Plurality electoral system

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The Plurality electoral system (or first past the post electoral system), is a voting system for single-member districts. The name "first past the post" (abbreviated FPTP or FPP) is an analogy to horse racing; the system is also variously called winner-take-all or relative majority. In political science, it is known as Single-Member District Plurality or SMDP. When this system is in use at all levels of politics it may result in a two-party system, based on single seat district voting systems. However, the system of forming a government is also crucial. It is used in some former British colonies [1] and is used in 43 of the 191 countries in the United Nations. Some believe the system results in stable government but it can elect a candidate who is opposed by a majority of voters.



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"). There is, however, no "post" that the winning candidate must pass in order to win, they are just required to receive the largest number of votes in their favour. This sometimes results in the alternate name "furthest past the post".

Duverger's law predicts that constituencies that use first-past-the-post systems will become two-party systems.

Current events

The United Kingdom continues to use a plurality electoral system for national and local government elections in England and Wales. Changes to the UK system have been proposed, and alternatives were examined by the Jenkins Committee in the late 1990s but no major changes have been implemented. Canada also uses plurality for national and provincial elections. In May 2005 the Canadian province of British Columbia had a referendum on abolishing single-member district plurality in favor of multi-member districts with the Single Transferable Vote system after the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform made a recommendation for the reform. The referendum obtained 57% of the vote, but failed to meet the 60% requirement for passing.

Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and New Zealand are notable examples of countries within the UK, or with previous links to it, which do not use FPTP.

Recent examples of nations which have undergone democratic reforms but have not adopted the FPTP system include South Africa, almost all of the former Eastern bloc nations, Russia, Afghanistan and Iraq.


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.


Simple example

The election of a Member of Parliament in the UK is a well known example of the First Past the Post electoral system. But the system is also used on a smaller scale.

For this example, consider the election for the president of a school class. Each class has a president, who sits on a school council. Further assume that, in this imaginary school, male and female students disagree with each other on most issues, and students prefer to vote for others of the same sex as themselves.

In our hypothetical election, there are three candidates: Amy, Brian and Chloe. Each class member gets a ballot, with these three names on it. Each voter must put an "X" by one of the names on their ballot.

The election for class president

After the election finishes, the papers are sorted into three piles--one for votes for Amy, one for votes for Brian, and one for votes for Chloe.

The largest pile decides the winner. If Amy's pile has 11 votes, Brian's has 16, and Chloe's has 13, Brian wins.

Notice that there were a total of 40 votes cast, and the winner had only 16 of them — only 40%.

Note that the class members (the "electors") only vote once, and their votes help to choose both a class president and a member of the school council (the same person).

The election for school council

Suppose that all the other classes hold similar elections. 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 particular class had was to vote for Amy, Brian or Chloe to represent themselves.

Some might argue that a boy won for this class because there were two girls, who "split the vote": some of the girls in the class voted for Amy and others for Chloe. Perhaps if Amy had not been a candidate, all the girls would have voted for Chloe and she would have won this class; this in turn would make the girls the winners of the whole council. Arguments exactly like this, but on a larger scale, are common wherever there are plurality elections.

More complex example

Tennesee's four cities are spread throughout the state

Imagine an election for the capital of Tennessee, a state in the United States that is over 500 miles (800 km) east-to-west, and only 110 miles (180 km) 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' 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)
  1. Memphis
  2. Nashville
  3. Chattanooga
  4. Knoxville
  1. Nashville
  2. Chattanooga
  3. Knoxville
  4. Memphis
  1. Chattanooga
  2. Knoxville
  3. Nashville
  4. Memphis
  1. Knoxville
  2. Chattanooga
  3. Nashville
  4. Memphis

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 and in each region Memphis was the last place choice.


Fewer parties

First-past-the-post tends to reduce the number of political parties to a greater extent than most other methods, thus making it more likely that a single party will hold a majority of legislative seats. (In the United Kingdom, 18 out of 22 General Elections since 1922 have produced a majority government.)

Some argue that this is an advantage, in that single party rule enables quicker decision-making with less need for back and forth negotiation.

