Friday, August 25, 2006

Advantages of Plurality



Plurality may well be the simplest of all voting systems. This implies specific advantages. It is likely to be quicker, and easier to administer; this may also imply that an election costs less to run. It may also have an effect on voters, because it is easy to explain and understand. Alternative voting systems may alienate some voters who find the systems hard to understand, and who therefore feel detached from the direct effect of their own vote.

In addition, not all voters see party politics or policies as a major issue. Some voters see an election primarily as a form of recruitment for an individual representative, a point of contact between the state and themselves. FPTP gives such voters a direct choice of single candidate, with no extra votes to be shared or balanced between parties. This may be especially important to voters who want to vote for individuals based on particular ethical frameworks that are not party aligned, and who do not want their vote to have a "side effect" of electing others they may not approve of.

Each representative must be a winner

Sometimes, the voters are in favour of a political party, but do not like specific candidates. An example was the premier of Alberta, Don Getty. His government was re-elected in 1989, but because of voter dissatisfaction with the way the government was led, Getty, the leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, was not re-elected by voters from his electoral district.

However this can also have the opposite effect. A candidate who is very popular among the electorate in general may lose if the candidate or the candidate's party is unpopular or has caused dissatisfaction in his or her seat. An example was how Winston Churchill lost the 1945 UK Parliamentary elections. Churchill had over a 90% approval rating, but the Labour Party won overall defeating Churchill's Conservative Party and making Clement Attlee the Prime Minister.

Similarly, in the 1999 Ontario provincial election, Mike Harris and his Progressive Conservative party was re-elected to a majority government, but symbolic of the growing discontent among voters about cuts to education, his education minister and strong ally was resoundingly defeated by the opposition candidate.

It is often claimed that because each electoral district votes for its own representative, the elected candidate is held accountable to his own voters, thereby helping to prevent incompetent, fraudulent or corrupt behavior by elected candidates. The voters in the electoral district can easily replace him since they have full power over who they want to represent them. In the absence of effective recall legislation, however, the electors must wait until the end of the representative's term. Moreover, it is possible for a winning candidate or government to increase support from one election to the next, but lose the election, or vice-versa. Also, it is generally possible for candidates to be elected if the party regards them as important even if they are fairly unpopular, by moving the candidate to a safe seat which the party is unlikely to lose or by getting a candidate in a safe seat to step down.

Preservation of One Person One Vote principle

The arguments for a plurality voting system rely heavily on the preservation of the "one person, one vote" principle (often shortened to OMOV for "one man, one vote" 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. Other voting systems, such as Instant-runoff voting or Single Transferable Vote also preserve OMOV, but rely on lower voter preference to arrive at a candidate earning either absolute majority or droop quota, respectively.

However, proponents of other systems, such as approval voting, point out that the OMOV principle was made to control the magnitude of districts; that each district must be relatively in proportion to one another in population. Approval voting does not actually represent some voters more than others, so the OMOV principle would be a weak one to discount it on. In any case, it could be argued approval voting grants one vote for each candidate to each voter - which they may choose not to cast, and cannot vote cumulate on one candidate.


FPTP also encourages regional parties which can be very popular in one geographical region but have little or no support in other parts of the electorate.

Some parts of a given country may have local support for a specific political party which may have no support in another reigon. In the United States for example, small parties, like the Socialist parties may have scattered support in certain municipalities, so a candidate from one of there reigions may appear on the ballot there, whereas his name would not appear on the ballot in a reigon where the party has little support.

A good example of this is Canada, where, in 1993, the separatist Bloc Québécois formed the opposition, despite getting only 13% of the vote. In the 2006 election, the Bloc Québécois received 51 seats (16.6% of the total seats) with 10.5% of the total votes. In contrast, the New Democratic Party received 29 seats (9.4% of the total seats) with 17.5% of the total votes.
This section is a stub. You can help by adding to it.


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 be likely to be wasted and have no impact on the final result.

In the example above, Cathy's voters would have done much better to have voted for Amy instead of Cathy; that way, Amy would have beaten Brian by eight votes. They would not have gotten their most desirable person elected, but rather their second choice; in this case plurality voting led to the paradoxical result that attempting to get their 1st most desired person elected led to their 3rd most desired person being elected instead. Likewise, 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 presumably would have preferred Gore to Bush. (It should be noted that despite such claims of potential Gore votes going to Nader, Gore still had a plurality of the popular vote. Bush won due to having more electoral votes.) Conversely, Republicans can claim that Ross Perot was a spoiler who enabled Bill Clinton to win the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections with a minority of the popular vote, because Perot had split the conservative vote.

