A first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system is one in which voters indicate on a ballot the candidate of their choice, and the candidate who receives the most votes wins. This is sometimes described as winner takes all. First-past-the-post voting is a plurality voting method. FPTP is a common, but not universal, feature of electoral systems with single-member electoral divisions, and is practised in close to one third of countries. Notable examples include Canada, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as most of their current or former colonies and protectorates.
The first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is also known as the simple majority system. In this voting method, the candidate with the highest number of votes in a constituency is declared the winner. This system is used in India in direct elections to the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. While FPTP is relatively simple, it does not always allow for a truly representative mandate, as the candidate could win despite securing less than half the votes in a contest. In 2014, the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party won 336 seats with only 38.5% of the popular vote. Also, smaller parties representing specific groups have a lower chance of being elected in FPTP.
Though there are certain advantages associated with this system, lot of criticism overshadow the positive aspects. Let have a look at positive aspect first:
Advantages of First Past the Post System (FPTP)
- The FPTP system is simple, and with only one representative per constituency it can create a direct link between the constituency and the representative.
- First past the post’s tendency to produce majority ruleallows a government to pursue a consistent strategy for its term in office and to make decisions that may have socially beneficial outcomes, but be unpopular.
- Tony Blair, defending FPTP, argued that other systems give small parties the balance of power, and influence disproportionate to their votes.
- Allowing people into the UK parliament who did not finish first in their constituency was described by David Cameron as creating a “Parliament full of second-choices who no one really wanted but didn’t really object to either. Winston Churchill criticised the electoral outcomes of the alternative vote as “determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates”.
- Supporters also argue that electoral systems using proportional representation (PR) often enable smaller parties to become decisive in Parliament, thus gaining a power of leverage against the Government. FPTP generally reduces this likelihood, except where parties have a strong regional basis.
Criticisms of FPTP system
- Tactical voting: Voters have an incentive to vote for a candidate who they predict is more likely to win, in preference to their preferred candidate who may be unlikely to win and for whom a vote could be considered as wasted.
- Effect on political parties: Duverger’s law is an idea in political science which says that constituencies that use first-past-the-post methods will lead to two-party systems, given enough time.
- Wasted votes: Wasted votes are seen as those cast for losing candidates, and for winning candidates in excess of the number required for victory.
- Gerrymandering: Because FPTP permits many wasted votes, an election under FPTP is more easily gerrymandered. Through gerrymandering, electoral areas are designed deliberately to unfairly increase the number of seats won by one party, by redrawing the map such that one party has a small number of districts in which it has an overwhelming majority of votes, and a large number of districts where it is at a smaller disadvantage.
- Manipulation charges: The presence of spoilers often gives rise to suspicions that manipulation of the slate has taken place. A 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.
- Smaller parties may reduce the success of the largest similar party: Under first-past-the-post, a small party may draw votes away from a larger party that it is most similar to, and therefore give an advantage to another less similar large ONE
- Safe seats: First-past-the-post within geographical areas tends to deliver (particularly to larger parties) a significant number of safe seats, where a representative is sheltered from any but the most dramatic change in voting behaviour.
- Distorted geographical representation: The winner-takes-all nature of FPTP leads to distorted patterns of representation, since party support is commonly correlated with geography. For example, in the UK the Conservative Party represents most of the rural seats, and most of the south of the country, and the Labour Party most of the cities, and most of the north. This means that even popular parties can find themselves without elected politicians in significant parts of the country, leaving their supporters (who may nevertheless be a significant minority) unrepresented.
- Impact on party policy and campaigning: It has been suggested that the distortions in geographical representation provide incentives for parties to ignore the interests of areas in which they are too weak to stand much chance of gaining representation, leading to governments that do not govern in the national interest. Further, during election campaigns the campaigning activity of parties tends to focus on marginal seats where there is a prospect of a change in representation, leaving safer areas excluded from participation in an active campaign. Political parties operate by targeting districts, directing their activists and policy proposals toward those areas considered to be marginal, where each additional vote has more value.
- Hence Law commission of India has suggested to gradually shift from FPTP towards a hybrid system where cons are addressed and better representative democracy is realized in the country.