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First-past-the-post is an electoral system in which a plurality, not a majority, is sufficient to win; that is, the winning candidate receives the largest single number of votes, but does not need to receive more than half the votes. Within states where first-past-the-post is traditional, this seems quite normal: the candidate or party or referendum option with the largest number of votes should win. It also means, though, that a candidate or party or referendum option can be opposed by a majority of voters and still officially win.

The name ‘first-past-the-post’ is misleading; it suggests a race in which the winner is the first competitor to reach a particular distance. In fact, first-past-the-post has no fixed measure of success; the amount needed to win depends on the number of candidates and their relative strengths. If ten candidates are running, one of them could win with just 11% of the vote, meaning 89% of the electorate voted for someone else.

First-past-the-post has a secondary effect in democracies that use it. When individual candidates can be elected by simple plurality, it becomes customary to see plurality rule as normal. For example, in parliamentary systems, a government must command a majority of seats in parliament. But parties in parliamentary democracies frequently claim to have “won” an election, and are even frequently said to have “won” by the news media, merely for finishing first, regardless of how far they are from a majority in parliament, and the parties will then claim full democratic legitimacy and the right to govern on the basis of the plurality alone. This claim is validated so frequently that a coalition forming a parliamentary majority will often successfully be branded as illegitimate in the eyes of the public by the largest single party, and this discourages the non-plurality parties from forming a parliamentary-majority government in the first place, even if their interests, and the interests of their voters, are more closely aligned than any is with the plurality party.

Several methods exist for determining an election by majority. A common method is the run-off; the top two finishers advance to a second round, in which all voters cast a second ballot choosing between the two, with one of them assured of at least half the vote. A second method is some variation of ranked voting. Voters order candidates (parties, options) by preference. If a voter’s first choice is not sufficiently popular with other voters, her vote goes to her second choice instead, or third, and so on. In the actual vote tally, the candidate who finishes last in first-choice votes will have his votes reassigned to the second choices of his voters, and this process will continue until a candidate has a majority. A third method is to abandon geographical constituencies entirely, and hold all elections at large (over the entire state), using some form of proportional representation. A popular version of this is the party-list system, where parties submit lists of candidates, and are awarded seats in the representative body according to their proportion of the at-large vote, then filled in order from the lists.

Ranked voting eliminates the need to vote tactically with a single vote on the assumption that your preferred candidate cannot win. Your vote will always be counted for someone viable, even if that person is your third or fourth choice, so there is no reason not to rank your preferred candidate first. This guarantee, in turn, makes smaller parties less of a risk, and thus gives them a chance to break into elected office in a single election or over time. At-large proportional representation lowers the threshold for representation (theoretically, 1% of the vote if there are 100 seats), and thus eliminates the need for tactical voting for most voters. (Those who prefer very small parties would still need some form of ranked voting; and most states using this system set a minimum threshold well above a single seat, such as 3-5% of the statewide vote.) The run-off system still produces an incentive for tactical voting; if you support an unpopular candidate in the first round, you may be able to do no more in the second round than to help to block the candidate you dislike the most, whereas a tactical vote in the first round might help get your second or third choice into the run-off. The run-off system can prevent the election of a single candidate opposed by a majority, but if there are two such candidates, the electorate might be forced to choose between them.

Conversely, first-past-the-post has tended, in many democracies (such as the United States), to produce a two-party-dominated system. Third parties risk wasted votes. If a system starts off with two parties, most voters will have a strong preference for one of them, and, more to the point, a strong preference against the other. A new party may be more to the voter’s liking than either of the existing parties, but voting for that party could allow a plurality victory for the least desirable party, and voters are naturally reluctant to take the chance. The US has always had exactly two major national parties, and the last time a new major party emerged was in the election of 1856, with the Republicans.



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