Wednesday, March 20, 2013

FDA Talking Points Series: First-Past-the-Post and Proportional Represenation

This table shows that proportional representation allows greater representation of public opinion than first-past-the-post. However, the results in the table are limited by the current deficiencies in the U.S. federal electoral finance and media election content laws. In a fair electoral system for all registered candidates and parties, proportional representation would likely give even greater representation of public opinion.
The Foundation for Democratic Advancement (FDA) takes the position that proportional representation (PR) is more consistent with a free and democratic society than first-past-the-post (FPTP). In its electoral matrices, the FDA gives open-list proportional representation a maximum score weight of 2, closed-list proportional representation a maximum score weight of 1, and first-past-the-post a maximum score weight of 0. Therefore according to the FDA matrices and reasons, closed list proportional representation has double the value of first-past-the-post.

The FDA values proportional representation over first-past-the-post for the following reasons:
  1. PR more accurately reflects the voice of the people from electoral districts because most of the votes are counted towards seats won. In FPTP only the votes of the winning candidates are counted towards the seats won
  2. FPTP can allow a minority party to attain majority control of a parliament, and thereby allow extreme policies and laws, and policies and laws which do not necessarily represent the majority of the people.
  3. PR ensures that majority governments are truly reflective of the majority of the people. 
  4. FPTP discourages compromise between parties and broad, balanced approach to government policies by allowing a minority party to attain majority control of a parliament.  In contrast, through the high standard to form government, PR supports compromise between parties and balanced and broad government policies. 
  5. FPTP systems are more susceptible to undemocratic and corrupt practices, because less voters are required to form a minority or majority government than under PR.
Summary of first-past-the-post and proportional representation:

In the first-past-the-post system, the candidates with the most votes in each electoral district win the districts, and therefore only the votes of the winning candidates count towards political representation. The United States' House of Representatives and Senate, and Canadian federal electoral system, as examples, adhere to the first-past-the-post system.

The first-the-past-post system does not give other parties an opportunity at the next seat nor does it base seats on proportion of votes cast.

For examples:

Table 1:

Candidates for Riding A
Total Votes
Seat Winner
Candidate A
Candidate A
Candidate B

Candidate C

Candidates for Riding B
Total Votes
Seat Winner
Candidate D
Candidate D
Candidate E

Candidate F

In proportional representation, candidates win seats based on the proportion to the number of votes cast for them and a formula of vote reduction for each time a party wins a seat, which then allows other parties increased opportunity at winning the next seat. For example, the Sainte-Laguë method, which is used on New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Germany, adheres to this calculation: the first round of seat allocation for all parties no reduction; all other seat allocations have the following deduction (Sainte-Laguë method, 2013):

Total number of votes received 
2 x (number of seats allocated) + 1

For example:

Table 2:

Total Votes
Seat 1
Seat 2
Seat 3
Seat 4
Party A
Party A (50,000)
Party B (30,000)
Party C (20,000)
Party A (16,666)
Party B
Party B (30,000)
Party C (20,000)
Party A (16,666)
Party B (10,000)
Party C
Party C (20,000)
Party A (16,666)
Party B (10,000)
Party  C (6,666)
Party D
Party D (5,000)
Party D (5,000)

Party D (5,0000)
Party D (5,000)

Consequently, first-past-the-post is only reflective of the candidate with the most votes in each district; whereas, proportional representation is reflective of the most of the votes cast in each district. Therefore, the political representatives under proportional representation are more reflective of the voice of the electorate than under first-past-the-post (FDA Electoral Fairness Report on Canada, 2013).


Do you agree with the FDA's position on PR and FPTP? What are your reasons? We are interested in what you think. Share your comments in the comments section or email us at

Mr. Stephen Garvey, Executive Director Foundation for Democratic Advancement

Ms. Sarah Rapchuk, Researcher Foundation for Democratic Advancement with background in law. 


Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System. (2005). Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Retrieved from

FDA Electoral Fairness Report on the Canada. (2013). Foundation for Democratic Advancement.
Unpublished draft.

