The Human Truth Foundation

First Past the Post (FPTP) Voting System Damages Party-Based Democracies

By Vexen Crabtree 2024

#canada #democracy #elections #india #poland #UK #uk_politics #USA #voting

First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) was a historical voting system1 devised in the Middle Ages. It is very simple - the local candidate with the highest number of votes wins, and, government is formed from all the winners1. But FPTP didn't survive the era of Political Parties, where its simplicity results in skewed elected bodies that don't represent the overall wishes of the country2,3. A great deal of votes have no meaning, and populous constituencies' votes are worth less. FPTP naturally leads to those two-party systems that have been deleterious for political quality-control, and causes symptoms such as tactical voting, the almost-permanent squeezing-out of most parties from government except the largest ones, and, it allows 'gerrymandering' by which constituency sizes and shapes are manipulated in order to get local victories, with the knowledge that total votes-by-party are not taken into account.4,5

These problems are mitigated by Proportional Representation (PR) voting systems, which have now been adopted by all developed democracies, except the UK and the USA2, who both suffer from two-party political divisions that diminish their democratic legitimacy and effectiveness. About a fifth of Africa still uses FPTP, and some other developed countries such as Canada, India and Poland still use it for some elements of government. It is maintained mostly by archaic top-tier parties who have a vested interest in keeping FPTP1 in order to continue long-term informal power-swapping practices with minimum competition.

1. FPTP is Unsuited to National Party Politics

#democracy #elections #politics

First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) was a historical voting system best-suited to when there were few (or no) political parties, and local constituencies voted for a local representative based solely on that person's independent stature4. It didn't matter what proportion of votes they got, as long as they got more than anyone else - so, if there were multiple candidates, the winner could have a mere 20% of the vote. It was a simple system and suited to local politics, but it "becomes problematic, however, once electors come to treat their vote as one for a national political party' - in this case, the party with the highest number of elected representatives could actually have too few total votes to justify national leadership.

Smaller parties may win many local votes, but not win any seats outright - all of their votes are discarded, even though in total, they ought to have a representative or two in government.

David Beetham gives the example of where Party A wins 40% of the vote in each constituency, Party B wins 30%, Party C wins 20% and Party D wins 10%. In a FPTP system, Party A wins all seats of government despite only having 40% overall, and the other parties win nothing, leaving 60% of the electorate unrepresented4. Once local elections also imply political party representation, the system needs to change in order to prevent this undemocratic skew.

Book Cover[First Past the Post] means treating the votes of different electors unequally, since some will count for more than others. And the national parliament cannot be properly representative of the distribution of party support and political opinion in the country.

"Democracy: A Beginner's Guide" by Beetham, David (2005)4

To fix this, Proportional Representative (PR) voting systems will scale the number of elected officials to be in accordance with the total votes cast; making all votes equal and balancing government seats in reflection of the electorate's overall choices.6

2. Constituencies Have Unequal Votes

#democracy #elections

Aside from producing government-level results that are manifestly unfair and where seats allocated to each party don't reflect the total number of votes for each party, first-past-the-post also has the effect of making votes unequal; votes in some constituencies are more valuable than votes in others, depending on how many candidates and constituents there are.

Shugart & Taagepera (2017)7 introduce First-Past-the-Post in chapter 2, before spending the rest of the book showcasing better methods.

There are two situations that cause this:

3. Low Representation ('Plurality')

#democracy #elections #germany #new_zealand

The FPTP system produces single-party governments that, very frequently, represent less than half of the population; this gets called a 'plurality' system in political textbooks5. If there a few parties involved, the result is that the many people who voted for the other parties often find themselves with disproportionately few representatives, because the total votes don't add up to produce any candidates4. This is one of the most long-standing criticisms of 'the Westminster voting system' (FPTP) that is used in the , and consistently produces governments that are the least representative of all democratic countries.

Proportional Representation (PR) system overcome this by scaling the number of national politicians by party, in accordance with what the population want. There are various ways to achieve this. Countries such as Germany and New Zealand use a Mixed-Member-System (MMS) wherein voters choose both a local and a national candidate, which "produces a parliament that is broadly representative of political opinion in the country"8.

4. The Generation of Poor Quality Two-Party Politics

#democracy #elections #ireland #politics #UK #uk_politics #USA

The more parties there are [...] the greater the tendency of the FPTP system to "manufacture" a majority, because three or more parties divide the votes, but two big ones get most of the seats. These are the dynamics that make up a tendency often known as "Duverger's law": big parties are favored in turning votes into seats under FPTP; seeing this, opponents of the leading party have an incentive to "coordinate" around one other party that can replace it.

"To Keep or to Change First Past the Post?" by André Blais (2008)3

Effective votes are either for the current candidate who is likely to win, or, for their principal opponent2. Amanda Taub uses examples in the USA and UK where ten times as many votes are required for each official from a 3rd-party, compared to those from the principal two parties in a FPTP system2.

Because votes-for-losers don't amount to anything, there's no point in the electorate voting for anyone else other than the opposition. This tug is so strong that it causes the electorate to vote tactically, which makes it impossible to tell what they really want.

It also causes parties to behave tactically, coming to agreements with other parties and strategically pulling candidates in order to bolster opposition parties, in return for the same agreement elsewhere. E.g., the Green Party might specifically not field a candidate in one County, under the agreement that the Liberal party pull their candidate from a different place. They do this because they feel that their supporters will move their votes to the other party, and therefore, both parties benefit from reducing the choice of the electorate. This is necessary, because votes-for-losers don't count for anything, therefore, parties must come to such agreements in order to ensure that in at least one place they are more likely to win. But it is damaging to democracy, it creates an unnatural skew.

The result is that effective politics comes to rest between just two parties2, and when the electorate is unhappy, a singular opposition party comes to power. Tactical voting means that each party faces one consistent opponent, and, the long-term trend is that power alternates between them. This reduces and removes the requirement for a Party to deliver quality: it's simply a matter of time between the electorate switch votes.

The solution to both of these reactions to first-past-the-post is to make votes count that were not for the winner. This is what Proportional Representation achieves, by counting total votes per party, and ensuring that government reflects that balance-of-parties. In Ireland, candidates are picked in order of preference. In this situation, no matter where you are, it is worth voting for a Party that you support, because every vote adds-up. Likewise, Parties don't need to strategically pull candidates from regions, for the same reasons.