The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the English-speaking world and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2019) ()
In a first-past-the-post (FPTP or FPP; formally called single-member plurality voting or SMP) electoral system members of the electorate cast their vote for the candidate of their choice and the candidate who receives the most votes wins, even if they did not receive more than half of the votes. First-past-the-post voting is a plurality voting method. FPTP is a common electoral system, especially in systems that use single-member electoral divisions.
While most countries use forms of proportional representation, FPTP is used in about a quarter of the world's countries, usually in the English-speaking world (the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Canada and other countries in the British Commonwealth).
First-past-the-post can be used for single- and multiple-member electoral divisions. In a single-member election, the candidate with the highest number (but not necessarily a majority) of votes is elected. In a multiple-member election (or multiple-selection ballot), each voter casts (up to) the same number of votes as there are positions to be filled, and those elected are the highest-placed candidates corresponding to that number of positions. For example, if there are three vacancies, then voters cast up to three votes and the three candidates with the greatest number of votes are elected.
The Electoral Reform Society is a political pressure group based in the United Kingdom that advocates abolishing the first-past-the-post method (FPTP) for all elections. It argues FPTP is "bad for voters, bad for government and bad for democracy". It is the oldest organisation concerned with electoral methods in the world.
In the US, 48 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia use first-past-the-post voting to choose the electors of the Electoral College (which in turn elects the president); Maine and Nebraska use a variation where the electoral vote of each congressional district is awarded by first-past-the-post, and the statewide winner is awarded an additional two electoral votes. In states that employ FPTP, the presidential candidate gaining the greatest number of votes wins all the state's available electors (seats), regardless of the number or share of votes won, or the difference separating the leading candidate and the first runner-up.
The multiple-round election (runoff) voting method uses first-past-the-post voting method in each of two rounds. The first round, held according to Block Voting rules, determines which candidates may progress to the second and final round.
Under a first-past-the-post voting method, the highest polling candidate is elected. In this real-life illustration from 2011, Tony Tan obtained a greater number of votes than any of the other candidates. Therefore, he was declared the winner, although the second-placed candidate had an inferior margin of only 0.35% and a majority of voters (64.8%) did not vote for Tony Tan:
|Votes||% of valid votes|
|Tan Cheng Bock||738,311||34.85|
|Tan Jee Say||530,441||25.04|
|Tan Kin Lian (Loses deposit)||104,095||4.91|
|Valid votes||2,118,540||98.24% of total votes cast|
|Rejected votes||37,849||1.76% of total votes cast|
|Total votes cast||2,156,389||Voter turnout: 94.8% of electorate|
The effect of a system based on plurality voting spread over a number of separate districts is that the larger parties, and parties with more geographically concentrated support, gain a disproportionately large share of seats, while smaller parties with more evenly distributed support gain a disproportionately small share. It is more likely that a single party will hold a majority of legislative seats. In the United Kingdom, 19 of the 24 general elections since 1922 have produced a single-party majority government; for example, the 2005 general election results were as follows:
|Party||Seats||Seats %||Votes %||Votes|
|Scottish National Party||6||1.0||1.6||412,267|
In this example, Labour took a majority of the seats with only 36% of the vote. The largest two parties took 69% of the vote and 88% of the seats. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats took more than 20% of the vote but only about 10% of the seats. FPTP wastes less votes when it is used in two-party contests.
Waste of votes and minority governments are more likely when large groups of voters vote for three, four or more parties as in Canadian elections. Canada uses FPTP and only two of the last six federal Canadian elections produced single-party majority governments.
The benefits of FPTP are that its concept is easy to understand, and ballots can more easily be counted and processed than those in preferential voting systems.
First past the post's tendency to produce majority rule gives a government the opportunity to pursue a consistent strategy for its term in office. This may be deemed a good thing, providing the government is actually representing the wishes of the people it serves, although it may equally be deemed bad if the government is or becomes unpopular.