Matlosa, K. (2003). Electoral System Reform, Democracy and Stability in the SADC Region. Electoral Region of Southern Africa. Retrieved from

Milner, H. (September 2004). First Past the Post? Progress Report on Electoral Reform Initiatives in Canadian Provinces. Policy Matters, 5(9). Retrieved from

Plurality-Majority Electoral Systems: A Review. (2013). Elections Canada. Retrieved from

Sainte-Laguë method. (2013). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 15, 2013 from

Misinformation about FPTP and PR:

  • 1. "Candidates in an election stand as individuals not as political parties; even though, the parties endorse each candidate running. This also means that an independent candidate can participate in an election. Voters can then rate the performance of the candidate rather than just the party" (Matlosa, K., 2003; Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013)
FDA: This statement overlooks the fact that FPTP systems may have a strong party structure, including strict party loyalty, which cancels out party candidates running as individuals. 

  • 2. "Advantage: The elected member can win by securing a simple plurality of votes rather than a majority – this leads to minority winners at both the constituency level and national level" (Matlosa, K., 2003).
FDA: A minority party with a majority control of a parliament may result in extreme government policies and policies which do not reflect the majority of the electorate.

  • 3. "Vote counting is simple and speedy under FPTP. Usually within a few hours of the close of polls Canadians know who their new government and opposition will be" (Plurality-Majority Electoral Systems: A Review, 2013).
FDA: With the emergence of computerized voting, all electoral systems can be simple and speedy. Venezuela's electoral system, for example, which is nearly 100 percent automated via computers can have a results in minutes.
  • 4. "In multi-cultural countries the FPTP system encourages broad policies that encompass a majority of the population rather than extreme policies that only benefit a single group" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
FDA: FPTP by the fact that a minority party can attain majority control supports extreme policies or policies which reflect the minority of the electorate.

  • 5. "A government's responsibility and accountability to the voters at election time is directly established under FPTP. The system guarantees that each voter gets to cast only one “X” in a single-member district – either for or against the government. When the government has been composed (as has almost always been the case in Canada) of one party, it is relatively easy for electors to give credit or to assign blame when they do not have to weigh the competing claims of a number of parties making up a governing coalition. The familiar opposition parties' cry at election time of “Throw the rascals out” is easier to accomplish when there is only one set of rascals and the electorate readily understands who they are" (Plurality-Majority Electoral Systems: A Review, 2013).
FDA: With a minority party able to attain minority and even majority control of government, government in FPTP is less accountable to the electorate than in PR.

  • 6. "Limits the possibility of extremist parties gaining seats unless the extremists have support in a specific geographical region" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
FDA: FPTP by allowing minority parties to attain majority control encourages extreme parties.

  • 7. "In a Proportional Representation system (PR) the entire country is a single electoral district, so there is no need for electoral boundaries" (Matlosa, K., 2003).
FDA: PR is not necessarily restricted to the entire country. It can be set up in regions, large districts, or quadrants.

  • 8. "Voters elect parties based on ideology and their personal opinions rather than on geographical zoning" (Matlosa, K., 2003).
FDA: PR is not necessarily restricted to the entire country. It can be set up in regions, large districts, or quadrants.

  • 9. "The lack of majority governments creates policy continuity and stability from election to election allowing long-term goals to be achieved since the coalition governments have to cooperate on a regular basis"(Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
FDA: PR allows for majority government through either a very popular party or a coalition of parties.

  • 10. "Larger parties may be forced to form coalitions with smaller parties to secure their power; thus, small parties with a small support base hold a disproportionate amount of power" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
FDA: Larger parties are not forced to form coalitions with smaller parties. Also, larger parties can set the terms of the coalition.

  • 11. "Constant coalition governments make it difficult to remove a particular party from power as there are always a few parties who always form the government"
FDA: PR encourages and supports small and new parties through making most votes count towards winning seats.

  • 12. "The most popular party wins, so the candidate has more loyalty to the party than to the voters – this raises an accountability issue" (Matlosa, K., 2003).
FDA: Depending on the PR system, candidates run for seats in different regions. In addition, the electorate is the source of candidate and party power, and therefore, it is unclear why candidates would give more loyalty to the party over the electorate.

Assumptions about FPTP and PR:

  • 1. "Provides clear choices for voters as system usually consists of a couple dominant parties with general policies ranging along the political spectrum" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
FDA: It is assumed that FPTP is characterized by dominant parties and policies ranging along the political spectrum.

  • 2. "Majority governments are the norm, with minority coalitions an exception to the rule. This creates a stable political environment with fewer compromises in legislation"(Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
  • "In general, Canada's FPTP system has tended to produce single-party majority governments. In the 36 Canadian general elections since 1867, all but eight have brought one party to power with a majority of the Commons seats. This is seen as one of the advantages of FPTP as it implies a greater likelihood of government stability than would be found in a coalition government formed of two or more parties" (Plurality-Majority Electoral Systems: A Review, 2013).
FDA: It is assumed minority governments with majority control creates a stable environment. The reverse may be true through extreme policies and policies not reflective of the majority of people.

