Voting Systems, Put Simply


By Editor in Chief Cameron Broome

First Past The Post

How it works

  • System used in the UK for general elections
  • Nation(s) is divided into constituencies
  • Within each constituency, a single candidate is selected to represent a party
  • (Note: this selection process varies party to party but the final decision generally lies with the local constituency party; a candidate may decide to stand as an independent but there are few examples of said candidates being successful)
  • Constituents vote for one of the candidates (and the party whom they represent)
  • Candidate who receives most votes is elected; all other votes are disregarded
  • To form a Government, a party needs a majority of MPs (UK = over 325)
  • Failure to acquire a majority may result in coalition government being formed, as was the case in the UK in 2010 with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives


  • Easy to understand
  • In a two-party system, a single party often comes out with a clear majority
  • Quick and efficient: citizens can express which party they wish to govern nation


  • Not all votes matter; extent to which a vote matters depends upon geography
  • Encourages tactical voting e.g. individual might support the Green Party but may vote for the Labour Party to try to stop the Conservative candidate gaining the seat (hence: individuals are arguably forced to vote for the “least worst” candidate)
  • Penalises smaller parties who may receive lots of votes but gain no MPs if their vote share isn’t concentrated in particular places: again, geography matters (in the UK General Election 2015, the UK Independence Party received over 12% of total vote share but gained a single seat, won by Douglas Carswell in Clacton)

Alternative Voting (more commonly referred to as AV)

How it works

  • Used for the UK Labour Party leadership elections, UK Liberal Democrat Party leadership elections, as well as by-elections for the UK House of Lords
  • Preferential system where the voter ranks the candidates in order of preference
  • ‘1’ = first choice; ‘2’ = second choice etc.
  • Votes do this for however many preferences they wish to declare, or until they run out of candidates
  • Candidate elected outright if they gain 50% + of votes as first preferences
  • If a candidate fails to secure over 50% of first preferences, the candidate who receives the least number of first preferences is eliminated
  • Individuals whose first preference vote was the eliminated candidate will then have their second preference vote considered as their first choice
  • This cyclical process continues until a candidate has over 50% of votes


  • Can use same constituency boundaries that currently exist: increasing convenience and minimising cost of implementation, while retaining local MP link
  • Encourage parties/candidate to chase second and third preferences: thus arguably discouraging negative campaigning and encouraging civilised debate
  • Can penalise extremist parties who are unlikely to gain second/third preferences


  • Not proportionally representational: result could be as disproportionate as FPTP
  • Could result in “Donkey voting”: voters might just rank preferences in terms of order they appear on the ballot box
  • Could result in elimination of “compromise candidate” despite broad support

Note: in 2011, AV voting was overwhelming rejected during a referendum in the UK

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

How it works

  • Local elections in Scotland, as well as most elections in the Republic of Ireland
  • Form of proportional representational vote
  • Each constituency will send a team of MPs that are believed to represent the diversity of opinion in that particular constituency to parliament
  • Voters rank candidates in terms of preference like with AV
  • Difference is that candidates need to reach a set share of the votes (determined by the number of positions that need to be filled) in order to get elected
  • Each voter gets one vote: this can be transferred from their first-preference to their second-preference e.g. if preferred candidate has no chance of being elected or has enough votes already, a vote is transferred to second choice candidate


  • Votes are not wasted due to transferability
  • Parties have electoral incentive to produce representative candidates/MPs
  • No safe seats; no need for tactical voting; should dilute negative campaigning


  • Complex system could be confusing and thus exacerbate political apathy
  • Again, “Donkey Voting” could take place (see above)
  • Candidates might lack connection with locals: often seen only at election times

Proportional Representational: Direct Party and Representative Voting

How it works

  • Voters cast two singular votes: one for their constituency MP – the ‘Representative’ vote; other for the political party of their choice – the ‘Party’ vote
  • In each constituency, the candidate which gets the most “representatives votes” is elected as the constituency MP (akin to the FPTP style system)
  • “Party votes” are aggregated nationally and used to select governing party
  • Also determine how many votes each parliamentary party has in Parliament
  • In terms of the House of Commons, parliamentary parties would share their votes equally amongst their own MPs (who would have the same democratic credentials, as well as the same constituency and parliamentary responsibilities)


  • All votes would matter equally, regardless of political geographies (thus could help tackle political apathy as voters would feel like their vote really matters)
  • Can use same constituency boundaries that currently exist: increasing convenience and minimising cost of implementation, while retaining local MP link
  • Discouraging negative campaigning and unhelpful “party politics” instead encouraging civilised debate and encourage coalitions on cross-party issues


  • Could legitimise extremist parties, giving them a certain degree of influence
  • If coalitions are formed, compromises will have to be reached and promises broken (e.g. the Lib Dems and tuition fees), undermining trust in politicians
  • Without a strong governing majority, it might be difficult to implement widespread reforms due to diversity of opinion; thus little may be agreed upon and changed

Electoral reform debate (The UK and overseas)

During the UK General Election 2015, UKIP received over 3.8 million votes, equivalent to 12.6% of total vote share. 12.6% of the 650 seats in Houses of Commons is 81.9 seats. And yet UKIP votes translated into merely one seat won by Douglas Carswell in Clacton. Similarly, the Green Party received over 1.1 million votes, equivalent to 3.8% of total vote share. 3.8% of 650 equals 24.7 seats. Again, the Green Party won just one seat, won by the charismatic co-Leader Caroline Lucas in Brighton. For all the Liberal Democrats were mocked for their 2015 General Election performance, they still received over 2.4 million votes, equivalent to 7.9% of the total vote share. 7.9% of 650 equals 51.35 seats (they won just eight seats). The Conservatives won a “majority” of 331 seats, with 36.9% of total vote share (actually equivalent to 239.85 seats). Electoral reform is a hot topic in British Politics!

However, electoral reform debates are not limited to British politics. In the US General Election, Hillary Clinton received more popular votes than Donald Trump but Trump became President-elect due to the mechanisms of America’s complex electoral voting system (read our Put Simply piece on America’s voting system here).

Further reading

Image rights: Descrier @ Flickr

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