Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why First Past the Post is no longer right

With a probable election in Canada and a referendum on electoral reform in the UK, it is a good time to look at the problems of our electoral system.   First Past the Post came into existence as a voting system centuries ago in England.   It was used in elections that had very, very few voters, no secret ballot and only two choices for candidates.    When number of voters increased, the secret ballot was introduced and the number of choices expanded, most jurisdictions chose not to use First Past the Post.  

All electoral systems are about how to translate the will the public into representation in the legislative and executive branches of government.   If there are only two choices on the ballot, First Past the Post can be a reasonable reflection of public will, but once there is a third, fourth or more choices, the system ceases to have a close connection to the will of the public.   It is not only that candidates from smaller parties do not get elected, but it is also the process of thinking that has to go into how people vote.   The public begins to strategically vote and what their will is, is completely lost.

First Past the Post is only used in three of the major long term democracies in the world at the moment - the UK, Canada and India.   Many small former UK colonies still use it.  It is also nominally used in many countries that do not have free, fair and open elections, but those countries do not count in terms of talking about electoral systems.  Few of the newly emerging democracies have chosen it.

The UK, Canada and India all show the inherent problem of FPTP  - as soon as there is more than two choices the system breaks down and ceases to be a good reflection of public will.  Some MPs have a huge mandate from their electorate, others have no real mandate at all as they could not even achieve 1/3 of the vote.  But both these MPs have the same power in parliament.  

It is interesting to note that within political parties in the UK, Canada and India, be it for a nomination or party leadership, no one is willing to use First Past the Post.   The political parties themselves know that that FPTP does not work and therefore will not use it internally.   They keep it for national elections because they know they can not rule with a majority without gaming the system.   The opposition of any political party to electoral reform is clearly immoral and unethical.   I know that sounds harsh, but they do know better and they are utterly aware that FPTP is wrong.  To continue using it is not ethical, to gain more power than you know you deserve is clearly immoral.

Ruling with a mandate that you know is not one that is supported by the public leads to bad governance, fear on the part of the leadership of the government, and negative campaigning.

There are few electoral systems as fundamentally flawed as First Past the Post.  The only one I can think of that is worse is plurality at large - what we use in BC to elect local councils.   The longer the UK, Canada and India use FPTP, the further the elected officials will be from a true reflection of public will.

Ultimately it is time to remove all aspects of elections from the hands of politicians and give it into the hands of the citizens through some form of jury style system like the Citizens Assembly in BC.   Politicians are in a conflict of interest and must step aside so that we can have progress and not remain wedded to a system that has been out of date for more than 150 years now.

This Youtube video does a good job of explaining the math and psychology behind the problems with First Past the Post.


Bill Tieleman said...

Didn't you STV advocates get the message in BC - no thanks! STV was overwhelmingly defeated in a fair vote where the YES STV said had about 40% more money and thousands more volunteers.

Reg Stowell said...

I agree that we need some form of electoral reform, However....

STV will never have a chance of succeeding in a referendum due to the complexity of its counting mechanism. If people don't understand and agree with the system they will oppose it.

I am not a fan of any of the PR systems I have seen. Political parties already have to much power, giving them the ability to select MPs or MLAs through some sort of party list will not cut it with me.

I would support a preferential ballot, let me vote for the the people running in the order I would like to see them elected. Use a simple system to reallocate votes as candidates are dropped and I would strongly support it.

Ian said...

The USA technically uses FPTP for its elections (although adds a convoluted electoral college system).

@Bill, Yes STV won the first vote, but didn't meet the arbitrary 60% threshold. And further, just because STV lost, doesn't mean there's no appetite for any reform. Polls consistently show a majority of respondents want a different electoral system that FPTP.