What is first-past-the-post?
First-past-the-post is voting system whereby the candidate that wins the highest number of votes wins the right to represent that particular seat in the House of Commons or the Alberta Legislature. The winner only needs to obtain more votes than any other candidate in a riding.
What is the problem?
With just one winner in each riding, half of Canadian voters don’t actually elect anyone, and our Parliaments and legislatures don’t actually look anything like us. If we take a look at Alberta’s election in 2015, the results are different from how Albertans actually voted. Under the first-past-the-post system, only 41% of voters supported the New Democratic Party, but the party nonetheless won 61% of the seats and 100% of the power.
Under this same example, consider that the two conservative political parties, the Progressive Conservative Party and the Wildrose Party, received the majority of the popular vote but received far fewer than their fair share of the seats in the legislature.
Moreover, many candidates win their seats with fewer than 50% of the votes. It also means two people running in different ridings can each earn the same percentage of the vote but one may win while the other does not.
The first-past-the-post system can also encourage what some call strategic or tactical voting — casting a ballot for the candidate that is not your first-choice but is nonetheless best positioned to defeat the candidate you most dislike.
As a result, elections often do not yield the results that all voters want, with many being left represented by someone who does not share their values and beliefs. Parliaments and legislatures then produce governments that do not accurately represent the population, which leads to policies and legislation that do not always have majority support. This lack of consensus can lead to instability as future governments, which also tend to have false majorities, can reverse these policies and legislation.
Who uses first-past-the-post?
Countries that use first-past-the-post include the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, India and most of the colonies and protectorates either currently or formerly belonging to these countries. Canada inherited the system from the United Kingdom and was designed to accommodate a two-party system. In today’s multi-party reality, first-past-the-post no longer functions well and exaggerates victories and losses.
To learn more about the problems with first-past-the-post, this video may help: