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In First Past The Post voting:

Voters put a cross on a ballot paper next to their favoured candidate and the candidate with the most votes in the constituency wins. – electoral-reform.org.uk

What does "The Post" refer to? It sounds intuitively like it would be a fixed figure (e.g. 50% of the electorate, or 50% of the votes), but as the winner needs only to have the "most votes," that is not so. If it is an analogy to horse racing, where there is a fixed post to pass, please explain the analogy.

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"First Past The Post" voting is simply "whoever gets the most votes". A common system used in most of the US and UK, for example.

The 'post' in this case is having the 'most votes'. It's not a fixed number at all. Whoever has more votes than anyone else, wins. It's not always a majority.

In many cases, a majority of votes isn't needed to win--simply having more votes than anyone else is enough to give you the win. In some cases where there is a desire to have an actual majority of votes, then there may be multiple rounds of this type of voting used in a run-off system.

As for the analogy, that part might be better asked on english.se. But yes, in simple terms, it's simply using the metaphor of a horse race.

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    This isn't English.SE, but it might be worth explaining the entomology of the word. I wonder if "the Post" came from horse racing? Might be related to "pole position" being the first car on the inside track. Perhaps voting used to be done at horse tracks. – user1873 Nov 1 '15 at 20:28
  • Will quickly add here that I can specifically recall a picture of a horse-racing 'photo finish' accompanying 1980's educational material on First Past the Post. (First year of secondary school, Scotland). – PCARR Nov 3 '15 at 11:33
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    @user1873 entomology: the study of insects. Etymology: the study of word origins. (The post is the one used to mark the finish line.) – phoog Mar 25 '17 at 7:44
  • uuuh how is "most votes" and "no majority" a thing? If you're not the majority you don't have most votes, it kind of comes from the definition of democracy where every human is equal and thus has a single "vote". (But even then the "majority" would still mean most votes, it's just that some people are counted more than others). – paul23 Feb 11 at 13:13
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    @paul23 Consider three candidates: The winning candidate gets 40% of votes and the two others each get 30%. Majority means greater than 50%. – Tashus Feb 11 at 21:00
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The term first past the post (abbreviated FPTP or FPP) was coined as an analogy to horse racing, where the winner of the race is the first to pass a particular point (the "post" or finish line) on the track (in this case a plurality of votes), after which all other runners automatically and completely lose (that is, the payoff is "winner-takes-all").

There is, however, no "post" that the winning candidate must pass in order to win, as the winning candidate is required only to have received the highest number of votes in his or her favour. This results in the alternative name sometimes being "farthest past the post".
(src: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plurality_voting_system#First_past_the_post)

In horse racing:

post - 1) Starting point for a race. 2) An abbreviated version of post position. For example, "He drew post four." 3) As a verb, to record a win. For example, "He's posted 10 wins in 14 starts." (src: http://www.equibase.com/newfan/glossary-full.cfm#p)

  • Ironically, none of the formal definitions I could find call the "post" a "finish line", only "starting place". Either they are always the same place (never havnig watched a horse race, wouldn't know), or people have been using wrong term all this time :) – user4012 Nov 2 '15 at 16:11
  • Winning post is different to starting post. – Oddthinking Feb 10 at 1:51
  • Also, to clarify "the same place" - the starting posts are where the horse starts across the track - i.e. it indicates how many horses they have to their left or right. Being on the "inside" position of the curved track gives an advantage because there is slightly less distance to cover. – Oddthinking Feb 10 at 1:54
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I did some of my own research, and found the phrase "First Past The Post" is profoundly ill-suited to describe the voting system it's associated with.

  • There is no 'post,' or fixed amount of votes, which candidates must get to win.
  • The results for all candidates are announced at the same time; no candidate finishes "first," i.e. before another candidate.
  • A researcher on Metafilter dug up evidence that "first past the post" in horse racing is in fact not simply "winning the race," as we think of it, but a specific kind of bet. When you bet "first past the post," you disregard any judgements, disqualifications, or other exceptions that may come up post-race. (Here are stories from 1882 and 1901 invoking the phrase in this way.) In modern elections, objections after voting day are certainly investigated.

Additionally, one writer argues that even in horse racing, the phrase should be "first on the post," as the race is over once the lead horse's nose crosses the wire, not once it's completely past. Thus all four words in the phrase are subject to question.

  • Indeed, if one looks too closely, it doesn't make much sense. But if one takes "first past the post" to mean the horse with the greatest speed, then extendingthat to the candidate with the greatest number of votes isn't difficult. – phoog Mar 25 '17 at 7:47
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I agree that it is a confusing analogy. This is my understanding of it:

Horse Racing

Normally, in a horse race, there are many rules that the jockeys must follow. The adjudicators may hold a (quick!) investigation, called a Stewards' Enquiry into any claims of that rules have been broken, and decide to disqualify a horse, or to adjust the rankings based on some penalty for failing to follow the rules.

In First Past The Post rules, however, there is an agreement between the bettors that they will disregard the stewards' tweaks, and instead base the decision "purely" on which horse passes the winning post first.

Elections

Many voting systems, such as Single Transferrable Vote, involve finding a provisional ranking of several candidates, eliminating a losing candidate, and transferring the losing votes to the next preference, which changes the rankings. The candidate with the most primary votes may not be the final winner.

By analogy, this is like the horses being re-ranked by the stewards. [Not for infringing any rules, I should add.]

However, First Past The Post voting systems have no such ranking adjustments. It is the least complicated system - the most primary votes - just like least complicated system in horse racing - the first horse to reach the finish line.

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