First past the post is used in the vast majority of countries, despite its numerous crippling flaws. Such countries include: Canada, USA, Bangladesh, India, Jamaica, Kuwait, Liberia, Mexico, Pakistan, Phillipines, Singapore, UK and many more. On the other hand, most of the few countries not using FPTP seem to have changed systems in recent history.

Why is this voting system used in so many countries?

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    Question: the crippling flaws help the winner or the loser? That said, other systems are not without flaws.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 16:36
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    The crippling flaws are not helping the citizens (2 party system, spoiler effect, bad representation, etc.)
    – JS Lavertu
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 16:45
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    Actually, from your list (and my understanding as well), we are only talking about the UK, a bunch of countries directly influenced by her and perhaps a handful of others, certainly not “the vast majority”, probably not even a “majority” of countries. According to Wikipedia, about half of Africa, nearly all of South America and most of Europe does not use FPTP to elect the lower house of Parliament. And that's not new or the result of a recent change either.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 22:09
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    @Relaxed The wikipedia page says: The system is widely used in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and India, most of their current and former colonies and protectorates, and a few other countries. so, if you limit yourself to the old UK Empire than, yes, most countries use it, otherwise it's patently false.
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 8:29
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    All of those listed descend directly or indirectly from the U.K. system. The constitutions of Latin America and Liberia were based on the U.S., and the Phillipines was a U.S. territory for a while. The USA and almost all of the rest were former U.K. colonies, and Kuwait has an absolute monarchy for most purposes and is probably honoring the U.S. which is the only reason it still exists as a result of the Gulf War, with imitation.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 23, 2016 at 19:10

5 Answers 5


Why is this voting system used in so many countries?

Because it is simple and easy to count. Each person votes for one candidate. The candidate with the most votes wins. Contrast it with the fairer single representative alternatives. Ranked voting (IRV/Instant Runoff Voting, Condorcet-compliant methods) requires listing out all the candidates in preferred order. Range voting requires not just ordinal ranking but by relative magnitude. They are complicated for both the voter and the counter.

Multiple representative alternatives have their own challenges. For example, party list proportional representation gives a great deal of power to the people who list the party members. Contrast that with the self-nominations common in first-past-the-post jurisdictions like the United States.

There's also institutional inertia. Current politicians in any system won under the current system. This leaves them reluctant to change to another system where they might not win. It's the losers who want to change the system and the winners who have the power to do so.

Note that politicians may benefit from things you list as problematic. For example, the unspoiled candidate may like the spoiler effect. Members of the two parties may prefer two parties. So a system chosen when simplicity was required may not be changed when that's no longer true.

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    Are there any citations for this, or is this speculation?
    – J Doe
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 18:52
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    @Brythan The second paragraph doesn't really make sense to me: FPTP simply gives a lot of power to the people who list the candidates in each constituency, where's the difference?
    – Relaxed
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 22:10
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    @Relaxed It will depend on implementation details, but one frequent example of a difference is that often closed list systems don't publicise the partys' order of candidates, so the vote ends up entirely on ideological lines of the central party, whereas it's much more unusual for an FPTP system not to name the candidate.
    – origimbo
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 23:00
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    Approval voting could solve the issue of complexity for counting and voting, as well as forcing the candidates to appeal to a wide range of voters. Sadly it's not used anywhere. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 9:59
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    Also FPTP is not inherently worse than alternative voting systems. Instant runoff is most popular alternative, but it too can have issues. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 14:00

First Past The Post in single winner voting areas does have a number of advantages, which many of the commonly proposed alternatives do worse on:

  • It provides a clear link between the electorate and their designated political representative (multimember systems often tend to be more proportional, but can make it harder for a voter to identify the right person for them to contact/hold responsible)
  • It's simple to educate voters how it works: "most votes wins".
  • The counting is fairly transparent, and can be done locally by hand. This gets more important when mutual mistrust is involved.
  • The counting is cheap.
  • Many people will have used a similar system before, either at previous elections or in their daily lives. In particular, this means there's been investment in systems worked by first past the post.
  • In many cases, the current government have been winners under the first past the post scheme.

Which (if any) of these you consider important will depend to a certain extent how jaundiced a view you have of current political establishment.

For a deeper discussion of the voting theory pluses and minuses, you're better off with a source like wikipedia, however two interesting ones are that you cannot make your preferred first choice candidate worse off by voting for him, nor better off by not voting at all.