Multi-party coalitions, on the other hand, require consent among all coalition partners to pass legislation, which some argue gives small parties a disproportionate amount of power. In the UK, arguments for plurality often look to Italy where the frequent government changeovers are presented as undesirable.

Single-member districts also mean that parties need to appeal to a wide cross-section of the populace rather than a political niche. Some argue that this discourages "extremist" parties.


Plurality may well be the simplest of all voting systems. This implies specific advantages. It is likely to be quicker, and easier to administer; 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.

In addition, not all voters see party politics or policies as a major issue. Some voters see an election primarily as a form of recruitment for an individual representative, a point of contact between the state and themselves. FPTP gives such voters a direct choice of single candidate, with no extra votes to be shared or balanced between parties. This may be especially important to voters who want to vote for individuals based on particular ethical frameworks that are not party aligned, and who do not want their vote to have a "side effect" of electing others they may not approve of.

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.

However this can also have the opposite effect. A candidate who is very popular among the electorate in general may lose if the candidate or the candidate's party is unpopular or has caused dissatisfaction in his or her seat. An example was how Winston Churchill lost the 1945 UK Parliamentary elections. Churchill had over a 90% approval rating, but the Labour Party won overall defeating Churchill's Conservative Party and making Clement Attlee the Prime Minister.

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. Also, it is generally possible for candidates to be elected if the party regards them as important even if they are fairly unpopular, by moving the candidate to a safe seat which the party is unlikely to lose or by getting a candidate in a safe seat to step down.

Stable governments

The party with the best election result commonly wins a majority percentage of the seats. Coalition governments are therefore the exception rather than the rule.

Extremist parties are excluded

Extremist parties rarely have support enough to win any seats under plurality electoral system. In contrast, it has been argued that the collapse of Weimar Germany was in part due to the way in which the proportional electoral system gave a toe-hold to extremist groups.


Fewer parties

FPTP's tendency toward fewer parties and more frequent one-party rule can also produce disadvantages.

One such disadvantage is that the government may not consider as wide a range of perspectives and concerns. It is entirely possible that a voter will find that all major parties agree on a particular issue. In this case, the voter will not have any meaningful way of expressing a dissenting opinion through his or her vote.

Another disadvantage is that fewer choices are offered to the voters, often pressuring voters to vote for a candidate whom they largely disagree with, in order to oppose a candidate whom they disagree with even more. (See tactical voting below.) The likely result of this is that candidates will less closely reflect the viewpoints of those who vote for them.

It may also be argued that one-party rule is more likely to lead to radical changes in government policy that are only favored by a plurality or bare majority of the voters, whereas multi-party systems usually require greater consensus in order to make dramatic changes.


The most commonly expressed disadvantage – perhaps because it is easiest to express and explain – of first-past-the-post is that it frequently produces disproportional results, i.e. results in which a party's share of the seats does not match up with its share of the votes. Thus, substantial bodies of opinion can be left out of the final outcome, and a party can obtain a majority of seats without a majority of the vote. Examples include the recent United Kingdom general election of 2005 where the new government won a majority of the seats with less than 38% of the national vote. The disproportionate nature of this system also means that whole regions may have M.P.s from only one party. The British Conservatives won large majorities of seats in the 1980's on a minority of votes while almost all the Scottish seats were Labour, Liberal or SNP, thus creating tremendous dissatisfaction in Scotland.

A further example of disproportionality 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.

Political party Percentage of votes Number of seats Percentage of Seats
Conservatives 42.2% 0 0%
Labour Progressives 19.5% 7 41%
Liberals 18.4% 4 24%
Progressives 11.2% 4 24%
Labour 8.7% 2 12%

The Conservatives clearly had the largest number of votes across the province, but received no seats at all.

The usual cause for these disproportionate results is that a party has a large number of votes across the entire territory, but they are spread out across the territory rather than being concentrated in particular constituencies. Parties with less overall support, but where that support is concentrated in particular constituencies, will win plurality in those constituencies over a party with widely distributed support.

