Problems With First Past the Post

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Problems With First Past the Post

Branden Leong, Staff Writer

Awkwardly abbreviated FPTP, “First Past the Post” is a voting system many of us are familiar with. Need to elect a student body president, choose a movie to watch with your family, or pick a good restaurant to eat at with your friends? In most of these common situations, a system where everyone gets one vote and the candidate with the most votes wins is prevalent no matter where you go. FPTP is even used when voting for the President of the United States in the primary and secondary elections. Also called “Winner Takes All”, whenever something needs to be agreed on, this form of voting is certainly one of the most common forms, even though it has many flaws.

FPTP only follows two rules: each person gets one vote, and the candidate with the most votes wins. Simple, fair, and logical, right? Well, quite the opposite. First, let’s view a mock election. As the voters eagerly submit their ballots for seven hopeful candidates, the results are as follows: Person A gets 9% of the votes; B, 18%; C, 19%; D, 13%; E, 20%; F, 15%; and Person G receives 6%. With the two simple rules in action, Person E is crowned the winner of the election, with 20% of the popular vote. Already, the first problem springs up. Even though Person E had the highest number of votes, 80% of the people voted against him. The problem with minority rule occurs as the majority of the population wanted someone else as the winner. With more and more candidates, one can imagine a candidate winning with, say, 5% of the vote or less, though the rest of the people voted against the candidate.

However, this is only the beginning. The second problem with FPTP is that elections will inevitably lead to a two-party system, similar to our presidential elections today. In fact, this is exactly how the modern Democratic and Republican two-party system rose from dozens upon dozens of parties birthed since the beginning of the United States. Of course, you’ve probably never heard of the “Silver Party”, the “American Workers Party”, or the “Rent Is Too Damn High Party” until today, but the fact is that these minor and often hilariously named parties merge with one another or with one of the major parties in order to have a chance in the elections. The many people who have supported a minor party must face the brutal reality that they have backed an unappealing, unpopular candidate, who doesn’t stand a chance against the larger more popular parties.

With our mock election example, let’s take a look at the next election. Person A voters are unhappy under Person E’s rule, and so they switch their votes from Person A to the one with the best chance of winning, Person C. Likewise, voters for Person G strategically back the current winner in the fear that Person C may win the election. And, just like that, what used to be a seven-person campaign turned into a five-person campaign. With more and more elections, we can only expect this to turn into a two-party election, where people vote for the candidate with the best chances instead of the one they really want. Inevitably, after enough time, FPTP trends toward two main parties, even though most people would rather vote for another party. As with our mock election, this is evident as 61% of the original voters would rather vote for someone else besides the two major parties.

It only gets worse from there. If the voters are first divided into groups before they vote, they are susceptible to something called gerrymandering. For example, imagine ten districts, each with one vote. Three vote for Person A, four vote for Person B, and three for Person C. If you were to group the three A votes with two B votes and group three C votes with the other two B votes, Person A and C would seem like they’re dominating the election when Person B would win the straight FPTP election. This happens every four years when the electoral college determines how each state’s vote should be spent. Though the voting system for the arguably most important election in the U.S. should be close to perfection by accurately representing the people’s wants, it actually does a surprisingly bad job at resisting gerrymandering.

The last and possibly worst problem with FPTP is the Spoiler Effect. To explain this, first imagine that years and years have passed under the rule of Person A and B. Person C then decides to enter the competition, as he thinks that many who are tired of the status-quo would support him and give him a shot at winning. So, he sets up his campaign and receives a surprising amount of donations.
However, when the votes are counted, he only receives a measly 15% of the vote. Because his ideology is similar to Person B, he draws votes away from Person B, making neither of them competent to beat Person A, whom all B and C voters hate. This is the FPTP system at its worst: the better a third party candidate does, the more it hurts its own voters by guaranteeing a win for the party they most disagree with. And, better yet, where do you think a majority of the donations came from? Person A isn’t foolish and is aware of how he might abuse the system to gain better chances in the election.

So then, what makes up a good voting system, one where all voters are valued and votes are counted fairly?

Voters should be able to vote for whomever they want without fear of a disagreeing party winning; there should be more choices in representatives; the system should be resistant to gerrymandering; and the election system should be open to new parties running. Luckily, there are many options for a solution. For example, “Alternate Vote” allows voters to rank their candidates so that if one candidate doesn’t fare well, their voters’ votes are transferred to their second choice, and “Single Transferable Vote” builds off of the prior and allows more than one candidate per area, removing gerrymandering. It is apparent that we ought to change our nation’s chosen voting system, and we the citizens can have an impact one movie night election at a time.

 

Photo courtesy of RIT.EDU