The past two installments of this series have covered some systems that are less well known here in WA (whilst our Upper House method of voting resembles Hare-Clarke, there are distinct differences). Today however, we are going to discuss some systems we are much more accustomed to; majoritarian systems. Specifically, we’ll be taking a look at First Past the Post (FPTP), and variations of run-off voting; specifically the Alternative Vote (AV) and the 2-Round Run-off system.
We’ll first start with what is possibly the simplest electoral system: First Past the Post. The name is rather deceiving in my opinion, as it implies a baseline must be reached to win, and this is not the case. FPTP takes whoever has the most votes and awards them victory. This is in contrast to systems (such as AV) that require 50%+1 of the vote to secure victory. FPTP simply requires a party to have one more vote than their opposition. In an election with two candidates this presents no discernible difference between it and run off systems in how the votes are counted. problems arise when an election has more than two candidates contesting -the most distinct problem being the spoiler effect, otherwise known as vote splitting. Suppose we have an election between 4 candidates A, B, C, and D. The front runners are A and B, A is only popular among their own supporters, B has support from C and D voters, but they still prefer their own candidate. The ballots are cast and the results are returned thus: A 40%, B 29%, C 21%, and D 10%. A wins the election, despite 60% of the voters not supporting them. It was C and D that ‘stole’ votes from B, effectively not only hurting B but themselves as well, as the candidate they least like was elected. In parliamentary elections this could result in A’s party winning government despite lacking majority support of the population. Eventually this may lead to C and D abandoning their campaigns to support B, the candidate they prefer more than A, but less than their own.
Results like this are common in FPTP, which is a system still used in roughly 1/3 of all countries, most notably Anglophone nations such as the UK and US. Looking at the UK we see how this system lends itself to parties gaining seats despite low levels of support. In 2015 the seat of Belfast South was won by the SDLP, by a margin of 2.3% of the votes. This sounds reasonable, right? But the SDLP only received 24.5% of votes cast. The people of Belfast South found themselves represented by someone who only had 24.5% of their support. The UK is certainly an exception to the common rule that FPTP will lead to a parliament containing only 2 parties – the make-up of the UK, and historical factors ensure that there will also be representatives from parties outside the two largest. However, it is undeniable that the Government of the UK will either be Conservative or Labour for the foreseeable future.
Moving onto a system we in WA are accustomed to: the Alternative Vote, better known to us as Preferential Voting. This is an example of run-off voting, however instead of requiring a voter to vote multiple times, AV allows a voter to number candidates to indicate their preference. In contrast a run off system usually requires the two candidates that receive the most votes to go to a second round, the winner of which is elected, as happens in the French Presidential election. There are examples that work by eliminating candidates until someone receives 50%+1, this is known as the exhaustive vote.
Let’s look back at our hypothetical election we discussed under FPTP.. In a 2-round run-off A and B would advance to the run-off round, in this we can suppose that C and D supporters would vote for B, giving B a victory over A: 60%-40%. In AV however, we can get the same result but the process is different and requires no extra voting. D has the least votes and is eliminated, their first round votes are pass to their second preference C, but no one has 50%+1. B is now the least popular candidate and is eliminated, passing their preferences to C, giving C a victory with 60%. This scenario is unlikely to play out however due to tactical voting still being at play, D voters would likely preference B, with some still preferring C, so the results may still look like this, assuming a uniform split. A 40%, B 34%, C 26%, then C eliminated with B winning on 60%. Elections are never this simple, and it should be stressed that voters decide their own preferences and it will never be as clear cut as this. But with the concept as presented, AV allows better representation than FPTP, and can allow a less supported, but more preferred candidate to win, unlike in a 2-round run-off.
Majoritarian systems stumble just the way their name implies, they promote single party governments. Both AV and FPTP promote parties receiving a larger share of seats than votes, as evidenced in almost any Australian election. This may be systematic of single member electorates (without a proportional system attached) and gerrymandering, but again that is another topic for another time.
Words by Mike Anderson
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 8 CULT