  • 3. "Narrowly ideological, possibly even extremist, parties have not fared well under FPTP in Canada. Compared with Israel, whose proportional representation electoral system enables any party with as little as 1.5 percent of the total vote to gain a seat in the Knesset, Canada's FPTP electoral system makes it all but impossible for fringe or extremist parties to elect members to the Commons. The rare exceptions occur when support is sufficiently concentrated to elect a fringe candidate, as was the case with Labour-Progressive (Communist) candidate Fred Rose who was twice elected to the Commons in the 1940s from a Montréal seat" (Plurality-Majority Electoral Systems: A Review, 2013).
FDA: It is assumed that parties with members elected to the House of Commons are not extremist parties. Because minority parties have the ability to form a majority government in Canada, for example, there is the potential for parties with narrow ideologies or extremist party to form the majority government. Depending on your view, the Conservative Party of Canada which presently has a majority control of the Canadian government (with just 39.6 percent of the popular vote in 2011) may be perceived as a party with narrow ideology or extremist party.

  • 4. "Since the system creates a couple dominant parties there usually is a strong opposition voice in the legislature which acts as an important check on the majority’s party" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
FDA: Minority governments with a majority government results in a weak opposition voice, regardless of how many parties there are.

  • 5. "Voters elect parties rather than individuals based on a list provided at the polling station. The most popular party wins, and the candidates are considered secondary" (Matlosa, K., 2003).
FDA: Although PR encourages more sensitivity to how the electorate votes, it does not necessarily follow that the electorate does not consider the merits of candidates.

  • 6. "Creates coalition governments that depending on the country may result in gridlock and conflicting factions" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
FDA: Coalition governments do not necessarily result in gridlock and conflicting factions.

  • 7. "Counting all votes allows extremist parties to gain representation in the legislature – this may destabilize or fragment a coalition government" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
FDA: PR counts most votes in determining seat winners. Through more access to seats and discouragement of majority governments without majority support, extremism is avoided.

Facts about PR and FPTP:

  • 1. "FPTP provides a definite advantage to dominant parties creating a substantial possibility of a dominant party system or a two-party system; thus, FPTP marginalizes smaller parties" (Matlosa, K., 2003).
  • 2. "Marginalization of smaller parties can limit the inclusivity and representation in the legislature. This then impacts the law/decision-making functions of the legislature and affects the legitimacy of the government" (Matlosa, K., 2003).
  • 3. "FPTP system tends to decrease the chance of gender equality and female participation in the political process as political parties still tend to endorse male candidates over female" (Matlosa, K., 2003).
  • 4. "FPTP system excludes minorities from fair representation for the same reason women are excluded – political parties endorse candidates that can appeal to the majority of voters in a region" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
  • 5. "Creates “regional fiefdoms” where one party wins all the seats in a province or region causing voter apathy, the exclusion of minorities, and a political system that is unresponsive to changing public opinion" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
  • 6. "Vote-splitting may be a problem where two similar parties or candidates run against each other resulting in a less popular candidate prevailing" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
  • 7. "Highly dependent on the drawing of electoral boundaries to ensure a fair representation in the legislature – drawing legitimate boundaries is a time and resource intensive process" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
  • 8. "PR represents more fairly the votes cast to the seats won; thus, small parties can gain access to the legislature" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
  • 9. "Encourages cooperation among like-minded groups and political parties, so policy and leadership will be clarified" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
  • 10. "No wasted votes as almost all votes go towards electing a candidate. PR systems tend to have higher voter turnout" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013)
  • 11. "Achieves a balanced representation, so minority groups and women are successful in gaining access to the political process as the parties simply place the names on voter lists rather than supplying a single candidate per constituency" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013; Milner, H., September 2004).
  • 12. "Parties and candidates have to campaign beyond their stronghold districts as every vote counts. This restricts the establishment of "regional fiefdoms" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
  • 13. "A balanced representation requires the government to act with greater transparency and be more accountable to the electorate; including, minority groups" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).
  • 14. "The resulting coalition governments do not always have common ground in terms of policies or their support base, so have no motivation to compromise on legislation" (Advantages and Disadvantages of FPTP System, 2013).  

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