Austrian legal system, no mandatory voting is exercised.

Regarding elections to the National Council, the duty to cast a vote was abolished in 1992. Until then, the provincial law maker was entitled to regulate mandatory voting in the respective provincial election laws. Styria, Tyrol and Vorarlberg were the last provinces to exercise compulsory voting (until 1992).

A nation-wide duty to vote in presidential elections only existed until 1982. Subsequently it was up to the provincial law maker whether or not such a duty was upheld in a respective province. During the elections to the office of Federal President in 2004, only the province of Tyrol still had a provision governing compulsory voting. However, said provision was abolished in the same year, shortly after the elections. Hence, there was no more mandatory voting in the 2010 presidential elections.

Access to media; electoral debates

There are no specific regulations for access to the media or the distribution of broadcasting times during an electoral process. No free access to the media is provided for; the access to radio, TV, or print publications always incurs costs. Besides, there is no statutory limit on paid advertising. Note: Due to the principle of a closed list system, the Austrian law does not provide for individual candidates in elections. In theory, however, a party submitting an election proposal with only one person is possible.

In Austria, there are no statutory regulations governing electoral debates. In the run-up to nationwide TV debates for parliamentary or presidential elections, however, it is common procedure to conclude agreements between the competing parties and between the parties and the TV companies, respectively.

Experiences with voter turnout

In general, voter turnout in Austria is relatively high. Studies show that the abolishment of provisions on mandatory voting has not significantly changed the attitude of voters. It is neither the Minister’s nor the Federal Electoral Board’s task to promote elections, democratic institutions or voter turnout in general. Such efforts, if at all, could only be made by the Government when acting as a collegial organ. In reality, it is usually the different political parties’ business to promote voter participation. Accordingly, the Austrian law maker grants political parties various opportunities to receive reimbursement for their activities and campaigns.

Objections against figures ascertained

The authorised recipient of any party is free to raise an objection in writing with the Federal Electoral Board against the figures ascertained by a provincial electoral authority or the federal electoral authority within three days after their announcement. The appeal shall furnish sufficient ‘prima facie evidence’ why and to what extent the figures ascertained by the provincial electoral authority or the federal electoral authority are not in conformity with the provisions of this federal law.

If such reasons are not brought forward, the appeal can be rejected without any further examination. In case of an appeal with sufficient evidence the federal electoral authority shall re-examine the election result on the basis of the documents available. If these documents should reveal any evidence of an incorrect result, the federal electoral authority shall immediately rectify the respective result, revoke the announcements of the provincial and of the federal electoral authority, and announce the correct result.

All other unlawful electoral actions can be challenged before the Austrian Constitutional Court.

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Electoral Authorities

Austria has a top central election authority which is called “Bundeswahlbehörde” (Federal Electoral Board). The Federal Electoral Board is an independent authority comprised of the Federal Minister of the Interior as chairperson and 17 „Beisitzer“ (assessors). Two assessors are drawn from the judiciary; the additional 15 assessors are nominated by the parties represented in the National Council. The Federal Electoral Board is completely independent of the government.

All members of the Federal Electoral Board must not belong to any other electoral authority. The Federal Minister of the Interior can designate one or more deputies. In addition, every assessor is deputized by one co-assessor (“Ersatzbeisitzer”). Parties not being represented in the National Council are entitled to delegate “Vetrauenspersonen” (observers) to the Federal Electoral Board. The principal regulations governing the structure of the Federal Electoral Board are laid down in the Austrian Federal Constitution. Further details are stipulated in the National Council Elections Act (“Nationalrats-Wahlordnung”).

The Federal Electoral Board plays a core role in the realisation of nationwide elections and supervises all other election authorities performing their respective tasks. The Federal Electoral Board is in charge of elections to the National Council, the European Parliament, the office of Federal President, referenda (“Volksabstimmung”), and public opinion polls (“Volksbefragung”). Besides, the Authority determines the final results of public initiatives (“Volksbegehren”).

The Federal Electoral Board receives the votes cast by the municipalities which are submitted to the Provincial Election Authorities through the District Election Authorities. The Federal Electoral Board is subsequently charged with the determination of the actual number of parliamentary seats achieved by the parties running in the nation-wide elections.

The Federal Electoral Board, being an independent council, draws on the competent Department of Electoral Affairs (Department III/6) of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which serves as the support branch of the electoral board. The relation between the Federal Electoral Board and the Ministerial Department of Electoral Affairs is clearly defined by law.

At the seat of each of the nine Offices of Provincial Governments a Provincial Electoral Authority is established separately for each Province. It consists of the Governor of the Province or a permanent representative to be appointed by him (her) as chairperson and provincial polling officer, and of nine assessors.

For each political district, a District Electoral Authority is installed. It consists of the head of the district office or a permanent representative to be appointed by him (her) as chairperson and district officer, as well as of nine assessors.  

In Austria, ballots are exclusively counted by the local electoral authorities (community and precinct election authorities). As an exception, postal ballots are counted by the district election authorities.

All in all, Austria numbers approx. 13,000 polling stations; each of them maintains an election authority. The number of members of a local election authority depends on whether or not a community is further divided into sub-areas (precinct electoral authorities) for the purpose of an election. If the election authority of the municipality functions as the local authority, the number of members is 9 plus one chairperson. Both for the chairperson and the commission members, substitutes are nominated. A local commission for a sub-area (precinct) comprises 3 members and a chairperson plus one substitute for each of them.

The chairperson of a local election authority in a community (usually the respective mayor) becomes head of said commission by law. The chairperson in a sub-area is nominated by the community (normally by the mayor). The other members of the authority are nominated by the different parties. The number of seats for a party depends on the results of the last parliamentary election and is calculated by the “D'Hondt” system.

Parties not having achieved any seats can nominate two witnesses who take part in the meetings of the electoral commissions without the right to vote.

In theory accepting the nomination as a member or witness of an electoral authority is compulsory if a person lives in the community where he/she is nominated. In practice people are asked by the parties whether or not they would like to join the authority.

Members of an election authority do not get any payment. They only receive a small compensation for food and drinks that depends on the hours of operation of a polling station on election day. 

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Statistics

The last elections to the National Council (“Nationalratswahl”, i.e. ‘parliamentary elections’) took place on 28 September 2008. The following nation-wide statistics can be provided: 

Registered voters 6.333.109
Voter turnout 78,81%
Votes cast 4.990.952
Invalid votes 103.643
Valid votes 4.887.309

The last elections to the European Parliament (“Europawahl”, i.e. ‘european parliamentary elections’) took place on 7 June 2009. The following nation-wide statistics can be provided:

Registered voters 6.362.781
Voter turnout 45,97%
Votes cast 2.925.132
Invalid votes 60.511
Valid votes 2.864.621

The last elections to the office of Federal President (“Bundespräsidentenwahl”, i.e. ‘presidential elections’) took place on 25 April 2010. The following nation-wide statistics can be provided:

Registered voters 6.355.800
Voter turnout 53,57%
Votes cast 3.404.646
Invalid votes 242.682
Valid votes 3.161.964

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Federal Ministry of the Interior, Department III/6 - Electoral Affairs, A-1010 Vienna, Phone: +43-1-53126-905209e-mail