Supporters also argue that electoral systems using proportional representation (PR) may also enable smaller parties to become decisive in Parliament and gain leverage they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. First past the post generally reduces this possibility, except where parties have a strong regional basis. A journalist at Haaretz noted that Israel's highly proportional Knesset "affords great power to relatively small parties, forcing the government to give in to political blackmail and to reach compromises."
FPTP is most often criticized for its failure to reflect the popular vote in the number of seats awarded to competing parties. Critics argue that a fundamental requirement of an election system is to accurately represent the views of voters, but FPTP often fails in this respect. It often creates "false majorities" by over-representing larger parties (giving a majority of the seats to a party that did not receive a majority of the votes) while under-representing smaller ones. The diagram here, summarizing Canada's 2015 federal election, demonstrates how FPTP can misrepresent the popular vote.
Generally FPTP favours parties who can concentrate their vote into certain voting districts (or in a wider sense in specific geographic areas). This is because in doing this they win many seats and don't 'waste' many votes in other areas.
On the other hand, minor parties that do not concentrate their vote usually end up getting a much lower proportion of seats than votes, as they lose most of the seats they contest and 'waste' most of their votes.
The ERS also says that in First Past the Post elections using many separate districts "small parties without a geographical base find it hard to win seats".
Make Votes Matter said that in the 2017 UK general election, "the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and UKIP (minor, non-regional parties) received 11% of votes between them, yet they shared just 2% of seats", and in the 2015 UK general election, "[t]he same three parties received almost a quarter of all the votes cast, yet these parties shared just 1.5% of seats."
According to make votes matter, and shown in the chart below, in the 2015 UK general election UKIP came in third in terms of number of votes (3.9 million/12.6%), but gained only one seat in Parliament, resulting in one seat per 3.9 million votes. The Conservatives on the other hand received one seat per 34,000 votes.
The winner-takes-all nature of FPTP leads to distorted patterns of representation, since it exaggerates the correlation between party support and geography. For example, in the UK the Conservative Party represents most of the rural seats, and most of the south of the country, while the Labour Party represents most of the cities and most of the north. This pattern hides the large number of votes for the non-dominant party. Parties can find themselves without elected politicians in significant parts of the country, heightening feelings of regionalism. Party supporters (who may nevertheless be a significant minority) in those sections of the country are unrepresented. In the 2019 Canadian election Conservatives won 98 percent of the seats in Alberta/Saskatchewan with only 68 percent of the vote. All but Conservatives are pretty much unrepresented; the general appearance is that all residents of those two provinces are Conservative, which is an exaggeration.
To a greater extent than many others, the first-past-the-post method encourages tactical voting. Voters have an incentive to vote for a candidate who they predict is more likely to win, in preference to their preferred candidate who may be unlikely to win and for whom a vote could be considered as wasted.
The position is sometimes summarised, in an extreme form, as "all votes for anyone other than the runner-up are votes for the winner." This is because votes for these other candidates deny potential support from the second-placed candidate, who might otherwise have won. Following the extremely close 2000 U.S. presidential election, some supporters of Democratic candidate Al Gore believed one reason he lost to Republican George W. Bush is because a portion of the electorate (2.7%) voted for Ralph Nader of the Green Party, and exit polls indicated that more of them would have preferred Gore (45%) to Bush (27%). This election was ultimately determined by the results from Florida, where Bush prevailed over Gore by a margin of only 537 votes (0.009%), which was far exceeded by the 97488 (1.635%) votes cast for Nader in that state.
In Puerto Rico, there has been a tendency for Independentista voters to support Populares candidates. This phenomenon is responsible for some Popular victories, even though the Estadistas have the most voters on the island, and is so widely recognised that Puerto Ricans sometimes call the Independentistas who vote for the Populares "melons", because that fruit is green on the outside but red on the inside (in reference to the party colors).
