The first-past-the-post electoral system is a voting system for single-member districts, variously called first-past-the-post (FPTP or FPP), winner-take-all, plurality voting, or relative majority. In political science, it is known as Single-Member District Plurality or SMDP. This system is in use at all levels of politics; it is very common in former British colonies. A thorough list is given below.
The term "first past the post" refers to a now seldom-used analogy with horse racing, where the winner is the first to pass a particular point (in this case a plurality of votes), upon which all other runners automatically and completely lose ("winner take all").
Each voter in a given electoral district selects one candidate. All votes are counted and the candidate with more votes than any of the other candidates is the winner. The winner represents the entire electoral district.
The election of a Member of Parliament in the UK is a well known example of First-Past-The-Post. But the system is also used on a smaller scale.
This example is an election for the president of a school class. Each class has a president who sits on a school council.
There are three candidates, Amy, Brian and Chloe. Each class member gets a ballot paper, with these three names on it. The class member must put an "X" against one of the names.
After the election finishes, the papers are sorted into three piles. One pile contains all the papers where there is an "X" against Amy (that is, votes for Amy). The other two piles contain votes for Brian and for Chloe.
The largest pile decides the winner. For instance, if Amy's pile has 11 votes, Brian's pile has 16 votes, and Chloe's pile has 13 votes, then the winner is Brian. Hooray!
Notice that there were a total of 11 + 16 + 13 = 40 votes, and the winner had only 16 of them - only 40%. But that is only the result for this one class.
We have created an imaginary school where the girl and boy students disagree with each other on most issues, and that girls vote for girls, while boys vote for boys.
Now, let's suppose that across all the classes, 8 of the class presidents that were elected were girls, and 9 were boys. That makes the boys the overall winner. The only influence that the pupils in this class had was to vote for Amy, Brian or Chloe. Some might argue that a boy won for this class because there were two girls, who "split the vote". Perhaps if Amy had not been a candidate, then Chloe would have won this class, and the girls would be the winners of the whole council.
Arguments exactly like this, but on a larger scale, are common wherever there are first-past-the-post elections.
More complex example
Imagine an election for the capital of Tennessee, a state in the United States that is over 500 miles east-to-west, and only 110 miles north-to-south. In this vote, the candidates for the capital are Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. The population breakdown by metro area is as follows:
- Memphis: 826,330
- Nashville: 510,784
- Chattanooga: 285,536
- Knoxville: 335,749
If the voters cast their ballot based strictly on geographic proximity, the voters' sincere preferences might be as follows:
42% of voters (close to Memphis)
26% of voters (close to Nashville)
15% of voters (close to Chattanooga)
17% of voters (close to Knoxville)
If voting follows sincere preferences, Memphis is selected with the most votes. Note that this system does not require that the winner have a majority, but only a plurality. That is, Memphis wins because it has the most votes, even though more than half of the voters preferred another option.
The most commonly expressed disadvantage – perhaps because it is easiest to express and explain – of first-past-the-post is that it is "unfair", i.e. that substantial bodies of opinion are not represented at all in the final result, and that a party may obtain a clear majority without popular support at that level.
First-past-the-post encourages the tactical voting technique known as "compromising": voters are encouraged to vote for one of the two options most likely to win, even if it is not their most preferred option. In the above example, voters from Chattanooga and Knoxville may "compromise" by voting for Nashville, which they prefer to Memphis.
If enough voters vote using this tactic, the first-past-the-post system becomes a form of runoff voting where the first round is held in the court of public opinion. This can give substantial power to the media as voters will tend to believe their viewpoint on who the leading contenders are likely to be in the election and use that viewpoint to decide where a "tactical" vote would be (in the voter's opinion) best used. This can also become a system promoting votes against more so than votes for.
One consequence of the system is that many FPTP elections can be considered won before all votes are tallied, once there are no longer enough uncounted votes to override an established plurality count. Though not necessarily a disadvantage, this can produce a feeling of disenfranchisement among voters when running tallies are reported through the media.
An interesting anomaly in the results of this system arose in the Canadian federal election of 1926 for the province of Manitoba. The province was entitled to 17 seats in that election. The result was very different from how people voted.
||Percentage of votes
||Number of seats
The Conservatives clearly had the largest number of votes across the province, but received no seats at all. The other parties were able to have success by having concentrated support in particular constituencies, and by not running candidates in others.
