First-Past-The-Post Voting

You are at a horse race, the two fastest horses in the lead are mere centimetres from each other. It's extremely difficult to predict who is going to win. Charlie overtakes Bella as they enter the last lap, but, at the last minute, Bella goes for it and wins by a margin of milliseconds. This is the scenario the First-Past-the-Post Voting System get its name from. Let's find out why by looking at what it is, how it works, how it's used in the UK and its advantages and disadvantages.

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Table of contents

    First Past the Post voting meaning

    First Past the Post (FPTP) is the electoral system used in about a third of the world's countries. This system can be used to elect a head of state or members of the government. Most of the countries using this system are English speaking and include the UK, the US, and India.

    First-Past-the-Post Voting, Map of nations that use the FPTP system, StudySmarterFig. 1 Map of nations that use the FPTP system

    Under this system, voters cast a single vote by putting a cross (X) next to their chosen candidate on the ballot paper. Ballot papers are counted and the candidate with the most votes wins, entering parliament to represent that constituency. Candidates only require a plurality of votes to win, meaning that there is no requirement to obtain the majority (more than 50%) of votes cast, the winning candidate needs just one more vote than the runner-up candidate.

    First-Past-the-Post voting system

    The first-past-the-post voting system tends to result in a two-party system in which two major parties compete for office. The system tends to favour the two biggest, most established parties, the Labour and Conservative Party in the UK, which already have the majority of the country’s support. This makes it quite difficult for new or smaller parties to gain seats in parliament.

    Historically, the FPTP system has resulted in one party winning a clear majority of seats in Parliament during a general election. This means the winning party can go on to form what is called a 'majority government' and put their plan for the country into action without relying on the support of other parties. If the party fails to win a majority of seats, it may need to form what is called a 'minority government' or a coalition.

    A majority government is one where the governing party or parties holds the majority of the seats. This will lead to them being able to easily pass their legislation. When two or more parties collaborate to create a government, this is called a coalition government.

    A minority government, instead, is a government where the governing party does not hold the majority of the seats. A minority government can only be created with the consent of the other minor parties. Consent from the other parties is also necessary to be able to pass any legislation, so this type of government will need a lot of negotiations and compromise.

    First-Past-the-Post voting example

    Let's have a look at how FPTP works by using the results of the 2017 UK general election

    Candidate or party leaderPartyNumber of votesPercentage of votesSeats
    Theresa MayConservatives13,636,684 42.4%317
    Jeremy CorbynLabour12,877,91840%262
    Tim FarronLiberal Democrats2,371,8617.4%12
    Nicola SturgeonScottish National Party977,5683%35
    Arlene FosterDemocratic Unionist Party292,3160.9%10
    Gerry AdamsSinn Fein238,9150.7%7

    Let's start by saying that, in the UK, to have a majority government, the winning party has to have 326 seats (elected Members of Parliament, or MPs) From the table above, we can see that in this election, the winning party was the Conservative Party, as they got the biggest share of the votes. However, as they did not reach the required number of seats to form a majority government, the result was a 'hung parliament'. In order to govern, they entered what was called a 'supply and confidence' agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), meaning the DUP's MPs supported the government's proposals in parliament.

    A hung parliament is when the party with the most votes hasn't got the majority of the parliamentary seats and therefore hasn't got the automatic mandate to rule. To become the governing party, the party with the largest number of MPs can either create a coalition or enter into an agreement with other (usually) minor parties.

    First-Past-the-Post voting system UK

    In the UK, the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is used for general elections and most local government elections in England and Wales.

    The UK is divided into geographical constituencies, which could cover anything from an entire county to a district of a large city. Each of these constituencies elects one representative, or Member of Parliament (MP), to the House of Commons. The boundaries of each constituency are determined by independent commissions, who recommend changes to boundaries every five years. Changes may be due to increases or decreases in population or changes in local government boundaries. Both Houses of Parliament need to agree to any changes being made.

    First-Past-The-Post Voting, A FPTP ballot paper for UK local councillors elections, StudySmarterFig. 2 A FPTP ballot paper for UK local councillors elections

    One of the Liberal Democrats' main policies is to change the electoral system, as they have long argued for the benefits of the proportional representation system. Proportional representation would also likely result in them receiving more seats in Parliament.

    The Liberal Democrats are one of the UK's biggest parties, fluctuating between being the second and the third-biggest party in the UK's modern political history. They stand for the promotion of individual rights and freedoms coupled with enough government intervention to implement welfare policies.

    Proportional representation is another popular electoral system. It's characterised by the contending parties being allocated parliamentary seats according to the proportion of votes they gained in the election.

    Following the 2010 UK general election, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government. The coalition agreement included holding a referendum to let the UK population choose whether to keep the FPTP system or whether to introduce the Alternative Vote system.

    Under the Alternative Vote (AV) system proposed, the voters would rank the candidates in order of preference. The AV referendum was held in 2011. 67.9% of voters voted against the Alternative Vote.

    First Past the Post pros and cons

    Now let's have a look at some pros and cons of this system.

