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Context:

I'm a 1st time voter in a plurality voting state. As part of deciding how I'm going to vote, I'm trying to know what is the intention of a state choosing plurality vote (I'm assuming they all have the same intention if the voting system is essentially the same). I'm guessing that a state's reasoning for picking a voting system is deduced from the advantages of that system.

2 questions:

  1. There's a whole list of disadvantages on Wikipedia; However, what are the advantages?

Not just advantages as in lower cost, e.g. less time spent on voting, counting votes, etc. I mean advantages as in the actual benefit (if any) of doing this kind of system specifically over other systems? i.e. what's the additional revenue (if any) besides the reduced cost?

  1. There's an example given 'Imagine that Tennessee is having an election on the location of its capital', where 58% people prefer Memphis least but Memphis wins. What exactly can be the moral lesson(s) here for voters?

I really mean to ask for voters because obviously it's not like we're gonna change system anytime soon. (Based on the answer to (1), maybe the system doesn't even need to change!) A lot of what I'm reading online speaks more to people who are designing voting systems rather than to people who are voting (in plurality voting systems).

Anyway, I guess it's something like 'don't be stubborn/picky'. And I don't mind not being stubborn/picky. I think of a legal analogy: If I'm part of the defense, then I'll gladly settle with the prosecution instead of going to verdict. But the analogy doesn't quite tell me what to do when there are 3 or more prosecutors. (I think 2 prosecutors is ok. 1 prosecutor of course is the 2 candidate thing, with the other candidate as going to verdict.)

What I've also read:

  1. There is a little what I read that does speak to such voters namely it's not enough just to vote tactically (like listen and read to what others have to say and then make our choice) but that we must also speak up ourselves about the person we are tactically voting for...or something. (Perhaps this kind of answers (1) like the/an intention is for people to speak up. Otherwise, say in ranked votes, people will just be quiet or something.)

  2. Something else I'm reading says plurality voting could be objectively bad, but it's tough to change the system...does this mean to say there isn't (necessarily) a particular moral lesson (for voters)? Eg vote whatever and just...not exactly let the voting system correct itself, but let the politics correct itself to become 2 party?

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    Just a side note/hint: even if a majority considers an option bad (i.e. 'everyone' hates it equally), this does not prevent that option from being the 'best' (most viable) compromise if no agreement can be reached on an alternative either. There often is no solution that will make a majority happy - but if there is a supermajority that can grudgingly accept it, it may still work out.
    – Hulk
    Dec 16, 2021 at 11:43
  • @Hulk thanks for commenting. is it like 'No one is very happy. Which means it's a good compromise, I suppose.' ?
    – BCLC
    Dec 16, 2021 at 12:22
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    It appears like you're asking quite a few questions, which is off topic here. Please edit your question so it only asks one question. Feel free to read the tour and help center to learn more. Dec 16, 2021 at 14:35
  • @EkadhSingh-ReinstateMonica the 2 questions could be related like answering 1 of them answers the other eg 'Perhaps this kind of answers (1)'
    – BCLC
    Dec 16, 2021 at 15:34
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    @EkadhSingh-ReinstateMonica these are not arbitrary relations. they are related in particular that answering 1 could answer the other. the takeaway could be the advantage.
    – BCLC
    Dec 16, 2021 at 15:49

4 Answers 4

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The primary advantage of such systems is their conceptual simplicity. I don't have to spend an hour explaining the mathematics of "first past the post" systems to you, I can do it in a single sentence:

Whoever gets the most votes, wins.

The strategic space is profoundly (arguably problematically) simplified and the results are clear extremely quickly. This allows decisions to be made with a measure of authority and avoid lengthy challenges. If you think the recent history of the United States (Bush v. Gore onward) says otherwise let me offer: it could have been much, much worse.

That simplicity also does a decent job at moving the system away from radical change, and towards incrementalism. Stability is often viewed as a positive thing for the smooth operation of a society - especially for those who benefit from a given status quo - and so is considered an advantage of this kind of system. By edging out third parties, you also edge out minority voices until such a time as they can form pre-election coalitions.

As to your #2, I hesitate to call it a 'moral lesson,' but the main takeaway is that when you live in a plurality jurisdiction it is incredibly important that you correctly answer the question that is meaningfully being asked of you. In the main election, when you're standing in the ballot box, you're being asked to choose from one of two candidates - whoever is in front, and whoever is closest to that person and thus has any hope of catching them at all. Regardless of the list of names on the ballot, those are the only two positions that matter in a plurality election; so mathematically those are the two candidates you're being asked your preference on. Any other answer (vote) is meaningless in that moment.

This isn't to say that there isn't room for third party politics in plurality systems - just that the ballot box is not where those types of work have traction.

The goal of a third party in such a system is to grow its base of support without drawing support away from it's closest ally of the current two top parties, until such a time as it is able to meaningfully displace one or the other. At which point, it is now one of the two ascendant parties.

Basically plurality systems take the forces that play out in the parliament of proportional representation systems and have them play out prior to the main election, instead. In the parliamentary system, you form your coalition after the election is over. In plurality systems, you need your coalition in place before the first vote is cast.

