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Plurality electoral system

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Plurality electoral system

For systems in which one person may vote more than once in the same election, see Plural voting.
"Winner-takes-all" redirects here. For other uses, see Winner-takes-all (disambiguation).

The plurality voting system is a single-winner voting system often used to elect executive officers or to elect members of a legislative assembly which is based on single-member constituencies. This voting method is also used in multi-member constituencies in what is referred to as an exhaustive counting system where one member is elected at a time and the process repeated until the number of vacancies is filled.

The most common system, used in Canada, the lower house (Lok Sabha) in India, the United Kingdom, and most elections in the United States, is simple plurality, first-past-the-post or winner-takes-all. In this voting system the single winner is the person with the most votes (plurality); there is no requirement that the winner gain an absolute majority of votes. The distinction between American and British English is described by Fowler (1965) as follows: "With three-cornered contests as common as they now are, we may have occasion to find a convenient single word for what we used to call an absolute majority... In America the word majority itself has that meaning while a poll greater than that of any other candidate, but less than half the votes cast is called a plurality. It might be useful to borrow this distinction..."[1]

In some countries such as France (as well as in some jurisdictions of the United States, such as Louisiana and Georgia) the "two-ballot" or "runoff election" plurality system is used. In order to ensure that the winner gain a majority of votes, two rounds of voting may occur. If any candidate in the first round gains a majority of votes, then there is no second round. Otherwise, the two highest-voted candidates of the first round compete in a two-candidate second round or all candidates above a certain threshold in the first round compete in a two-, three- or four-candidate second round.

In political science, the use of the plurality voting system alongside multiple, single-winner constituencies to elect a multi-member body is often referred to as single-member district plurality or SMDP.[2] Plurality voting is also variously referred to as winner-takes-all or relative/simple majority voting; however, these terms can also refer to elections for multiple winners in a particular constituency using bloc voting.


The terms Highest vote, Majority vote and Plurality voting are often confused.

First past the post

Main article: First-past-the-post

The term first past the post (abbreviated FPTP or FPP) was coined as an analogy to horse racing, where the winner of the race is the first to pass a particular point (the "post" or finish line) on the track (in this case a plurality of votes), after which all other runners automatically and completely lose (that is, the payoff is "winner-takes-all"). There is, however, no "post" that the winning candidate must pass in order to win, as the winning candidate is required only to have received the highest number of votes in his or her favour. This results in the alternative name sometimes being "farthest past the post".

In a multiple member first-past-the-post ballot, the first candidates in order of highest vote to cross the "line" (that is, those who have the successivley greater number of votes) are elected. In some cases, the system involves an iteration of the counting of Plurality votes.

Historically, FPTP has been a contentious electoral system, giving rise to the concept of electoral reform and a multiplicity of different voting systems intended to address perceived weaknesses of plurality voting.


Plurality voting is used for local and/or national elections in 43 of the 193 countries of the United Nations. Plurality voting is particularly prevalent in the United Kingdom and former British colonies, including the United States, Canada and India.[3]

In single winner plurality voting, each voter is allowed to vote for only one candidate, and the winner of the election is whichever candidate represents a plurality of voters, that is, whoever received the largest number of votes. This makes the plurality voting system among the simplest of all voting systems for voters and vote counting officials (it is however very contentious to draw district boundary lines in this system).

In an election for a legislative body, each voter in a given geographically-defined electoral district votes for one candidate from a list of candidates competing to represent that district. Under the plurality system, the winner of the election acts as representative of the entire electoral district, and serves with representatives of other electoral districts.

In an election for a single seat, such as president in a presidential system, the same style of ballot is used and the candidate who receives the largest number of votes represents the entire population.

The two-round voting system uses first-past-the-post voting method in the first round of voting. In this case the two highest polling candidates that cross the line progress to the second round Run-off ballot. Washington state uses this method for the state elections, but not the federal elections, in the United States.[4]

In a multiple member Plurality election the counting of the ballot uses an exhaustive iteration process using the same ballot papers to elect one person each iteration for each vacant position.

