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First Past the Post electoral system

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The first-past-the-post electoral system is an election voting system for single-member districts, variously called first-past-the-post (FPTP)), winner-take-all, plurality voting, or relative majority. The proper name of this system in political science is Single-Member District Plurality, or SMDP. This system is in use at all levels of politics - famously in the United Kingdom. The United States uses it to determine which slate of electors goes to the Electoral College, but generally uses runoff voting for other federal or local elections. First-past-the-post systems are common in former British colonies, but proportional representation ("PR") systems are more common in other democracies, especially those with parliamentary systems. For a thorough list, see below.

Table of contents

Voting

Each voter selects one candidate.

Counting the votes

All votes are counted and the candidate (or proposal) with the most votes is declared the winner.

An example

4 candidates: Andrea, Brad, Carter, and Delilah.

  • 35 voters choose Andrea
  • 27 voters choose Brad
  • 16 voters choose Carter
  • 11 voters choose Delilah

Andrea is elected with the most votes. Note that this system does not require that the winner have a majority, but only a plurality. That is, Andrea wins because she has the most votes, even though this only constitutes about 39% of the total votes cast.

Duverger's law

According to Duverger's law, first-past-the-post systems lead to a two-party system. A prominent exception to this rule is Canada, where a multi-party system was able to develop because parties are concentrated in different regions from one another.

Anomalous results

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 percentage of votes received across the province were
  • Conservatives 42.2%
  • Labour Progressives 19.5%
  • Liberals 18.4%
  • Progressives 11.2%
  • Labour 8.7%
The apportionment of seats however was
  • Conservatives 0
  • Labour Progressives 7
  • Liberals 4
  • Progressives 4
  • Labour 2
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.

Potential for tactical voting

There is enormous potential for tactical voting. Voters only get one chance to express their preference, so if they express it for a candidate who stands little chance of winning, they do not get to choose between the popular candidates. Because of this, most voters vote for the candidate they prefer among those candidates who they believe have a chance of winning. Therefore, candidates often vie to seem that they are more likely to win, rather than that they are preferable.

To counteract tactical voting, sometimes groups of like-minded voters will hold preliminary, or primary, elections amongst themselves to choose a candidate for the true election. This ensures that their vote will not be split amongst similar candidates. Sometimes this is institutionalized in the form of a political party.

Where it's used

Countries that use this system to elect the lower or only house of their legislature:

Bahamas -- Bangladesh -- Barbados -- Belize -- Botswana -- Canada -- Dominica -- The Gambia -- Grenada -- Jamaica -- Federated States of Micronesia -- Nepal -- Papua New Guinea -- Saint Kitts and Nevis -- Saint Lucia -- Saint Vincent and the Grenadines -- Samoa -- Solomon Islands -- Trinidad and Tobago -- United Kingdom (Westminster elections) -- United States (Presidential elections) -- Zambia

The first past the post election system is used 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)

What the critics say

Critics of the system argue that it can lead to under-representation, and government by minority. If there are three candidates in an election, it is possible for the winner to have received only one more vote than his or her competitors, and thus two thirds of the electorate have voted against the winner. This system also discourages individuals from voting for smaller political parties who they might otherwise support, because their votes will effectively not count in the final tally. This aspect of the system has been cited as both an advantage and a disadvantage.

If the system has multiple areas, such as the states in the electoral college system for the US presidential elections, or the constituencies for the UK parliamentary elections, the system favors political parties with concentrated geographical support, as they can command the majority in that area. This facet of the system leads to the practice of gerrymandering, which is the drawing of electoral district boundaries for the purpose of influencing an election.

Another criticism of this system is that in some situations, the winner may not have a majority, and in fact often does not. Critics point to the existence of other voting systems which are not vulnerable to this, such as runoff voting, instant-runoff voting, approval voting, or Condorcet's method. When multiple seats are involved, proportional representation is also often suggested.

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