The Prussian three-class franchise system (German: Dreiklassenwahlrecht), after the revolutions of 1848 in the German states, was introduced on 30 May 1849 by the government of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, for the election of the lower house of the Prussian parliament. It was completely abolished in 1918. The system was used in Prussia, Brunswick, Waldeck and (until 1909) Saxony.
Those eligible to vote were men over 24, divided by their direct tax revenue into three classes. The 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 was for those with a lower income until another one third of total tax revenue was reached; the third was for the bottom third of tax payers. While the last were generally poor people paying little to no tax individually, it could happen that a rich 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 and was oral; 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%. The 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 favoured by the three-class system. Thus, despite popular dissatisfaction, the Prussian franchise persisted.
In 1917, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, the 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 7 April 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 and a secret ballot and equal suffrage for both sexes over the age of 20.