First past the post or FPTP, also known as Simple Majority Voting, Winner-takes-all voting or Plurality voting is the most basic form of voting system. In its simplest form, under FPTP, voting takes place in single-member constituencies. Voters put a cross in a box next to their favoured candidate, and the candidate who gathers the most votes in the constituency or other electoral area wins the election. All other votes count for nothing. FPTP is clear, simple and decisive in the majority of cases, but many would argue that it is anything but a representative voting system.
FPTP can also be used in multi-member electoral areas where voters are asked to vote for as many candidates as there are vacancies. Examples include local council elections, elections of foundation trust governors and membership organisations.
In public elections, FPTP is the second most widely used voting system in the world, after Party-List PR. It is principally used in the electoral systems that are either are, or were once, British Colonies. FPTP is currently used to elect members of the House of Commons in the UK, both chambers of the US Congress and the lower houses in both Canada and India. The use of FPTP voting systems used to be more widespread, but many countries have now adopted other alternative voting systems.
The advantages and benefits of a FPTP voting system
- It’s simple to understand.
- It doesn’t cost much to administer.
- It’s is fairly quick to count the votes and work out who has won; meaning results can be declared relatively quickly after the polls close.
- In a political environment, FPTP enables voters to clearly express a view on which party they think should form the next government.
- FPTP is ideally suited to a two-party system and generally produces single-party governments, although the 2010 UK General Election was an obvious exception
- Single-party governments by and large don’t have to rely on support from other parties to pass legislation, though as the UK has found that is not always necessarily the case as the current Coalition Government demonstrates.
- Some would argue that FPTP voting systems encourage broad-church centrist policies and discourage extremist points of view
The disadvantages and shortcomings of FPTP voting systems
- Representatives can get elected with small amounts of public support, as the size of the winning margin is irrelevant: what matters is only that they get more votes than other candidates.
- FPTP encourages tactical voting, as voters often vote not for the candidate they most prefer, but against the candidate they most dislike.
- FPTP is regarded as wasteful, as votes cast in a constituency for losing candidates, or for the winning candidate above the level they need to win that seat, count for nothing.
- FPTP can severely restrict voter choice. Parties are not homogenous and do not speak with one unified voice. Parties are more coalitions of many different viewpoints. If the preferred-party candidate in a constituency has views with which a voter doesn’t agree, he or she doesn’t have a means of expressing that at the ballot box.
- Rather than allocating seats in line with actual support, FPTP rewards parties with what is often termed ‘lumpy’ support; that is, with just enough votes to win in each particular area. With smaller parties, this works in favour of those with centralised support.
- With relatively small constituency sizes, the way boundaries are drawn can have important effects on the election result.
- Having small constituencies often leads to a proliferation of safe seats, where the same party is all but guaranteed re-election at each election. This not only effectively disenfranchises a region’s voters, but it leads to these areas being ignored when it comes to framing policy.
- If large areas of the country are effectively electoral deserts for any particular party, not only is the area ignored by that party, but also ambitious politicians from the area will have to move away from their locality if they aspire to have influence within their party.
- Because FPTP restricts a constituency’s choice of candidates, the representation of minorities and women suffers, as the ‘safest’ looking candidate is the one most likely to be offered the chance to stand for election
- Although encouraging two-party politics can be advantageous, in a multi-party culture, third parties with significant support can often be greatly disadvantaged.
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