Ballot types

Generally plurality ballots (single-mark ballots) can be categorized into 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, however a structured ballot can also include space for a write-in candidate.

Examples of plurality voting

General elections in the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom, like the United States and Canada, uses single-member districts as the base for national elections: Each electoral district or constituency chooses one member of parliament, namely the candidate that gets the most votes, whether he reaches a majority of votes or not ("first past the post"). In 1992, for example, a Liberal Democrat in Scotland won with just 26 percent of the votes. This system of single-member districts with plurality victors tends to produce two large political parties. (In countries with proportional representation there is not such a great incentive on forming two large parties, and that contributes to multi-party systems.)

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland use the first past the post system for general elections in the UK, but use versions of proportional representation for local elections and European elections.

The countries that inherited the British majoritarian system tend toward two large parties, one left, the other right, such as the U.S. Democrats and Republicans. Canada is an exception to this pattern, because its third parties are territorially concentrated, especially the separatist Bloc Québécois. New Zealand used the British system, and it too yielded two large parties. It also left many New Zealanders unhappy, because other viewpoints were ignored, so its parliament in 1993 adopted a new electoral law, modeled on Germany's system of proportional representation (PR) with a partial selection by constituencies. New Zealand soon developed a more complex party system. [5]


Imagine that Tennessee is having an election on the location of its capital. The population of Tennessee is concentrated around its four major cities, which are spread throughout the state. For this example, suppose that the entire electorate lives in these four cities and that everyone wants to live as near to the capital as possible.

The candidates for the capital are:

  • Memphis, the state's largest city, with 42% of the voters, but located far from the other cities
  • Nashville, with 26% of the voters, near the center of the state
  • Knoxville, with 17% of the voters
  • Chattanooga, with 15% of the voters

The preferences of the voters would be divided like this:

42% of voters
(close to Memphis)
26% of voters
(close to Nashville)
15% of voters
(close to Chattanooga)
17% of voters
(close to Knoxville)
  1. Memphis
  2. Nashville
  3. Chattanooga
  4. Knoxville
  1. Nashville
  2. Chattanooga
  3. Knoxville
  4. Memphis
  1. Chattanooga
  2. Knoxville
  3. Nashville
  4. Memphis
  1. Knoxville
  2. Chattanooga
  3. Nashville
  4. Memphis

Voting is accomplished whereby each voter in each city selects one city on the ballot (Memphis voters select Memphis, Nashville voters select Nashville, and so on). Votes are tabulated; Memphis is selected as it has the most votes (42%). Note that this system does not require that the winner have a majority but only a plurality. Memphis wins because it has the most votes, even though 58% of the voters in this example preferred Memphis least. Notice that this problem does not hold anymore in the two-round system, in which Nashville would have won.


Tactical voting

To a much greater extent than many other electoral methods, plurality electoral systems encourage tactical voting techniques, like "compromising". Voters are pressured to vote for one of the two candidates they predict are most likely to win, even if their true preference is neither, because a vote for any other candidate will likely be wasted and have no impact on the final result.

In the Tennessee example, if all the voters for Chattanooga and Knoxville had instead voted for Nashville, then Nashville would have won (with 58% of the vote); this would only have been the 3rd choice for those voters, but voting for their respective 1st choices (their own cities) actually results in their 4th choice (Memphis) being elected.

The difficulty is sometimes summed up, in an extreme form, as "All votes for anyone other than the second place are votes for the winner", because by voting for other candidates, they have denied those votes to the second place candidate who could have won had they received them. It is often claimed by United States Democrats that Democrat Al Gore lost the 2000 Presidential Election to Republican George W. Bush because some voters on the left voted for Ralph Nader of the Green Party, who exit polls indicated would have preferred Gore at 45% to Bush at 27%, with the rest not voting in Nader's absence.[6]

Such a mentality is reflected by elections in Puerto Rico and its 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 Puertoricans 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, this can cause significant perturbation to the system:

