Written by Classical Liberal
In a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, voters cast their vote for a candidate of their choice, and the candidate who receives the most votes wins irrespective of vote share. FPTP is a plurality voting method primarily used in systems that use single-member electoral divisions. Plurality voting is an electoral system in which each voter is allowed to vote for only one candidate. The candidate who polls more than any other counterpart (a plurality) is elected. FPTP is the primary form of allocating seats for legislative elections in about a third of the world’s countries, mainly in the English-speaking world, including general and local elections in the UK.
The highest polling candidate under an FPTP voting method is elected. In the 2011 Singaporean presidential election, presidential candidate Tony Tan obtained a greater number of votes than any other candidate. 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 Tan.
The effect of a system based on plurality voting spread over several separate districts is that the larger parties, and parties with more geographically concentrated support, gain a disproportionately large share of seats. In contrast, 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 election results were as follows. 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.
Supporters of FPTP argue that its concept is easy to understand, and ballots can more easily be counted and processed than those in preferential voting systems. FPTP often produces governments with legislative voting majorities, thus providing such governments with the legislative power necessary to implement their electoral manifesto commitments during their term in office. FPTP may be beneficial for the country in question in circumstances where the government’s legislative agenda has broad public support (albeit potentially divided across party lines) or benefits society as a whole. However, handing a legislative voting majority to a government that lacks popular support can be problematic. The government’s policies favour only that fraction of the electorate that supported it – mainly if the electorate divides into tribal, religious or urban/rural lines.
Supporters of FPTP also argue that the use of proportional representation (PR) may enable smaller parties to become decisive in the country’s legislature and gain leverage they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. They argue that FPTP generally reduces this possibility, except where parties have a strong regional basis.
A failure to reflect the popular vote in the number of parliamentary seats awarded to competing parties is the most common criticism of FPTP. Critics argue that an election system’s fundamental requirement is to represent voters’ views accurately, but FPTP often fails in this respect. It often creates ‘false majorities’ by over-representing larger parties – giving a majority of the parliamentary seats to a party that did not receive a majority of the votes – while under-representing smaller ones.
A party that nationally wins the most votes is not certain it will win a plurality of seats. Famous examples of the second-placed party (in votes nationally) winning a majority of seats include the elections in Canada in 2019, in Ghana in 2012, in New Zealand in 1978 and 1981 and the UK in 1951.
That a party that nationally wins the most votes is not sure to win a plurality of seats needs not to be a result of malapportionment. Even if all seats represent the same number of votes, the second-placed party (in votes nationally) can win a majority of seats by efficient vote distribution. Winning seats narrowly and losing elsewhere by big margins is more efficient than winning seats by big margins and losing elsewhere narrowly. For a majority in seats, it is enough to win a plurality of votes in a majority of constituencies. Even with only two parties and equal constituencies, this means just over a quarter of the votes of the whole.
Generally, FPTP favours parties who can concentrate their vote into certain voting districts, or in specific geographic areas. This is because they win many seats and don’t ‘waste’ many votes in other areas. The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) says that regional parties benefit from this system. ‘With a geographical base, parties that are small UK-wide can still do very well.’
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 FPTP 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 (all minor, non-regional parties) received 11% of votes between them, yet they shared just 2% of seats’, and in the 2015 UK general election, ‘the 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, in the 2015 UK general election, UKIP came in third in terms of the 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 in England, and most of the south of England, while the Labour Party represents most of the English cities and most of the north of England. 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.
To a greater extent than many others, the FPTP method encourages ‘tactical voting’. Voters have an incentive to vote for a candidate who they predict is more likely to win, as opposed to their preferred candidate, who may be unlikely to win and for whom a vote would be wasted. Thus ‘all votes for anyone other than the runner-up are votes for the winner’. Votes for these other candidates deny potential support from the second-placed candidate, who might otherwise have won.
Because voters have to predict who the top two candidates will be, results can be significantly distorted. First, some voters will vote based on how others will vote and change their initially intended vote. Second, substantial power is given to the media because some voters believe its assertions about who the leading contenders are likely to be. Even voters who distrust the media will know that others believe the press, and therefore those who receive the most media attention will probably be the most popular. Third, a new candidate with no track record, who most voters might otherwise support, may be considered unlikely to be one of the top two, thus losing votes to tactical voting. Fourth, the method may promote votes against as opposed to votes for, which we have seen in campaigns to vote against the Conservative Party.
Duverger’s law is an idea in political science that says that constituencies that use FPTP methods will lead to two-party systems, given enough time. There is a counter-argument to Duverger’s Law. At the same time, supermajorities may lead to the vote fracturing in the individual constituencies.
[to be continued tomorrow]