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 colours).

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 for either Labour or Liberal Democrats based on which is most popular in each constituency, regardless of the voters' opinions of the policies of these parties.
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 feature of the FPTP system is that invariably, voters can select only one candidate in a single-member district, whilst in multi-member districts they can never select more candidates than the number of seats in the district. Some argue that FPTP would work better if electors could cast votes for as many candidates as they wish. This would allow voters to "vote against" a certain despised candidate if they choose, without being forced to guess who they should vote for to defeat that candidate, thus eliminating the need for tactical voting. Such a system would also serve to reduce the spoiler effect. This system is called approval voting.

Effect on representation

Created by an organisation promoting proportional representation, this campaign postcard illustrates that Labour obtained a majority in Parliament despite winning only 35.2% of the national vote in the 2005 election.

The most commonly expressed disadvantage — perhaps because it is easiest to express and explain — of first-past-the-post is that it does not reflect the voter's thoughts. Thus, substantial bodies of opinion can be rendered irrelevant to the final outcome, and a party can obtain a majority of seats without a majority of the vote. Examples include the recent United Kingdom general election of 2005 where the new government won a majority of the seats with less than 36% of the national vote. The disproportionate nature of this system also means that whole regions may have MPs from only one party. The British Conservatives won large majorities of seats in the 1980s on a minority of votes while almost all the Scottish seats were Labour, Liberal or SNP; this disparity created tremendous dissatisfaction in Scotland.

A further example of disproportionality arose in the Canadian federal election of 1926 for the province of Manitoba. The province was entitled to 17 seats in that election. The result was very different from how people voted.Political party % votes Number
of seats % seats
Conservative 42.2% 0 0%
Liberal-Progressive 19.5% 7 41%
Liberal 18.4% 4 24%
Progressive 11.2% 4 24%
Labour 8.7% 2 12%

The Conservatives clearly had the largest number of votes across the province, but received no seats at all.

The usual cause for these disproportionate results is that a party has a large number of votes across the entire territory, but they are spread out across the territory rather than being concentrated in particular constituencies. Parties with less overall support, but where that support is concentrated in particular constituencies, will win plurality in those constituencies over a party with widely distributed support.

This presents a problem because it encourages parties to focus narrowly on the needs and well-being of specific electoral districts where they can be sure to win seats, rather than be sensitive to the sentiments of voters everywhere. A further problem is that the party in power often has the ability to determine where the boundaries of constituencies lie: to secure election results, they may use gerrymandering — that is, redistricting to distort election results by enclosing party voters together in one electoral district. Moreover, it can be demonstrated that even the use of non-partisan districting methods - such as computers - to determine constituency boundaries tends to generate results very similar to those produced by a majority party with the power to gerrymander in its favour.[2] Conversely, there are cases where there may be no possible way of drawing contiguous boundaries that will allow a minority representation.

It often seems fundamentally unfair that a party should have a substantially greater or lesser share of seats than their share of the vote. A further consequence of the system is that many such elections can be considered won before all votes are tallied, once there are no longer enough uncounted votes to override an established plurality count. Though not necessarily a disadvantage, this can produce a feeling of disenfranchisement among voters when running tallies are reported through the media.

This argument applies to most other single-winner voting systems.

How the seats can differ hugely from votes

In the FPTP system, the proportion of seats won may differ hugely from the proportion of votes received. A huge disparity between votes and seats is demonstrated below.

In the first table labour has rightly won, but the size of its victory is unjusitified by votes. Also, the LibDems have won a seat with half the Conservative vote when the Conservatives have no seats!Data Cons.
votes Labour
votes LibDem
Constituency A 40 50 10
Constituency B 45 55 0
Constituency C 40 10 50
Constituency D 35 40 25
Constituency E 40 60 0
Overall votes 200
40% 215
43% 85
Seats 0 4 1


How polarisation can stop seats changing hands

If a country becomes polarised, many constituencies will have strong majorities in certain seats, this will mean that marginal seats could be few and far between, making it hard for many seats to change hands when a party's vote drops.

