The Plurality-Majority Voting System
The relatively straight-forward plurality-majority system (a.k.a.the first past the post or winner-takes-all system) is easy to understand and has a lot of fun nicknames. It’s also the most common vote tabulation system in the world and generally works like this:
STEP 1: Everybody votes for one person.
STEP 2: The individual candidate who receives the most votes in the election is declared the winner and awarded the seat.
Simple, right? Democracy in action!
Elections for the US House and Senate use this system, as do local races in a majority of U.S. states, presidential elections in Austria, Finland, Portugal, Russia and other east European nations, presidential and National Assembly elections in France, House of Commons elections in the United Kingdom and…well…you get it. It’s popular.
There are a lot of benefits to using a simple, straightforward system like this:
Simplicity is good for transparency. When people understand how elections work, they can monitor them more easily and make sure they are being conducted in a fair and equitable manner.
Plurality systems tend to be pretty stable. Think of the places that use them. Many have been stable democracies for quite a while.
There are also downsides to having such a simple electoral system.
After all, society is pretty complicated, and plurality systems aren’t always able to reflect that. Here’s why:
The winner in a plurality system does not need to receive an actual majority of the vote (over 50%) to be declared the winner. This means that the system isn’t guaranteed to represent the interests of a majority of voters in a district - majority of voters can literally have voted against the winner. (There is a variation on this system that addresses this issue. More on that later!)
Plurality systems generally work best in elections that have a single winner. Even when voters come from a community with diverse needs, they’re forced to choose a single voice to represent them.
Plurality systems generally encourage the growth of two-party systems. This can definitely help stabilize the electoral system, but it can also constrain public debate. Third parties often get treated as “spoilers” in these systems, making it hard for voters to even hear about non-mainstream ideas.
The drawing of maps become incredibly important under this system since popular viewpoints can wind up without representation if they’re split into multiple districts. In North Carolina, for example, roughly half of voters identify as Democrats, but 10 of their 13 U.S. House seats are filled by Republicans. Maps matter!
Some places have taken steps to mitigate the above concerns - there are a number of variations currently in use such as two-round voting, instant run-off voting, at-large voting, and combined at-large and single-member district voting. In our next post, we’ll cover what those variations are and how (and where) they work.
Image: election by Nithinan Tatah from the Noun Project