  • 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 those candidates who receive the most media attention will nonetheless be the most popular and thus most likely to be in one of the top two.
  • A newly appointed candidate, who is in fact supported by the majority of voters, may be considered (due to the lack of a track record) to not be likely to become one of the top two candidates; thus, they will receive a reduced number of votes, which will then give them a reputation as a low poller in future elections, compounding the problem.
  • The system may promote votes against more so than 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 majority to close and more support in the constituency) than their own candidate on the basis that Labour supporters would prefer an MP from a competing left/liberal party than a Conservative one. Similarly in Labour/Lib Dem marginals where the Conservatives are third, Conservative voters may be encouraged or tempted to vote Lib Dem to keep defeat Labour.
  • If enough voters use this tactic, the first-past-the-post system becomes, effectively, runoff voting—a completely different system—where the first round is held in the court of public opinion; a good example of this is the Winchester by-election, 1997.

Proponents of other single-winner voting systems 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 systems such as approval voting and Condorcet methods.

Fewer political parties

Duverger's law is a theory that constituencies that use first-past-the-post systems will have a two-party system, given enough time.

First-past-the-post tends to reduce the number of political parties to a greater extent than most other methods do, making it more likely that a single party will hold a majority of legislative seats. (In the United Kingdom, 21 out of 24 General Elections since 1922 have produced a single-party majority government.)

FPTP's tendency toward fewer parties and more frequent one-party rules can also produce government that may not consider as wide a range of perspectives and concerns. It is entirely possible that a voter finds all major parties to have similar views on issues and that a voter does not have a meaningful way of expressing a dissenting opinion through his vote.

As fewer choices are offered to voters, voters may vote for a candidate although they disagree with him, because they disagree even more with his opponents. Consequently, candidates will less closely reflect the viewpoints of those who vote for them.

Furthermore, one-party rule is more likely to lead to radical changes in government policy even though the changes are favoured only by a plurality or a bare majority of the voters, whereas a multi-party system usually require greater consensus in order to make dramatic changes in policy.

Wasted votes

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. Alternative electoral systems attempt to ensure that almost all votes are effective in influencing the result and the number of wasted votes is consequently minimised.


Because FPTP permits a high level of wasted vote, 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.

In brief, suppose that governing party G wishes to reduce the seats that will be won by opposition party O in the next election. It creates a number of constituencies in each of which O has an overwhelming majority of votes. O will win these seats, but a large number of its voters will waste their votes. Then the rest of the constituencies are designed with small majorities for G. Few G votes are wasted, and G will win a large number of seats by small margins. As a result of the gerrymander, O's seats have cost it more votes than G's seats.

Manipulation charges

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.

Disproportionate influence of smaller parties

Smaller parties can disproportionately change the outcome of an FPTP election by swinging what is called the 50-50% balance of two party systems, by creating a faction within one or both ends of the political spectrum which shifts the winner of the election from an absolute majority outcome to a simple majority outcome favouring the previously less favoured party. 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 a governing body, gaining power of influence as a member of the coalition Government, an issue which is generally reduced by the FPTP system.[7]

Issues specific to particular countries

Solomon Islands

In August 2008, Sir Peter Kenilorea commented on what he perceived as the flaws of a first-past-the-post electoral system in the Solomon Islands:

An[...] underlying cause of political instability and poor governance, in my opinion, is our electoral system and its related problems. It has been identified by a number of academics and practitioners that the First Past the Post system is such that a Member elected to Parliament is sometimes elected by a small percentage of voters where there are many candidates in a particular constituency. I believe that this system is part of the reason why voters ignore political parties and why candidates try an appeal to voters' material desires and relationships instead of political parties. [...] Moreover, this system creates a political environment where a Member is elected by a relatively small number of voters with the effect that this Member is then expected to ignore his party’s philosophy and instead look after that core base of voters in terms of their material needs. Another relevant factor that I see in relation to the electoral system is the proven fact that it is rather conducive, and thus has not prevented, corrupt elections practices such as ballot buying.