Below are two tables of the six most marginal seats in a country. They both show the same seats but the second table is more polarised. Both show what would happen when there is a 5 per cent swing from Cons. to Labour. Amongst the non-polarised seats, Labour would make a larger gain than it would with polarised seats.Non-polarised Cons.
votes Labour
votes Change?
Constituency A 59 41 Cons. hold
Constituency B 57 43 Cons. hold
Constituency C 54 46 Labour gain
Constituency D 54 46 Labour gain
Constituency E 52 48 Labour gain
Constituency F 51 49 Labour gain
Seats that would
change hands -4 +4 n/a
Polarised Cons.
votes Labour
votes Change?
Constituency A 67 33 Cons. hold
Constituency B 64 36 Cons. hold
Constituency C 62 38 Cons. hold
Constituency D 59 41 Cons. hold
Constituency E 56 44 Cons. hold
Constituency F 52 48 Labour gain
Seats that would
change hands -1 +1 n/a


Effect on political parties

Duverger's law is a principle of political science which predicts that constituencies that use first-past-the-post systems will become two-party systems, given enough time.

First-past-the-post tends to reduce the number of political parties to a greater extent than most other methods, thus making it more likely that a single party will hold a majority of legislative seats. (In the United Kingdom, 18 out of 22 General Elections since 1922 have produced a majority government.)

Some argue that this is an advantage, in that single party rule enables quicker decision-making with less need for back and forth negotiation.

Multi-party coalitions, on the other hand, require consent among all coalition partners to pass legislation, which some argue gives small parties a disproportionate amount of power. In the UK, arguments for plurality often look to Italy where the frequent government changeovers are presented as undesirable.

FPTP's tendency toward fewer parties and more frequent one-party rule can also produce disadvantages. One such disadvantage is that the government may not consider as wide a range of perspectives and concerns. It is entirely possible that a voter will find that all major parties agree on a particular issue. In this case, the voter will not have any meaningful way of expressing a dissenting opinion through his or her vote.

Another disadvantage is that fewer choices are offered to the voters, often pressuring voters to vote for a candidate with whom they largely disagree so as to oppose a candidate with whom they disagree even more (See tactical voting above); this feature pressures candidates to appeal to the extremes in order to avoid being undercut. This appeal-to-extremes operates by giving those voters who are more centrist no choice but to vote for them. The likely result of this is that candidates will less closely reflect the viewpoints of those who vote for them.

It may also be argued that one-party rule is more likely to lead to radical changes in government policy that are only favoured by a plurality or bare majority of the voters, whereas multi-party systems usually require greater consensus in order to make dramatic changes.

Safe seats
See also: Rotten borough

A safe seat is one in which a plurality of voters support a particular candidate or party so strongly that their votes for that candidate are guaranteed in advance of the election. This causes the difficulty that all other voters in the constituency can then make no difference to the result, since the winner of the seat is already known in advance. This results in serious feelings of disenfranchisement, and to abstention.

As an example Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin holds the 4th safest parliamentary seat in Westminster for his West Belfast constituency.

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.
This section is a stub. You can help by adding to it.

Wipeout and clean sweep results

Since FPTP combined with single member constituencies generate a winner's bonus, if not winner takes all, the opposition can be left with few if any seats (see above).

It is argued that a weak or absent opposition due to an electoral wipeout is bad for the government. Provincial elections in several Canadian provinces provide suitable examples.

Disproportionate influence of smaller parties

Smaller parties can disproportionately change the outcome of a 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. In the United States, this mechanism falls within one major reasoning (USA, Voting act, 1970s) favoring two-party, First-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral systems.

Current events

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 but no major changes have been implemented. Canada also uses this system 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.

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

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

Where plurality voting is used

Countries that use this system to elect the lower or only house of their legislature include:
Antigua and Barbuda
The Gambia
India (Proportional representation in upper house)
Federated States of Micronesia
Papua New Guinea
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Lucia
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Solomon Islands
South Korea
Trinidad and Tobago
United Kingdom (Parliamentary and local government elections in England and Wales only, PR in elections for EU)
United States (except for Louisiana)
See also: Table of voting systems by nation

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. [3]

India uses a proportional representation system for its upper house.

No comments: