First Past the Post electoral system

The 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, plurality voting, 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 usually results in a true two-party system, based on single seat district voting systems. However, the system of forming a governing government is also crucial; it is very common in former British colonies and is the single most commonly used system for election of parliaments [1] ( based on FPTP voting districts. A thorough list is given below.



The United Kingdom continues to use First Past The Post for national and most regional elections. 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 First Past The Post for national and provincial elections. In May 2005 the citizens of the Canadian province of British Columbia had a chance to cast a ballot for a referendum for abolishing plurality in favor of the Single Transferable Vote 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 have fairly recently implemented different election systems.

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.

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.


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, girl and boy students disagree with each other on most issues, and students prefer to vote for others of the same sex as themselves.

The election for class president

There are three candidates, Amy, Brian and Chloe. Each class member gets a ballot paper, with these three names on it. The class member must put an "X" against one of the names.

After the election finishes, the papers are sorted into three piles. One pile contains all the papers where there is an "X" against Amy (that is, votes for Amy). The other two piles contain votes for Brian and for Chloe.

The largest pile decides the winner. For instance, if Amy's pile has 11 votes, Brian's pile has 16 votes, and Chloe's pile has 13 votes, then the winner is Brian.

Notice that there were a total of 11 + 16 + 13 = 40 votes, and the winner had only 16 of them — only 40%. But that is only the result for this one class.

The election to the school council

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).

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 first-past-the-post elections.

More complex example

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:

Tennesee's four cities are spread throughout the state
  • 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' sincere preferences might be as follows:

42% of voters (close to Memphis)
  1. Memphis
  2. Nashville
  3. Chattanooga
  4. Knoxville

26% of voters (close to Nashville)

  1. Nashville
  2. Chattanooga
  3. Knoxville
  4. Memphis

15% of voters (close to Chattanooga)

  1. Chattanooga
  2. Knoxville
  3. Nashville
  4. Memphis
17% of voters (close to Knoxville)
  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.


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 first-past-the-post 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.


First-past-the-post may well be the simplest of all voting systems. This implies specific advantages. It is likely to be quicker, and easier to adminster; 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. First-past-the-post 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 electrorate in general may lose if the candidate or the candidate's party is unpopular or has caused dissatisfaction in his or her seat.

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.



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 dispproportonate 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 or Liberal or SNP, thus creating tremendous disatisfaction in Scotland.

It often seems fundamentally unfair that a party should have a substantially greater or lesser share of seats than their share of the vote.

Tactical voting

To a greater extent than most other methods, first-past-the-post encourages the tactical voting technique known as "compromising"; voters are frequently pressured to vote for one of the two options most likely to win, even if it is not their most preferred option. In the above example, voters from Chattanooga and Knoxville may "compromise" by voting for Nashville, which they prefer to Memphis.

If enough voters use this tactic, the first-past-the-post system becomes a form of runoff voting where the first round is held in the court of public opinion. This can give substantial power to the media as voters will tend to believe their viewpoint on who the leading contenders are likely to be in the election and use that viewpoint to decide where a "tactical" vote would be (in the voter's opinion) best used. This can also become a system promoting votes against more so than votes for.

One consequence of the system is that many FPTP 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.

Tactical voting can lead to situations where voters pass over a candidate who is preferred by a majority of voters and instead vote for a "lesser evil" who has shown themselves as good vote getters in the past.

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 canidates 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.

Anomalous results

An interesting anomaly in the results of this system 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 other parties were able to have success by having concentrated support in particular constituencies, and by not running candidates in others.

This presents a problem because the parties tend to focus narrowly on the needs and well-beings of specific electoral districts where they can be sure to win seats, rather than be sensitive to the sentiments of voters everywhere. In order to secure election results, some also choose to use gerrymandering, that is, redistricting to distort election results by enclosing party voters together in one electoral district.

Fewer parties

First-past-the-post's tendency toward fewer parties and more frequent one-party rule can produce both advantages and disadvantages.

One disadvantage of having fewer parties is that the government does not consider as wide a range of perspectives and concerns.

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" above.) 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.

Wipe out and clean sweep results

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

An opposition that is weak or absent, because of an electoral wipeout, is not good for good governance, it is argued. Provincal elections in several Canadian provinces provide suitable examples.

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

No system can guarantee a clear result

A close election is one where the winner's majority is very small, or where third parties or independents hold the balance of power.

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)

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See also

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