This presents a problem because the parties tend to narrowly focus on the needs and well-beings of specific electoral districts where they can be sure to win seats, rather than be sensitive to the sentiments of voters everywhere. In order to secure election results, some also choose to use redistricting to distort election results by enclosing party voters together in one electoral district (i.e., gerrymandering.)
Because of these anomalies and the tactical-voting tendencies, Duverger's law predicts that constituencies that use first-past-the-post systems will become two-party systems.
Because first-past-the-post is held to produce strong government (see below), it follows that those who prefer weak government (government unable to effectively introduce social change or legislative progress) might see strong government as a disadvantage of that system. Preference for weak government is likely to be found in people who favour the status quo, who favour curtailing the power of government, or do not favour the direction any majority party is likely to take.
Wipe out and clean sweep results
Since FPTP combined with single member constituencies generate a winner's bonus, if not winner takes all, the loyal opposition can be left with few if any seats.
An opposition that is weak or absent, because of an electoral wipeout, is not good for good governance. Provincal elections in several Canadian provinces provide suitable examples.
This is the missing corollary of strong-government arguement for FPTP.
It is argued that, because first-past-the-post is more likely to produce a simple majority for one party, this produces a stronger government. When difficult decisions or strong leadership are required for the good of the voters, a government is not distracted by the constant need to negotiate within the legislature. In addition, the need to govern leads to coalitions, which may give disproportionate power to a party with limited popular support, simply because the largest party sees them as "enemies of their enemies". In the UK, arguments for first-past-the-post often look to Italy where the frequent government changeovers are presented as undesirable.
First-past-the-post may well be the simplest of all voting systems. This implies specific advantages. It is likely to be quicker, and easier to adminster; this may also imply that an election costs less to run. It may also have an effect on voters, because it is easy to explain and understand. Alternative voting systems may alienate some voters who find the systems hard to understand, and who therefore feel detached from the direct effect of their own vote.
Each representative must be a winner
Sometimes, the voters are in favour of a political party, but do not like specific candidates. An example was the premier of Alberta, Donald Getty. His government was re-elected in 1989, but because of voter dissatisfaction with the way the government was led, Getty, the leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, was not re-elected by voters from his electoral district.
Similarly, in the 1999 Ontario provincial election, Mike Harris and his Progressive-Conservative party was re-elected to a majority government, but symbolic of the growing discontent among voters about cuts to education, his education minister and strong ally was resoundingly defeated by the opposition candidate.
It is often claimed that because each electoral district votes for its own representative, the elected candidate is held accountable to his own voters, thereby helping to prevent incompetent, fraudulent or corrupt behaviour by elected candidates. The voters in the electoral district can easily replace him since they have full power over who they want to represent them. In the absence of effective recall legislation, however, the electors must wait until the end of the representative's term.
No system can guarantee a clear result
- A Close elections is one where the winner's majority is very small, or where third parties or independents hold the balance of power.
Where First Past the Post systems are used
Countries that use this system to elect the lower or only house of their legislature include:
See Table of voting systems by nation
The first past the post election system is used in the Republic of China on Taiwan for executive offices such as county magistrates, mayors, and the president, but not for legislative seats which used the single non-transferable vote system. This has produced an interesting party structure in which there are two broad coalitions of parties which cooperate in executive elections but which compete internally in legislative elections. Source: Making Votes Count, Gary Cox (1997)
Ballots can be of two forms. The simplest form is a blank ballot where the name of a candidate is written in by hand. A more structured ballot will list all the candidates and allow a mark to be made by a single candidate. (A ballot with a candidate list can include space for a write-in candidate as well)
- ACE Project: First Past The Post http://www.aceproject.org/main/english/es/esd01.htm - Detailed explanation of first-past-the-post voting
- The Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform says the new proportional electoral system it proposes for B.C. will improve the practice of democracy in the province. http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public
- ASSEMBLY AUDIO AND VIDEO Below, you'll find audio and video recordings of six Learning Phase weekends, a meeting held in Prince George and the six Deliberation Phase weekends. The Learning Phase and Deliberation Phase recordings were broadcast on Hansard TV during 2004. http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public/learning_resources/learning_materials/a
v - week 5 gives a detailed description by David Farrell, of the University of Manchester (England), Elizabeth McLeay of Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.
- Voting methods resource page http://fc.antioch.edu/~james_green-armytage/voting.htm Includes a critique of FPTP and a very wide range of possible alternatives.
Last updated: 02-06-2005 21:07:11
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55