There is some confusion between highest vote, majority vote and plurality voting methods. All three use a first-past-the-post voting method, but there are subtle differences in the method of execution. First-past-the-post voting is also used in two-round systems and some exhaustive ballots.
First-past-the-post voting methods can be used for single- and multiple-member electoral divisions. In a single-member election, the candidate with the highest number – not necessarily a majority – of votes is elected. The two-round ("runoff") voting method uses a first-past-the-post voting method in each of the two rounds. The first round determines which two candidates will progress to the second, final-round ballot.
In a multiple-member, first-past-the-post ballot, the first number of candidates – in order of highest vote, corresponding to the number of positions to be filled – are elected. If there are six vacancies, then the first six candidates with the highest vote are elected. A multiple-selection ballot, where more than one candidate can be voted for, is also a form of first-past-the-post voting, in which voters are allowed to cast a vote for as many candidates as there are vacant positions; the candidates with the highest number of votes are elected.
The Electoral Reform Society is a political pressure group based in the United Kingdom which advocates abolishing the first-past-the-post method (FPTP) for all national and local elections. It argues FPTP is "bad for voters, bad for government and bad for democracy". It is the oldest organisation concerned with electoral methods in the world.
As of 2014, all U.S. States other than Maine and Nebraska use a winner-take-all form of simple plurality, first-past-the-post voting, to appoint the electors of the Electoral College. Under the typical method, the presidential candidate gaining the greatest number of votes wins all of the state's available electors, regardless of the number or share of votes won, or the difference separating the leading candidate and the first runner-up.
Under a first-past-the-post voting method the highest polling candidate (or a group of candidates for some cases) is elected. In this real-life example, Tony Tan obtained a greater number than the other candidates, and so was declared the winner, even though majority of voters did not vote for him.
The effect of a system based on single seat constituencies is that the larger parties gain a disproportionately large share of seats, while smaller parties are left with a disproportionately small share of seats. It is more likely that a single party will hold a majority of legislative seats. In the United Kingdom, 18 out of 23 general elections since 1922 have produced a single-party majority government. For example, the 2005 United Kingdom general election results in Great Britain are as follows:
It can be seen that Labour took a majority of seats, 57%, with only 36% of the vote. The largest two parties took 69% of votes and 88% of seats. Meanwhile, the smaller Liberal Democrat party took more than a fifth of votes but only about a tenth of the seats in parliament.
Another example would be the UK General Election held on 7 May 2015:
Here, the Conservatives took 51% of the seats with only 37% of the vote. More significantly, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP together had fewer votes than UKIP but both gained more seats; with fewer votes, they together managed to win 64 times the number of UKIP seats in parliament. It should be noted that the Liberal Democrats also suffered under first-past-the-post, by winning only 1% of the seats on 8% of the national popular vote.
The benefits of FPTP are that its concept is very easy to understand, and ballots can be easily counted and processed. Alternative methods such as rank-based voting require far more work or processing power to tabulate results than a single choice.
Supporters of FPTP argue that it is the electoral method providing the best governance. It trades fairness in representation for more responsible government. Its tendency to produce majority rule allows the government to pursue a consistent strategy for its term in office and to make decisions that may be both correct and unpopular. It is also more responsible than other systems to the electorate, as at the next election a party that is viewed poorly by the electorate will have complete power handed to one of its rivals.
Tony Blair, defending FPTP, argued that other systems give small parties the balance of power, and influence disproportionate to their votes.
Allowing people into parliament who did not finish first in their district was described by David Cameron as creating a "Parliament full of second-choices who no one really wanted but didn’t really object to either." Winston Churchill criticized the alternative vote method as "determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates."
To a greater extent than many other electoral methods, the first-past-the-post method encourages tactical voting. Voters have an incentive to vote for one of candidates they predict are most likely to win, even if they would prefer neither candidate to win. A vote for any other candidate is considered to be likely wasted and bear no impact or benefit on the final result they would prefer.
The position is sometimes summarized, in an extreme form, as "all votes for anyone other than the runner-up are votes for the winner." This is because by voting for other candidates, they have denied those potential votes to the second-place candidate who could have won had they received them. Following the extremely close 2000 U.S. presidential election, some supporters of Democratic candidate Al Gore believe that one reason he lost the election to Republican George W. Bush is because a portion of the electorate (2.7%) voted for Ralph Nader of the Green Party, and exit polls indicated that more of these voters would have preferred Gore (45%) to Bush (27%), with the rest not voting in Nader's absence. The argument for this case is even more pronounced because the election was ultimately decided on the basis of the election results in Florida where Bush prevailed over Gore by a margin of only 537 votes (0.009%), which was far exceeded by the number of votes, 97488 (1.635%), that Nader received.
In Puerto Rico, there are three principal voter groups: the Independentistas (pro-independence), the Populares (pro-commonwealth), and the Estadistas (pro-statehood). Historically, there has been a tendency for Independentista voters to elect Popular candidates and policies. This phenomenon is responsible for some Popular victories, even though the Estadistas have the most voters on the island. It is so widely recognised that the Puerto Ricans sometimes call the Independentistas who vote for the Populares "melons", because the fruit is green on the outside but red on the inside (in reference to the party colors).
Because voters have to predict in advance who the top two candidates will be, results can be significantly distorted:In general, some voters will vote based on the sense that they not only need to think about how they will vote, but how all other voters will vote as well, which will influence and possibly change their originally intended vote (tactical voting).
Substantial power is given to the media. Some voters will tend to believe the media's assertions as to who the leading contenders are likely to be in the election. Even voters who distrust the media will know that other voters do believe the media, and therefore that those candidates who receive the most media attention will probably be the most popular and thus most likely to be the top two.
