The First-Past-the-Post voting system (otherwise known as Winner-Takes-All) revolves around two extremely simple rules: every voter gets a single vote and the candidate with the most votes wins the election. The concept seems perfectly logical and entirely democratic. Right? One would think so, with FPTP being used in the USA, the UK, India, Canada, Pakistan and many more. But the election process in these countries is highly questionable: in reality, the glorified FPTP sprouts countless problems – the actual balance of power after the election doesn’t in any way reflect the percentage of votes and the manipulation of results is facilitated recklessly.
Imagine this: it is time to elect the mayor of your town. To simplify the model we will assume that everyone votes for a candidate directly and that the entire city is one huge voting range – the most straightforward of scenarios. Under FPTP, if there are more than two candidates it is extremely likely that the winner will be elected by a minority of voters. The more candidates there are, the fewer supporters will be required to win – with the votes being diluted between candidates. The local elections for Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom are a living example of this minority rule issue: in more than half of the ranges the winning delegate received less than half of the votes. All of the other voters – despite the fact that together they are the majority – are left with no representation whatsoever. In fact, the FPTP system is to blame for the threat of a Trump presidency: between half and two thirds of Republicans are strongly avert to nominating ‘The Donald’ – but this majority will be left with no representation whatsoever if things stay as they are. It is absolutely striking and shocking to me personally how we, for the pleasure of our own laziness and the sedentary force of habit, we simply seem to ignore the existence of more representative voting systems.
Let us take a closer look at the 2015 parliamentary elections of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Behold a prime example of the fatal flaws in the First-Past-the-Post system. The results (seats won in the House of Commons) are hilariously inaccurate when compared to the votes – because of the method used in the election process. The “national” elections are in fact not national at all. In reality, they are a huge number of local elections (650, which is also the number of seats). Each local election results in a seat being won by a member of the winning party. The heart of the problem is easy to see from a national perspective; at a nation-wide scale certain people’s votes will have significantly more power than the votes of others, as a delegate will need less votes to win in a range with a smaller amount of voters then he would in a district covering a larger and a much more densely populated area (If you happen to live in the Scottish Western Isles, according to the British elections, you are five times the man than any of those pesky southerners form the Isle of Wight are. Here’s an ego boost for the Scottish !). One might argue that, if the ranges were to be drawn in a way that would spread voters out evenly, the whole system would be fixed. Minority rule however would still be an issue – an issue which cannot be avoided if you are using FPTP to elect your Members of Parliament.
A significantly larger issue with FPTP is that, given enough time, it will result in a two-party system, greatly limiting the representation of more diverse political views and stances – something democracy is supposed to encourage, not curb. You need only take one look at the legislative branches of the US, the UK, Pakistan and India to figure out just how substantial the issue is – with the US leading the “charge”, riding the Elephants and Horses of their fully developed two-party umbrella system into a state of ridiculous political polarisation, binary policing and gridlock. In India, the INC and BJP won 15 out of the 16 elections in India’s whole history as an independent country. In the UK (which, in theory has plenty of different political parties) two groups – the Conservatives and Labour – continue to dominate the House of Commons since the 20s, with no other party gaining the upper hand at any point (hey, almost 100 years of political monopoly – someone get the Champagne!).
Tactical voting is the main perpetrator of this trend: voters know they can only cast one vote and so, instead of voting for the party they most agree with, they choose to elect the least disagreeable, popular party. While in Germany, a 12% support for the ‘Die Linke’ opposition party amounts to roughly 12% of the seats in parliament, UKIP’s 12% support got them exactly one seat (not that I’d particularly want UKIP in the House, but how democratic is that?).
The FPTP system of election relies on voting ranges – congressional districts, as they are known in the Unites States. The first stage of staging a FPTP election is the drawing of these voting ranges. A little skill and knowledge in geography and demography will allow the responsible officials to become experts at gerrymandering – the practice of strategically drawing lines in order to manipulate the demographic diversity in the voting ranges. Voters may for example be victims of ‘packing’ – one distinct group of voters is condensed into a single range, thereby greatly decreasing their impact in other districts. The unnecessarily large majority in their district will not yield advantageous results while simultaneously robbing their chance to impact elections elsewhere. North Carolina’s 12th congressional district is an excellent example of “packing”: the area is dominated by African-American citizens who tend to devotedly vote Democrat. Packing eases their influence on the other 13 districts – consequentially, the Republican Party reliably and sustainably takes home 10 out of the 13 ranges, easily securing a sizeable majority in the state of North Carolina.
The Spoiler Effect
The last and greatest of evils is the so-called Spoiler Effect. This fatal flaw has made a pariah of political diversity in the United States: the candidacy of a third candidate often significantly impairs the representativeness of the elective results, harming the voters in the process. Let us assume that there are two candidates running for the presidency in your country, one representing the Liberals, the other standing on the Conservative side. American citizens should not have too much of a problem with that – take a potential race of Hillary Clinton versus Marco Rubio (GOP – please, please sober up!). The race for the presidency might be very close and neither candidate could be certain of victory. Now, a second liberally tending candidate enters the race. While his or her stances differ from Clinton’s with regard to, say foreign policy and immigration, the new challenger appeals to many liberals still. The independent candidate might be able to sway a few conservative voters (especially in the case of not the GOP posterchild Rubio, but big-ego businessman Trump running) but will draw his biggest support from Clinton-tending citizens, thus securing a landslide victory for the conservative candidate.
It wouldn’t be a first in history: in 2000, Al Gore and Ralph Nader effectively split the democratic votes up, handing the presidency to George W. Bush.
Let’s wrap it up
FPTP is a failure on all fronts. It is an excellent vehicle for manipulation and sprouts inaccuracy in what is the most crucial part of representative democracy – electing the representatives, who are supposed are supposed to be (hold onto your seats!) representative of the public. By promoting a two-party system and allowing for the inadvertent ‘spoiler effect’, First-Past-The-Post voting not only discourages political diversity. It punishes variety. The system fails at its most basic duty – to provide a balance of power proportionate to the balance of votes; it allows stakeholders to manipulate results via gerrymandering and worst of it all … there is no reliable, credible and effective way to remove this undemocratic voting process.
FPTP has a whole array of fatal flaws – but the two leading parties benefit greatly from these imperfections. New groups and movements can be systematically suppressed, while voters are forced to vote tactically to avoid a victory of the candidate they like least. As alluded to in one of the most successful posts on this site as of yet, “the American system of politics ensures that the damage done to the opponent will always outweigh the disadvantage of backlash. The (..) system ensures that the most effective manner of building power is to viciously attack the opponent”. This results in an endless circus of smear campaigns, attempting to discredit and destroy the image of the opposition. The ultimate aim is to colour one’s own party as the lesser of two evils.
In the long run, voter turnout nosedives – as voters become disinterested in what seems like an unbreakable cycle of broken, rigged ‘elections’. It is absolutely striking and shocking to me personally how we, for the pleasure of our own laziness and the sedentary force of habit, we simply seem to ignore the existence of more representative voting systems: The Alternative Vote, the Single Transferrable Vote and the Mixed-Member Proportional Representation system, and those three are only a few feasible options in a whole sea of opportunities to revive our democratic systems.