This presents a problem because it encourages parties to focus narrowly on the needs and well-being of specific electoral districts where they can be sure to win seats, rather than be sensitive to the sentiments of voters everywhere. A further problem is that usually the party in power has the ability to determine where the boundaries of constituencies lie: thus, in order to secure election results, they may use gerrymandering - that is, redistricting to distort election results by enclosing party voters together in one electoral district.

It often seems fundamentally unfair that a party should have a substantially greater or lesser share of seats than their share of the vote. A further consequence of the system is that many such 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.

This argument applies to most other single-winner voting systems.


FPTP also encourages regional parties which can be very popular in one geographical region but have little or no support in other parts of the electorate.

Tactical voting

To a much greater extent than most other methods, plurality electoral systems encourage the tactical voting technique known as "compromising". Voters are pressured to vote for one of the two candidates they predict are most likely to win, even if they ideally do not want to elect either of them, because a vote for any other candidate will be likely to be wasted and have no impact on the final result.

In the Tennessee example given above, voters from Chattanooga and Knoxville may feel that their votes have been wasted, since they had no effect on the final result. If all the voters for Chattanooga and Knoxville had instead voted for Nashville, Nashville would have received 58% of the vote and won; and while not ideal for the voters living nearer Chattanooga and Knoxville, this would still be preferable to Memphis winning.

The difficulty is sometimes summed up, in extreme terms, as "All votes for anyone other than the second place, are actually votes for the winner", because by voting for other candidates, they have denied those votes to the second place candidate who could have won had they received them. It is often claimed by United States Democrats that the liberal Al Gore lost the 2000 Presidential Election to the conservative George W. Bush because some voters on the far left voted for Ralph Nader of the Green Party, who presumably would have preferred Gore to Bush.

Because voters have to predict in advance who the top two candidates will be, this can cause significant perturbation to the system:

  • Substantial power is given to the media. Some voters will tend to believe their viewpoint on who the leading contenders are likely to be in the election. Even voters who distrust the media will know that those candidates who receive the most media attention will be the most popular with other voters, and thus most likely to be in one of the top two.
  • A newly appointed candidate, who is in fact supported by the majority of voters, may be considered (due to their lack of a track record) to not be likely to become one of the top two candidates; thus, they will receive a reduced number of votes, which will then give them a reputation as a low poller in future elections, compounding the problem.
  • The system may promote votes against more so than votes for. In the UK, entire campaigns have been organised with the aim of voting against Labour by voting either Conservative or Liberal Democrat based on which is most popular in each constituency, regardless of the voters' opinions of the policies of these parties.
  • If enough voters use this tactic, the first-past-the-post system becomes, effectively, runoff voting - a completely different system - where the first round is held in the court of public opinion.

One often-overlooked flaw in the FPTP system is that invariably, voters can select only one candidate in a single-member district, whilst in multi-member districts they can never select more candidates than the number of seats in the district. Some argue that FPTP would work better if electors could cast a vote for as many candidates as they wish. This would allow voters to "vote against" a certain despised candidate if they choose without having to guess at who they should vote for to defeat that candidate, thus eliminating the need for tactical voting. Such a system would also serve to reduce the spoiler effect.

Safe seats

A safe seat is one in which a plurality of voters support a particular candidate so strongly that their votes for that candidate are guaranteed in advance of the election. This causes the difficulty that all other voters in the constituency can then make no difference to the result, since the winner of the seat is already known in advance. This results in serious feelings of disenfranchisement, and to abstentation.

Wipeout and clean sweep results

Since FPTP combined with single member constituencies generate a winner's bonus, if not winner takes all, the opposition can be left with few if any seats (see above).

It is argued that a weak or absent opposition due to an electoral wipeout is bad for the government. Provincial elections in several Canadian provinces provide suitable examples.

This is the missing corollary of strong-government argument for FPTP.

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).

India is using a proportional representation system for its upper house.

Ballot types

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)

Image:Onevoteballotname.gif Image:Onevoteballotmark.gif

See also

External links

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