September 25, 2016    4 minute read

Do The US And The UK Know Best When It Comes To Voting?

Electoral Games    September 25, 2016    4 minute read

Do The US And The UK Know Best When It Comes To Voting?

First-past-the-post is the second most popular voting system in the world, after Party List Proportional Representation. It is most notably used in the US and the UK.

How Does It Work?

In the case of the UK, voting takes place within constituencies, with each constituency electing one MP to represent them in Parliament. Voters put a cross on the ballot paper next to the candidate they want as their MP, and the candidate with the highest number of votes in each constituency is elected.

This creates a problem in that all votes cast for unsuccessful candidates count for nothing.

What Are The Positives?

The primary benefit of first-past-the-post is that it is simple. The votes are easily counted, and administration fees are minimal. Additionally, the ease of tallying the votes means that the time taken to determine the winner is relatively short, often with the results being announced hours after the polls close. Furthermore, the voter is free to easily and clearly express their opinion on which party they wish to form the next government.

The nature of first-past-the-post often results in a two-party system (Democrats Vs Republicans in the US and Labour Vs Conservatives in the UK). Sequentially, this is very likely to produce a single-party government, although coalitions are possible. This is of benefit because legislation is passed without the reliance on the support of other parties.

Another good property to come out of first-past-the-post is that if a party wants to win the general election they have to pitch to the centre ground. This means extremist policies (both left and right-wing) are unlikely to be enforced and instead they should act to benefit everyone.

The Drawbacks

A major argument against the first-past-the-post format is that it encourages tactical voting – the benefits of the two-party system are undone because people are likely to vote not for their most favoured candidate (if they are not one of the main two) but against the party they do not want to win.

Moreover, successful candidates can be elected by the narrowest of margins, with it only mattering that they have more votes than any other candidate. In the past, the UK has seen MPs elected with as little as 24.5% of the vote (the 2015 SDLP candidate). This calls into question whether one person can fully understand and represent the views and needs of their entire constituency when less than a quarter of people originally voted for them.

This is the main issue critics question of first-past-the-post – does it lead to a representative government? With MPs rarely gaining more than 50% of the vote, this means the majority of votes are wasted and bear no effect on the policies governing the population. This was perfectly illustrated in the UK general election of 2015, where UKIP received 12.7% of the vote, but only secured one seat in parliament. Conversely, the Scottish National Party obtained 4.7% of the ballot and now has 56 MPs.

While the outcome of a first-past-the-post vote may be unrepresentative, the candidates that are running may also be unrepresentative due to the nature of the voting system. If one supports the policies of a party but does not support the party candidate in one’s constituency, there is no way of expressing this at the ballot box. In addition to safe seats, where a party is almost guaranteed re-election, regardless of the candidate, which in turn can lead to these areas being neglected during policy making and disenfranchise a significant proportion of voters.

Looking Towards The Future

In the worst case scenario, a party could win the most seats in parliament without having the most votes overall. Forgetting everything about under-representation in the long term of a government formed after a first-past-the-post election, a voting system that enables this outcome is flawed.

The future of first-past-the-post is limited, with a number of countries having previously abandoned the system, and no countries adopting it. For change to occur in the UK, the “smaller” parties that the current system is not working for (UKIP, Green, etc.) will have to lead the way. But the inherent nature of a parliament full of members that have been successful through this system is unlikely to affect change. At the most fundamental level the two main parties that benefit from first-past-the-post and hold the majority of seats are in no hurry to change the status quo.

This means it will also come down to the population driving for change, which is evidently possible as seen with the EU Referendum. However, with this being a less crucial and less publicised issue, it is unlikely anything will change soon. While critics call into question whether first-past-the-post encourages gerrymandering, it is hard to argue whether a government is representative when turnout is often lacking, even if this is due to the disenfranchisement of voters.

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