A new candidate with no track record, who might otherwise be supported by the majority of voters, may be considered unlikely to be one of the top two candidates; thus they will receive fewer votes, which will then give them a reputation as a low poller in future elections, perpetuating the position.
The method may promote votes against as opposed to votes for. In the UK, entire campaigns have been organised with the aim of voting against the Conservative party by voting either Labour or Liberal Democrat. For example, in a constituency held by the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats as the second-place party and the Labour Party in third, Labour supporters might be urged to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate (who has a smaller shortfall of votes to make up and more support in the constituency) rather than their own candidate, on the basis that Labour supporters would prefer an MP from a competing left/liberal party to a Conservative one. However this is a subjective interpretation of the election, as it cannot be objectively measured.
If enough voters use this tactic, the first-past-the-post method effectively becomes runoff voting – a completely different system – in which the first round is held in the court of public opinion. A good example of this is believed to be the Winchester by-election, 1997.
Proponents of other single-winner voting methods argue that their proposals would reduce the need for tactical voting and reduce the spoiler effect. Examples include the commonly used two-round system of runoffs and instant runoff voting, along with less tested methods such as approval voting and Condorcet methods.
Duverger's law is an idea in political science which says that constituencies that use first-past-the-post methods will lead to two-party systems, given enough time. Economist Jeffrey Sachs explains:
The main reason for America's majoritarian character is the electoral system for Congress. Members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the "first-past-the-post" (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes is the winner of the congressional seat. The losing party or parties win no representation at all. The first-past-the-post election tends to produce a small number of major parties, perhaps just two, a principle known in political science as Duverger's Law. Smaller parties are trampled in first-past-the-post elections.
Duverger's law is rarely seen in reality, with most first-past-the-post elections resulting in multiparty legislatures, the United States being the major exception. There is a counter force to Duverger's Law, that while on the national level a plurality system encourages two parties, but in the individual constituencies supermajorities will lead to the vote fracturing.
Wasted votes are votes cast for losing candidates or votes cast for winning candidates in excess of the number required for victory. For example, in the UK general election of 2005, 52% of votes were cast for losing candidates and 18% were excess votes – a total of 70% wasted votes. This is perhaps the most fundamental criticism of FPTP, that a large majority of votes may play no part in determining the outcome. This "winner-takes-all" system may be one of the reasons why "voter participation tends to be lower in countries with FPTP than elsewhere."
Because FPTP permits many wasted votes, an election under FPTP is easily gerrymandered. Through gerrymandering, constituencies are deliberately designed to unfairly increase the number of seats won by one party at the expense of another. For example, assume a hypothetical pair of parties called "Red" and "Blue". Red, the ruling party, redraws the constituency map such that blue has a small number of constituencies in which it has an overwhelming majority of votes, and a large number of constituencies where it is at a small disadvantage to Red. Red will then win a large number of constituencies by a small majority (FPTP), while many of Blue's votes will be "wasted" on getting a large majority (which has no practical benefit under FPTP) in a small number of constituencies.
The presence of spoilers often gives rise to suspicions that manipulation of the slate has taken place. The spoiler may have received incentives to run. A spoiler may also drop out at the last moment, inducing charges that such an act was intended from the beginning.
Under the first-past-the-post voting method, small parties may draw votes away from larger parties that they are most similar to and therefore give an advantage to another large party that they are least similar to.
In comparison, for electoral systems using proportional representation small groups win only their proportional share of representation. However, in PR systems, small parties can become decisive in Parliament, thus gaining a power of blackmail against the Government—a problem which is generally reduced by the FPTP method.
Scholars rate voting methods using mathematically derived voting method criteria, which describe desirable features of a method. No ranked preference method can meet all of the criteria, because some of them are mutually exclusive, as shown by results such as Arrow's impossibility theorem and the Gibbard–Satterthwaite theorem.
Y The majority criterion states that "if one candidate is preferred by a majority (more than 50%) of voters, then that candidate must win". First-past-the-post meets this criterion (though not the converse: a candidate does not need 50% of the votes in order to win). Although the criterion is met for each constituency vote, it is not met when adding up the total votes for a winning party in a parliament.
N The Condorcet winner criterion states that "if a candidate would win a head-to-head competition against every other candidate, then that candidate must win the overall election". First-past-the-post does not meet this criterion.
N The Condorcet loser criterion states that "if a candidate would lose a head-to-head competition against every other candidate, then that candidate must not win the overall election". First-past-the-post does not meet this criterion.
N The independence of irrelevant alternatives criterion states that "the election outcome remains the same even if a candidate who cannot win decides to run." First-past-the-post does not meet this criterion.
N The independence of clones criterion states that "the election outcome remains the same even if an identical candidate who is equally-preferred decides to run." First-past-the-post does not meet this criterion.
The following is a list of the countries currently following the first-past-the-post voting system.Australia (replaced by IRV in 1918)
Cyprus (replaced by proportional representation in 1981)
Denmark (replaced by proportional representation in 1920)
Germany (replaced by proportional system in 1918)
Lesotho (replaced by MMP Party list in 2002)
Malta (replaced by STV in 1921)
Nepal (replaced by a mix of Party list and FPTP)
New Zealand (replaced by MMP in 1996)
Papua New Guinea (replaced by IRV in 2002)
South Africa (replaced by Party list PR in 1996)
The Bahá'í Faith uses a form of multiple member first past the post voting among adult members to elect its governing councils at local, national, and international levels. Campaigning is prohibited.