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Given the arguments against first past the post voting systems, I'd like to know what could be done to change them. However, there's a difficulty with proposing such a change to the system, and that's how it favors incumbent political parties. As the people who write laws enjoy benefits from the existing first past the post setup, they are not incentivized to change it.

Essentially, only 2 major national political parties exist here in the United States, arguably in part due to the first past the post setup of our voting system. If that's so, neither has any reason to move to replace first past the post.

How can citizens challenge such a situation to effect a change in the voting system?

  • I've edited your question slightly in an attempt to make it less subjective (and hopefully avoid it getting closed). – user97 Dec 14 '12 at 22:45
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As stated, this question is pretty broad. You don't specify which first past the post system the citizens might want to change, at which level of government. I suspect you mean the United States, and perhaps national-level elections for e.g. member of Congress or US Senate.

In the plain text of the question, the practical steps citizens can take to challenge a voting system are the same steps citizens can take to effect any other political change to an entrenched power structure:

  • Organise. Act as a group, not as individuals.
  • Learn. Find out what other similar changes have succeeded, and failed, and why. Find out what the power structures are. Find out what the alternatives you could propose are.
  • Clarify goals, means, values. Be clear what you want to do, at what level, and for what reasons. Understand what you are willing to do to get there.
  • Collaborate. Link up with groups that share your goals and values.
  • Educate. Teach your fellow citizens what is wrong with the present situation, and what alternatives exist, and how they would be better. Often, the first step is helping people conceive that a different reality is even possible.
  • Gather power. Raise funds. Strengthen your organisation.
  • Exert power. Make change.
  • Accept incremental wins. Reaching for intermediate goals, with intermediate successes, often helps energise your supporters and improve your tactics.

In the case of elections to political office in the United States, I'd say that Organise, Learn, and Educate are the most important next steps. Fair Vote and the League of Women Voters of California are examples of organisations already working for electoral system reform. Some US jurisdictions have moved beyond first past the post elections for some offices: STV elections for Cambridge, MA, and Minneapolis, MN city councils and IRV elections for mayor of San Francisco, CA and several offices in Minneaopolis, MN. Education about alternatives to first past the post elections is an important next step in the USA today, because many people cannot conceive that alternatives exist, let alone understand what they are and how they are an improvement on "first past the post".

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  1. Find some state that is interested in electoral reform and has individual-initiated referendums. California fits this, but it is quite large. It might be easier to start in a smaller state.

  2. Convince that state to change its systems. It can change on its own authority, the rules for:

    • State legislature seats.
    • House of Representatives seats.
    • Senate seats.
    • How electors are awarded in the general election for president.

    It's worth noting that some states already don't use first-past-the-post for federal elections. In particular, some states require a strict majority to win an election, scheduling a runoff if that is not met.

    It cannot change the way that the presidential primaries work for the most part. Nor can it change the timing of federal elections. An exception to both rules is that a state can set the schedule for primaries within certain limits. Nor can it introduce multi-member districts, as those are currently prohibited by federal law.

  3. Repeat this with enough states so as to elect a majority nationally in both houses of Congress and a president.

  4. Pass national laws mandating against the weaknesses of first-past-the-post voting. The current law against multi-member districts is an example of how laws like this can be written.

It's worth noting that step 2 is a doozy. Even modest changes like top-two elections in California, Washington, and Louisiana are controversial. The Louisiana system was actually found to be unlawful and had to be revised. Technically speaking, those states do not have FPTP systems now. Although the system that they do have still has many of the problems with a FPTP system. In particular, someone with only minority support can win.

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In the United States, the system of the Electoral College is, for better or worse, really clear in the Constitution. So, the only way to get change to happen on the federal level is to amend the Constitution, which isn't a practical solution.

The only insight I can offer is the idea that change can more easily happen on the state level. We may be bound to having electors, but how states treat those electors is up to them. During the 2012 election I heard about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, where states are agreeing to have their electors commit to the person who receives the national popular vote once enough other states make the same agreements.

So, while I'm not too familiar with alternatives to "first past the post" systems, I'm sure whatever solution you'd come up with would have to involve the electors.

That's not a great answer, I know, but it's tough to change a system that's been in place for generations. I would imagine that some kind of alternative voting system could be implemented at a state level and then, if it does well, could be a model for other states and eventually the union.

  • 1
    The constitution does not require that the electoral college be a first past the post system. In fact, the electoral college itself is not FPTP. An absolute majority is required; a plurality without a majority does not win the election (it goes to the House instead). Most states award their electors winner-take-all where the winner is selected FPTP (and the two exceptions also use FPTP by congressional district and statewide). That's not constitutionally mandated. – Brythan Dec 23 '17 at 15:55
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  1. Found a political party that has the following two pledges:
    a. Hold a referendum on voting reform, giving the electorate a choice of four alternative voting systems to FPP.
    b. Trigger a snap general election using the new voting system.
  2. Contest all seats at the next general election.
  3. If the party wins a majority of seats and votes, deliver on its two pledges. If the party wins a majority of seats but not a majority of votes, add to the referendum the question of whether a change from FPP is wanted at all.
  4. If the party wins a minority of seats, work with other parties to try to deliver the two pledges anyway.
  5. For any representatives unable to deliver on the pledges, have them vacate their seats.
  • 1
    The US (the example specifically mentioned in the question) doesn't have snap elections and can't pass a change like that via referendum. States could conceivably call for a constitutional convention via referendum, but that would just move the problem to controlling the constitutional convention. – Brythan Dec 23 '17 at 16:49
  • Please forgive me for the oversight. I am trying to bring about voting reform in the UK and just copied the plan across. As for the US, would the following be worth investigating:(1) Register a party that only stands for voting reform; (2) On 6th Nov 2018, seek to win 100 % of the seats in the House of Representatives and the third of the seats that are vacant in the Senate; (3) Use that mandate to win the 2/3 support of both houses, and the necessary support from state legislatures, to amend the constitution. Should the party not win enough seats, vacate all seats. – Martin Jan 3 '18 at 8:11

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