Because voters have to predict in advance who the top two candidates will be, results can be significantly distorted:
Proponents of other voting methods in single-member districts argue that these would reduce the need for tactical voting and reduce the spoiler effect. Examples include preferential voting systems, such as instant runoff voting, as well as the two-round system of runoffs and less tested methods such as approval voting and Condorcet methods.
The main reason for America's majoritarian character is the electoral system for Congress. Members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the "first-past-the-post" (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes is the winner of the congressional seat. The losing party or parties win no representation at all. The first-past-the-post election tends to produce a small number of major parties, perhaps just two, a principle known in political science as Duverger's Law. Smaller parties are trampled in first-past-the-post elections.— from Sachs's The Price of Civilization, 2011
There is a counter-argument to Duverger's Law, that while on the national level a plurality system may encourage two parties, in the individual constituencies supermajorities will lead to the vote fracturing.
It has been suggested that the distortions in geographical representation provide incentives for parties to ignore the interests of areas in which they are too weak to stand much chance of gaining representation, leading to governments that do not govern in the national interest. Further, during election campaigns the campaigning activity of parties tends to focus on marginal seats where there is a prospect of a change in representation, leaving safer areas excluded from participation in an active campaign. Political parties operate by targeting districts, directing their activists and policy proposals toward those areas considered to be marginal, where each additional vote has more value.
Wasted votes are seen as those cast for losing candidates, and for winning candidates in excess of the number required for victory. For example, in the UK general election of 2005, 52% of votes were cast for losing candidates and 18% were excess votes—a total of 70% 'wasted' votes. On this basis a large majority of votes may play no part in determining the outcome. This winner-takes-all system may be one of the reasons why "voter participation tends to be lower in countries with FPTP than elsewhere."
Because FPTP permits many wasted votes, an election under FPTP is more easily gerrymandered. Through gerrymandering, electoral areas are designed deliberately to unfairly increase the number of seats won by one party, by redrawing the map such that one party has a small number of districts in which it has an overwhelming majority of votes, and many districts where it is at a smaller disadvantage.
The presence of spoilers often gives rise to suspicions that manipulation of the slate has taken place. A spoiler may have received incentives to run. A spoiler may also drop out at the last moment, inducing charges that dropping out had been intended from the beginning.
Under first-past-the-post, a small party may draw votes and seats away from a larger party that it is more similar to, and therefore give an advantage to one it is less similar to.
First-past-the-post within geographical areas tends to deliver (particularly to larger parties) a significant number of safe seats, where a representative is sheltered from any but the most dramatic change in voting behaviour. In the UK, the Electoral Reform Society estimates that more than half the seats can be considered as safe. It has been claimed that members involved in the 2009 expenses scandal were significantly more likely to hold a safe seat.
However, other voting systems, notably the party-list system, can also create politicians who are relatively immune from electoral pressure.
Scholars rate voting methods using mathematically derived voting method criteria, which describe desirable features of a method. No ranked preference method can meet all the criteria, because some of them are mutually exclusive, as shown by results such as Arrow's impossibility theorem and the Gibbard–Satterthwaite theorem.
The majority criterion states that "if one candidate is preferred by a majority (more than 50%) of voters, then that candidate must win". First-past-the-post meets this criterion (though not the converse: a candidate does not need 50% of the votes in order to win). Although the criterion is met for each constituency vote, it is not met when adding up the total votes for a winning party in a parliament.
The Condorcet winner criterion states that "if a candidate would win a head-to-head competition against every other candidate, then that candidate must win the overall election". First-past-the-post does not meet this criterion.
The Condorcet loser criterion states that "if a candidate would lose a head-to-head competition against every other candidate, then that candidate must not win the overall election". First-past-the-post does not meet this criterion.
The independence of irrelevant alternatives criterion states that "the election outcome remains the same even if a candidate who cannot win decides to run." First-past-the-post does not meet this criterion.
The independence of clones criterion states that "the election outcome remains the same even if an identical candidate who is equally-preferred decides to run." First-past-the-post does not meet this criterion.
Categories: Single-winner electoral systems