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    @BCLC On paper, yes. But mathematically, and from a game-theory perspective, the only contest is between the front runner and the first runner-up. Until/unless the 3rd candidate in the race is polling near to the front runner, it's a two-way contest. That's the complaint most people have about plurality systems: a vote for the 3rd place finisher could have, instead, denied the winner the win. Dec 16, 2021 at 15:39
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    William Walker III thanks edited comment again just now
    – BCLC
    Dec 16, 2021 at 15:39
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    @BCLC That falls into those "unusual circumstances" conditions. The condition a 3rd party must meet in order to justify asking people to vote for them is that they demonstrate - for real - that they are a credible threat to the presumptive winner. There's a number of ways they can show this: polling in a dead heat with two other candidates will do it. Even without polling, having registration numbers such that if they get 100% turnout, they can beat the average turnout of last cycle's winner would do it. But right now the high score in the past century is 19% of the vote (Perot in '92.) Dec 16, 2021 at 15:50
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    "That simplicity also does a decent job at moving the system away from radical change, and towards incrementalism." No, plurality is what results in radical change. It necessitates party primaries, which choose polarizing candidates who aren't good representatives of the electorate as a whole, and squeezes out moderates through vote-splitting. This leads to polarization, and to power swinging back and forth each election. Consensus/utilitarian voting systems are what produce incrementalism: Choosing the best representative of the entire electorate and then adjusting along with the electorate.
    – endolith
    Dec 16, 2021 at 17:42
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    @WilliamWalkerIII Yes, plurality causes large changes in policy, with backlash and polarization that undoes each change next cycle. That's radical change, and wastes a lot of time and energy and money on nothing.
    – endolith
    Dec 17, 2021 at 2:57
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Simplicity and history:

Plurality voting is easy to explain and implement.

And so it was implemented first.

And once it was implemented, everyone got used to it.

And once everyone was used to it, nobody wanted to rock the boat for fear of the unknown.

Also, the people currently steering the boat like the boat as it is.

So, when you say:

I'm guessing that a state's reasoning for picking a voting system is deduced from the advantages of that system

You guess wrong. The founding fathers did not engage in a lengthy discussion comparing the merits of different voting systems. And once a system was established, and the authority to change that system vested in the system itself, the people in control of changing the system were precisely the people most owed their success to the old system, and thus had the most to lose from changing it.

Looking at the history of my own nation, plurality voting was not replaced by an act of representatives elected under the old system. Fortunately for Switzerland, constitutional changes are decided by popular vote rather than an act of parliament, and the change passed, to the astonished surprise of the majority parties, who lost greatly in the next election.

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Plurality (or "First past the post" or "FPTP") is Precinct Summable and Hare RCV (a.k.a. "IRV") is not precinct summable. I guess you could call that a reason to use FPTP. But Condorcet RCV is precinct summable.

Precinct Summability is a property of a voting system that makes it possible for each voting precinct to print out voting tallies for that precinct only and then post those tallies at the precinct location immediately after the polls close so that outside parties (like the media or the various campaigns) can observe and record those precinct tallies and total them up independently of the central authority and see who wins the election. It's about process transparency and decentralizes the task of tabulating results.

Please read about this in my recent paper about RCV and Burlington 2009.

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  • For the sake of clarity, this answer would be better if you explain what "precinct summable" means, and why systems are or are not summable
    – James K
    Dec 29, 2021 at 7:36
  • Sure. I'll modify my answer. Dec 29, 2021 at 7:36
  • Preferential voting (IRV) is precinct summable in practice (e.g. see media coverage of any Australian election night), since typically there will only be 2-4 plausible candidates so only 2-24 distinct ways a voter could rank the significant candidates.
    – benjimin
    Feb 11 at 11:42
  • @benjimin IRV is not precinct summable. Feb 11 at 18:06
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Another advantage, besides being conceptually simple and avoiding complex coalition-based governments, is that's it's a "one vote system".

To take a counterexample, French presidential elections are run in 2 phases:

  • pass 1, all candidates take part. If any one candidate gets more than 50%, they are considered to have an absolute majority and win.

  • pass 2. If no one won in pass 1, the top 2 have a go at it and top person wins.

Now, taking the 2017 election, this is roughly what happened:

  • Extreme left, Melenchon 19%
  • Center-right, Fillon, 20%
  • Extreme right, Le Pen 21%
  • Center, Macron 24%
  • rest...

Now, imagine that the 2 extreme candidates had gotten 20% and 20% and everyone else had had lower scores. That's not a big stretch when you have many politicians fighting on center-left/center/center-right and a dozen candidates all in all.

People would be forced to pick in the 2nd round between an extreme left and an extreme right, with presumably 60% of the electorate being extremely unhappy with the outcome.

The wikipedia article, like many articles on the subject, revels in shooting down this type of plurality voting, but usually fail to mention how alternatives also tend to have their own problems.

Is it perfect? No. But it's not necessarily as bad as opponents make it out to be.

I recall a game theory book I read that explained that no one voting system is going to reflect everyone's preferences.

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  • thanks 1 - 'usually fail to mention how alternatives also tend to have their own problems' --> why wouldn't they just do this on the pages of those systems? 2 - 'I recall a game theory book I read that explained that no one voting system is going to reflect everyone's preferences.' --> en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow%27s_impossibility_theorem ? medium.com/incerto/… ?
    – BCLC
    Dec 17, 2021 at 2:20
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    How is this an advantage of plurality/FPTP? FPTP has the same problem, but worse.
    – endolith
    Dec 17, 2021 at 2:58
  • @endolith Not really. The French system encourages a "1st round: vote with your heart, 2nd round: vote with your head" mentality. Lots of people sprinkle votes in either competing mainstream parties or fringe parties (ex: Hunters + Traditions, secure that they can adjust in round 2. But sometimes that doesn't work. First time that happened is when Chirac faced off Le Pen in round 2 in 2002. Chirac, who was deeply disliked by many, then had to be rescued by 80-20% votes to avoid LePen. Dec 17, 2021 at 3:14
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica The first round is just FPTP and suffers from all the same vote-splitting problems. "Vote with your heart" is terrible advice that would make the outcome even less representative than FPTP's "vote for the lesser of two evils".
    – endolith
    Dec 17, 2021 at 4:10

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