Preservation of "one person, one vote" principle

The arguments for a plurality voting system rely on the preservation of the "one person, one vote" principle (also "one man, one vote", or OMOV, or more recently "one member, one vote"), as cited by the Supreme Court of the United States, wherein each voter is only able to cast one vote in a given election, where that vote can only go to one candidate. Plurality voting systems elect the candidate who is preferred first by the largest number of voters, although this need not be an absolute majority. Other voting systems, such as instant-runoff voting, party-list proportional representation or single transferable vote also preserve OMOV, but it is not as obvious that they do so, because they rely on lower voter preference to enable a candidate to earn either an absolute majority (single member district) or a quota (multi-member district), respectively.


Some other voting systems can end up giving a higher chance of victory to a candidate perceived as having extreme views. Under a first-past-the-post system, voters are often afraid of "wasting" their vote on a candidate unlikely to win, so they cast their vote towards their most preferable choice possible of victory. Advocates of plurality voting suggest that this results in most candidates having to field a fairly moderate or centrist position. This is debated by advocates of other systems, who argue that ranked voting systems or cardinal voting systems, by getting more information from voters, allow a more rigorous definition of the word "moderate" and can be designed to explicitly favor candidates fitting that description.

Fewer minority parties

Plurality voting tends to promote two-party systems (even more so than other single-winner systems). Supporters of the two party system view this as beneficial, as parliamentary governments, or other coalitions, are typically more stable in two-party systems, and thus small minorities are not given undue voice. First-past-the-post minimizes the influence of third parties and thus arguably keeps out extremists. However, this can also deny fair representation to positive third parties, racial minorities, women, and others.

Advantages compared to proportional representation

Plurality is often conflated with single-winner voting systems in general, in order to contrast it with proportional representation. In this context, it shares advantages, such as local accountability, with other single-winner systems.

International examples

The United Kingdom continues to use the first-past-the-post electoral system for general elections, and for local government elections in England and Wales. Changes to the UK system have been proposed, and alternatives were examined by the Jenkins Commission in the late 1990s. After the formation of a new coalition government in 2010, it was announced as part of the coalition agreement that a referendum would be held on switching to the alternative vote system. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 received Royal Assent in February 2011 to allow the referendum to occur. It was rejected 2-1 by British voters in a referendum held on 5 May.

Canada also uses FPTP for national and provincial elections. In May 2005 the Canadian province of British Columbia had a referendum on abolishing single-member district plurality in favour of multi-member districts with the Single Transferable Vote system 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. An October 2007 referendum in the Canadian province of Ontario on adopting a Mixed Member Proportional system, also requiring 60% approval, failed with only 36.9% voting in favour.

Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Republic of Ireland, Australia and New Zealand are notable examples of countries within the UK, or with previous links to it, that use non-FPTP electoral systems (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales use FPTP in United Kingdom general elections, however).

Nations which have undergone democratic reforms since 1990 but have not adopted the FPTP system include South Africa, almost all of the former Eastern bloc nations, Russia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

List of countries

Countries that use a plurality voting system to elect the lower or only house of their legislature include:

The plurality 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.[8]

See also


External links

  • International IDEA
  • Project for Global Democracy & Human Rights
  • ACE Project: What is the electoral system for Chamber 1 of the national legislature?
  • ACE Project: First Past The Post - Detailed explanation of first-past-the-post voting
  • ACE Project: Experiments with moving away from FPTP in the UK
  • ACE Project: Electing a President using FPTP
  • ACE Project: FPTP on a grand scale in India
  • The Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform says the new proportional electoral system it proposes for British Columbia will improve the practice of democracy in the province.
  • ASSEMBLY AUDIO AND VIDEO Below, you'll find audio and video recordings of six Learning Phase weekends, a meeting held in Prince George and the six Deliberation Phase weekends. The Learning Phase and Deliberation Phase recordings were broadcast on Hansard TV during 2004. - week 5 gives a detailed description by David Farrell, of the University of Manchester (England), Elizabeth McLeay of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Districting in FPTP systems, The unusual "earmuff" shape of the 4th Congressional District of Illinois connects two Hispanic neighborhoods while remaining contiguous by narrowly tracing Interstate 294.
  • The Problem With First-Past-The-Post Electing (data from UK general election 2005)
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