First-past-the-post is an electoral system where voters cast a single vote for the candidate of their choice. Of the democratic states of the world, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Canada are some of the few that use it to elect their public officials. In the past, it would create a two-party system of government where a single party would dominate at any one time. Today, it doesn’t work as well. Canada and the UK now have multi-party systems that suffer from this system. In recent elections, first-past-the-post voting has created disproportionate results where votes are wasted and candidates in different districts win with less votes than losing candidates.
There are movements in the United States, Canada and the UK to replace first-past-the-post voting with a more representative system. The flaws are obvious but will future governments make a change?
Democracy and Electoral systems
According to Merriam-Webster, a democracy is a government by the people. Power is exercised by the people directly or indirectly through a system of representation that usually involves free elections held periodically. People vote and their vote counts as a say in who they want to represent them.
Each democratic country uses an electoral system, a set of rules and steps that governs the election of its public officials. This system specifies how votes translate into seats, the way that each choice is presented on a ballot paper, and the number of candidates that can be elected in a certain area.
There are three types of voting systems: majoritarian systems, proportional representation and mixes of the two.
Majoritarian vs Proportional Representation
First-past-the-post is the simplest majoritarian system of voting where the majority rules regardless of how much of the vote the candidate won by. There’s also preferential voting (also known as alternative vote or ranked voting) where voters rank the candidates in the order of their choice. In this way, candidates can win with more than 50% of the vote (absolute majority) rather than the simple majority required under first-past-the-post voting.
Proportional representation decides the number of seats a party gets in a parliament by the number of votes each party gets. To make sure that all votes have equal weight, a single area elects more than one representative. With a party list proportional representation, it’s possible to vote only for a party, but for a single transferrable vote, it’s possible to vote for a single candidate.
Proportional representation is the most common system among well-established democracies. The biggest problem it can cause is in a government where no political party has a large enough majority to influence all of parliament. This can create a stalemate where nothing gets done if different parties don’t join in a coalition.
Though proportional representation could end in a stalemate between opposing parties, at least it’s fair and every vote counts. First-past-the-post has major flaws.
First-past-the-post: pros and cons
True, it’s easy to count votes in the first-past-the-post electoral system. It also promotes a two-party system, where one party will get the majority and form a stable government. Sometimes, minority parties can win against major parties without needing to get 50% of the vote.
However, it’s very hard for a minority party to win in a first-past-the-post election. It’s also more common for the winning candidates of majority parties to win with less than 50% of the vote, and for most voters to support losing candidates.
First-past-the-post also encourages tactical voting, where voters don’t vote for the candidate they want the most but the one that is better positioned to take down the candidate they like the least. It also creates the existence of safe seats, where majority parties can ignore the existence of one group of voters.
First-past-the-post does not work in governments with multi-party systems. This is obvious in the case of the United Kingdom.
The general election of 2015 showed how broken the first-past-the-post voting system was in the politics of the UK. Of 31 million people who voted, 19 million did so for losing candidates (63% of the total). The small UKIP party received nearly 4 million votes but only one of its candidates was elected to Parliament, while an average of 40,000 votes elected each Labour candidate a seat, and 34,000 for each Conservative. Out of 650 winning candidates, nearly half won with less than 50% of the vote.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society based in the UK, says that, “First past the post was designed for a time when nearly everyone voted for one of the two biggest parties. But people have changed and our system cannot cope.”
The rise in support for third parties reduces the chance of individual members of parliament of gaining 50% or more of the vote under first-past-the-post. Election outcomes are basically decided by a handful of voters who live in important marginal seats. The Electoral Reform Society recommends that proportional representation would be a better alternative than a system that creates so many wasted votes and effectively undermines what a democracy is: a government by the people.
If the United Kingdom does want to become more democratic by replacing its electoral system, its national government has not shown that it will make a move to do so.
Canada’s current prime minister, on the other hand, has vowed to replace the country’s electoral system by the next election in 2019.
Before being elected, current Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau vowed to make 2015 the last election to use the first-past-the-post system. There are a lot more political parties in Canada today: 18 registered in 2011 compared to 4 in 1972. Because of the sheer number of parties running, many more votes are wasted than in the past.
In a platform speech, Trudeau said that replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system would “make every vote count,” instead of candidates in different ridings winning or losing with the same percentage of votes.
Since his election, a committee of 12 MPs from all five parties in the Canadian parliament was created. The committee studied the viable options for electoral reform, including preferential voting, proportional representation and mandatory voting, and consulted extensively with Canadians.
In early December 2016, the committee released a report recommending that the Liberals design a proportional representation voting system and hold a national referendum to see how much public support they have for this change.
Despite the report, prime minister Trudeau is wavering on his promise, saying that, “if we get less support, it might be acceptable to make a small change.” It’s understandable to hesitate to change the system that got your party in power. In the 2011 election,the Conservative party won the majority with less than 25% of the vote, while The Greens received 4% of the vote but didn’t receive a single seat in Parliament. Since then, the Liberals have hankered for a change of electoral system. Now that they’re in power, will they really change it?
One thing is certain. Time is running out on that election promise.
During the 2016 presidential election, Maine became the first US state to scrap first-past-the-post in favour of ranked choice voting (preferential voting). It was put forward by the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting and backed by FairVote, the US counterpart of the Electoral Reform Society. The vote for the change was 52-48%. Around the same time, Benton County, Oregon adopted ranked choice voting by a “landslide”, while four Californian cities used it for their mayoral and city council elections.
FairVote has now launched FairVote California in an attempt to continue to promote electoral reform in the United States. It’s still early, but perhaps we’ll see more changes like those listed above over the next decade.
If it isn’t replaced by a fairer system, first-past-the-post will continue to yield disproportionate results in terms of representation. Though democratic nations continue to have a growing number of political parties, first-past-the-post will continue to show its flaws since it was meant for a past where two major parties would dominate. Democracies will seize to be democracies.
Should it be replaced, the political landscapes of Canada, the UK, and the United States will change to better reflect their voters. The abolition of safe seats will make politicians reach across the political spectrum in order to gain more support. This will encourage more compromise between parties rather than a battle of extreme opinions that results in a stalemate. More citizens may gain more faith in their political system and we may see a rise in voters because of it.
As citizens of democracies change over time, so must the democratic systems that they govern by.