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    Non cynically, as you have noted the current government consists of winners under the first past the post scheme. If they felt that FPTP was illegitimate then they would not feel empowered to make change. If they felt that FPTP was legitimate then they would not feel motivated to make change.
    – emory
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 20:50

To supplement the good answers already given, let me mention this. I grew up in a country with proportional representation. This leads to the election of members of parliament by means of long lists of candidates, one list per political party. The first two or three in the list are known, and all of the rest are there because of some internal negotiations within the party, with no accountability (it is not uncommon to see relatives of powerful politicians, for instance). The net result is that the members of parliament have absolutely no need to answer to the electorate and only respond to the party. This is seen by many as a leading cause of corruption, and there has been a push to move to a "first past the post" "one candidate by district" system for a long time.

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    Interesting, I never considered that!
    – JS Lavertu
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 4:20
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    Which form of proportional representation is that? It doesn't work like that here in Ireland with PR-STV.
    – TRiG
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 17:26
  • It's called D'Hont's Method. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 20:17
  • @MartinArgerami Presumably the closed list form?
    – origimbo
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 21:10
  • Yes, closed list. It's not pretty. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 21:35

Why is this voting system used in so many countries?

I think, this question is almost impossible to answer completely.

I guess the following reasons play profound roles:

  • The idea of political parties is less old than the idea of an elected parliament. Having a local elected representative from a certain area makes a lot of sense historically and also now.
  • On the other side, once you decide for a certain electoral system, it's really difficult to change it again, often you need super-majorities for it.
  • It becomes especially hard to change if the winner profits from the system and has no incentive to change the electoral system even if a more convenient one would be available.
  • And in some circumstances (only two parties or importance of parties rather low) it works well and has the additional benefit that people know exactly whom they have voted for.
  • In other countries however with many parties it doesn't work well. Example: Britain, the recent General Elections in 2015 where the UKIP got 12% of the popular vote and 0.2% of the seats and Tories for example got a majority of 51% of the seats with only 36% of the popular votes. So only three times more popular votes resulted in exactly 330 times more seats. This is a huge leverage and highlights the disfunctionality of the FPTP voting system in a multi-party system.

In summary: It's not the worst and was very popular in history. Today mixed proportional and majority based electoral system probably show much less of the disadvantages (of both system as single) and are used in many other countries, but it seems difficult to change or improve any existing electoral system, especially if the political forces profiting most from the status quo (biggest two parties, regional leading parties in case of FPTP) have no incentive to change it. That's how you can get stuck in a local optima for a long time.

  • Btw. you could also think about making FPTP fairer (i.e. more identical to popular vote without leaving the impression who you voted for), for example by making it "First and Second past the post" and giving everyone two votes and larger constituencies. Or something else along these lines (kind of local proportional). Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 12:49
  • Plurality based block voting isn't generally considered more proportional than single winner first past the post. Instead parties just run as many candidates as there are winners, with a single party typically picking up all the winners for an area.
    – origimbo
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 13:03
  • @origimbo Ok. Maybe something different to plurality based block voting then. For example a run-off ballot of the two candidates with the most votes, allowing for tactical voting. Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 14:15
  • Some people would regard the Ukip party getting few seats a feature, not a bug. (I'm not saying I'm one of those people, BTW)
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Dec 24, 2016 at 11:53
  • @AndrewGrimm Sure, some people will always have a different opinion about almost anything. in this case the Tory supporters may prefer the result for UKIP as a feature because they profit from it. To say it as neutrally as possible, the fact that popular vote and actual seats differ so greatly for UKIP is a very strong hint that something unfair is built in the voting system there. It seems even in the UK people actually vote for parties otherwise UKIP would not have get such an even result across the country which unfortunately for them didn't result in more than one seat. Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 10:05

The flaws of FPTP are well known, suggesting that some other system would be better.

However, the reason that the flaws of FPTP are well know is because it is the most popular - therefor studied - system. The other systems are also flawed - but in different ways.

Arrow's impossibility theorem states that

when voters have three or more distinct alternatives (options), no ranked order voting system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide (complete and transitive) ranking while also meeting a pre-specified set of criteria, unrestricted domain, non-dictatorship, Pareto efficiency, and independence of irrelevant alternatives.'

Sure you have ideas to replace FPTP and they probably are better than FPTP in some regards, but if you think carefully there are other facets in which FPTP is superior to your idea.

  • This doesnt answer the question...
    – JS Lavertu
    Commented Dec 21, 2016 at 22:53
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    Note that Arrow's theorem does not state that all voting systems are equally bad. Indeed the general consensus at Social Choice and Welfare conferences is that pretty much any of the other commonly used rules for democratic elections are better than FPTP. E.g. IRV isn't guaranteed to pick the Condorcet winner, but that doesn't matter much in practice.
    – gmatht
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 4:07

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