    First-Past-the-Post pros

    The advantages of the first-past-the-post system include:

    • Simplicity: It is simple to understand and operate this type of voting system. Voters only vote for one candidate, and counting the votes is simple. Additionally, voters are already familiar with the system, as it has been around since the 19th century.

    • Price: It is a relatively low-cost system that is effective.

    • Speedy: The process of counting the votes, so finding out which candidate is elected can be determined quickly after the polls close.

    • Clear outcome: FPTP voting systems usually result in a clear winner. The party that gained the most votes often gets the majority of seats.

    • Representation: FPTP allows voters to clearly express their views on which party they believe should form the next government. Single-member constituencies typically provide a straightforward relationship between voters and their representatives.

    • Two-party system benefits: First-past-the-post is ideal for two-party systems, where it generally leads to a strong single-party government. Single-party governments with working majorities typically assert their control over the legislative and policymaking processes, meaning that they will most likely do what they have promised and act predictably during times of crisis.

    • Single-party government: generally, single-party governments do not rely on the support of other parties to pass legislation, meaning they can fulfil their mandates.

    • Keeps out extremist points of view: the FPTP system makes it harder for far-right or far-left parties to win seats in parliament, and to therefore gain an access to greater publicity.

    First-Past-the-Post cons

    The disadvantages of the first-past-the-post system include:

    • Disproportionate outcomes: The number of seats won by parties does not reflect the number of votes received. Representatives can get elected with relatively low levels of public support, while parties who achieve almost the same result end up with far fewer seats in parliament.

    In the 2019 general election, the Conservative party won 317 seats in parliament with 42.4% of the vote, while the Labour Party, which won 40% of the vote, only won 262 seats.

    • Votes are weighted unequally: constituency sizes vary, meaning that votes have different values attributed to them. For example, a vote cast in a small constituency is likely to have a larger impact on the outcome rather than a single vote in a larger constituency.

    If we look at the results of the 2017 general election above, we'll see how the Liberal Democrats only gained 12 seats, despite receiving 2,371,861 votes, while the Scottish National Party gained 35 seats with 977,568 votes

    • Tactical voting: The FPTP system can encourage tactical voting. Voters, instead of voting for the candidate they like, vote for the candidate with the highest chance of preventing the candidate they dislike from winning the seat.

    • Limited choice: FPTP can strictly limit voters’ choice of candidates, as only one candidate stands for each party, meaning voters cannot choose between different candidates within the same party.

    • Creates electoral deserts: FPTP can lead to electoral deserts in certain parts of the country where a party has little to no representation at all. This area is then effectively ignored by the party, for instance, the party ignores campaigning in the area, which also leads to new politicians moving away from that area if they wish to become influential within that party.

    • Excludes smaller parties: the FPTP system can greatly exclude smaller parties from winning seats, especially if their voters are thinly spread over several different constituencies. It's possible for a party to have significant public support on a national level, but to never win any seats, as their votes are not concentrated in one geographically constituency.

    First-Past-The-Post Voting - Key takeaways

    • In the UK, the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is used for general elections and local government elections in England and Wales.

    • The UK is divided into constituencies and each constituency elects one representative, an MP, to the House of Commons.

    • In the FPTP system, voters cast a single vote by putting a cross (X) next to their chosen candidate on the ballot paper. Ballot papers are counted and the candidate with the most votes wins and represents the constituency.

    • The winning candidate requires a plurality of votes to win - one more vote than the second candidate.

    • The first-past-the-post system can result in a two-party voting system in which the two major parties compete for office, can be biased towards one of the major parties and tends to exaggerate the performance of the winning party.

    • The advantages of the FPTP system include its simplicity of use and clear outcome.

    • The disadvantages of the FPTP system include disproportionate outcomes and limited choice.


    References

    1. Fig. 2 A FPTP ballot paper for UK local councillors elections (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ballot_paper_for_the_2021_United_Kingdom_local_elections_(Coventry,_Westwood_ward).jpg) by domdomegg (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Domdomegg) licenced by CC-BY-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about First-Past-The-Post Voting

    What is the meaning of first past the post voting?

    First Past the Post (FPTP) is the electoral system, under this system, voters cast a single vote by putting a cross (X) next to their chosen candidate on the ballot paper. The winning candidate needs just one more vote than the runner-up candidate, not necessarily more than 50% of the votes.

    Which countries have first past the post voting system? 

    First Past the Post is used in about a third of the world's countries. Most of the countries using this system are English speaking and include the UK, the US, and India.  

    What is an example of first past the post voting?

    First-Past-The-Post is used in elections to the Parliament of the UK, where political parties field one candidate in each parliamentary constituency - a geographical area which may be a district of a city or large rural area. The candidate who wins the most votes (a plurality of the votes) wins and enters parliament. 

    What is the importance of first past the post voting? 

    It's a simple, low-cost, and fast voting system that supports the two-party system, and makes it difficult for extremist minority parties to be voted in.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What kind of electoral system is the First-Past-the-Post Voting System?

    How many times do voters cast their vote in the FPTP voting system?

    How many votes does a party need to have to win in the FPTP voting system?

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