First Past the Post Voting: Our Elections Explained
Misrepresentation in Elections
Despite the United State’s status as the world’s oldest standing democracy, many Americans believe that our democratic institutions aren’t satisfying them. While Common Cause strives to make democracy more inclusive for exactly this reason, representation in a democracy isn’t just about who votes or what we vote on, but also how we vote.
The current system is simple enough: public offices representing some group of people have vacancies. We could be referring to a seat on a city council, in the House of Representatives, or to the President of the United States. Each voter submits a ballot choosing one person they want to occupy the office in question, and conventionally, whoever gets the most votes wins. This system is called First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) or Winner-Takes-All. It is easy to understand and implement, and it intuitively seems fair. Unfortunately when examined critically and practically, it becomes clear that like any system, FPTP has its downsides.
Before pointing out the problems with FPTP, it is worthwhile to examine its benefits. The first is that it is very easy to understand: everyone gets one vote, and whoever has the most votes wins. The second major benefit is the ease of auditing; another result of its simplicity. If something happens that later calls the results of an election into question, the votes can simply be recounted. This simple recount should accurately determine the winner.
However, problems start appearing in any highly contested elections with many candidates competing for only a single seat. Imagine there is an election with ten candidates who are equally appealing to the voting population. The winner of this election receives only 12% of the vote, but the rest of the votes are spread equally among the other nine candidates so this is enough to be a victory. The 88% of the population that voted for someone else ends up being represented by a person they did not vote for, and who may not represent their views. This is called minority rule: the winner of the election is only appealing to a fraction of the voters instead of seeking a majority of the vote.
Flaws in FPTP voting combined with our two-party system also erode the variety of candidates that can get into office, until eventually there will only be two viable choices to vote for. This comes about due to the interaction of two problems with FPTP.
The first is how it molds voter behavior. Consider the same election scenario as before, with ten candidates where the winner only received 12% of the vote. In this scenario, imagine a voter whose candidate only got 7% of the vote. Unless there are major events that significantly shift the political landscape, voters should reasonably expect similar performance in future elections. Because of this, they may change their vote to someone that they don’t necessarily like, but who they think is more likely to win against other candidates that they deeply dislike. This is called strategic voting, and it’s a necessary decision for many voters to work within FPTP systems.
This is how things eventually filter down to a two party system. As voters abandon less popular candidates, these candidates typically drop out, lose in primaries, or run on third-party tickets with little chance of success, leading to a situation where there are only two candidates who have a realistic chance of winning. Voters who hold views centered between the two primary candidates become the focus of politicians’ persuasion efforts, and as this continues, it can also lead to disinterest in democracy from people who hold opinions that depart from the political center and who feel their opinions are not represented by either of the two viable options.
The second problem emerges after the political landscape has settled down to have two political parties. In the past, significant third party candidates have emerged. One example comes from the 2000 United States Presidential election, where Ralph Nader ran a campaign for president. As a left of center candidate, his policies were most similar to those of Democratic candidate Al Gore, and post-election surveys have indicated that Nader likely had a decisive impact on the election results:
The official Florida tally gave Bush the win by 537 votes (48.847 percent to 48.838 percent), while Nader racked up 97,488 votes. The national exit poll asked respondents how they would vote in a two-person race between Bush and Gore. Political scientist Gerald Pomper summed up the results in a 2001 Political Science Quarterly overview: “approximately half (47 percent) of the Nader voters said they would choose Gore in a two-man race, a fifth (21 percent) would choose Bush, and a third (32 percent) would not vote. Applying these figures to the actual vote, Gore would have achieved a net gain of 26,000 votes in Florida, far more than needed to carry the state easily.”
Essentially, because Nader appealed more to Democrats than Republicans, a significant number of Democrats who would have voted for Gore instead voted for Nader, causing Gore to lose the election. This is called the Spoiler Effect, and it makes it extremely difficult to escape a two party system. There are numerous examples of the Spoiler Effect, and it can affect both parties in the system negatively. For another example, in 1912, former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt challenged sitting president Republican president William Taft, splitting Republican votes and allowing for an easy victory for Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
In the end, FPTP voting often leads to a system with only two effective political parties. Strategic voting narrows the playing field down to two candidates, and the Spoiler Effect means that third parties can’t get a foothold to challenge the status quo. This leaves many people’s interests without representation and ensures many ideas will never be heard. In this system, the two political parties in power aren’t competing for all voters, but just a persuadable middle, which leaves many voters feeling unrepresented. Political parties can count on negative partisanship to encourage people to vote against the party they dislike more, or alienation and disinterest to cause them not to vote at all. Institutional effects can keep parties in power despite voter dissatisfaction with their views, or even in elections like 2016 where the majority of Americans did not vote.
In addition, FPTP voting often results in governments where the ratio of seats given to a certain party is not the same as the ratio of votes they got in the election. The difference between the ratio of seats earned and number of votes cast is called misrepresentation error, and it has been demonstrated in many recent elections. For example, in the United State’s 2012 elections for the House of Representatives, the Republican Party was awarded 54% of seats despite only winning 47% of the vote nationwide.
While the United States aspires to be a beacon of democracy, our voting systems give a small section of voters disproportionate power, force third parties into ‘spoiler’ roles, and can significantly misrepresent votes cast and the proportion of seats won in an election. To learn more about alternatives and improvements to first-past-the-post voting, stay tuned for updates right here on Democracy Wire, and check out our work in election access and representation at commoncause.org/colorado/our-work.