What post does the winning candidate pass in the UK "first past the post" voting system?
March 2, 2011 2:34 PM   Subscribe

So the UK will be asked to decide soon whether to keep the "first past the post" voting system for electing MPs, or to adopt the AV (alternative voting) model. What I want to know is why "first past the post" is called "first past the post". What post is the winning candidate first past?

This has always bugged me. I don't understand it. It's a voting system where whoever gets the most votes wins. Which is often not even 50%.

I'm not looking for opinions on whether it's a good system or not, or whether AV would be preferable (I know where I stand on that, and know how I'm going to vote).

What I want to know is how on earth a voting system that doesn't appear to be related to the winning candidate passing any post is called "first past the post". Am I missing something or is this just a really badly named voting system?
posted by finding.perdita to Law & Government (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
They often call elections races. Here we trade in the time section of the race metaphor (who can reach a physical post first in the time dimension) to a measurement of number of votes accumulated. If you wanted to backronym something more sensible out of FPTP, perhaps Farthest Past The Post would be reasonable.
posted by adipocere at 2:41 PM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's a horse racing metaphor. The first horse past the post wins. It's not relevant how the horse does to the other horses, or how many horses there are.
posted by musofire at 2:41 PM on March 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's a racing metaphor - there's a post by the finish line; you watch it to see who passes first.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:41 PM on March 2, 2011


finding.perdita, I share your confusion. Wikipedia says what adipocere said, but it's very unsatisfactory: why analogize to something, passing a marker, where in the case of voting there is no such marker, and (to use musofire's language) the only relevant thing is "how the horse does [relative] to the other horses"? Since it really is apparently borrowed from horseracing, the real question is why do we tolerate such a nonsensical metaphor? why does it continue to be used?
posted by rustcellar at 2:48 PM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Like others say above, a horse racing metaphor. First candidate to the 50% mark, wins. The post is the 50% mark, the amount you need to win.

In AV, the winner does not often get 50%. The winner is the one who has the most. The amount needed to win changes depending on the other candidates. You might win with 40% of the vote, but you also might win with 30%.

First past the post encourages a 2 party system. If you think of the voters as line, left wing, center, right wing. In first past the post, you stake out a side - say left wing, then try to get everything on the left and take the center. You line 50% of the line to win, so you take one end of the line, and play for the middle.

In AV, there are multiple candidates staking out various parts of the voter line. A candidate could stake out the middle. Or, a candidate can stake out end of the line, and not be concerned with the middle. AV encourages more hard-liners, because a candidate can win without even having to win the middle, they can win on the extreme right or left vote only.
posted by Flood at 2:58 PM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Like others say above, a horse racing metaphor. First candidate to the 50% mark, wins. The post is the 50% mark, the amount you need to win.
That is not how FPTP works. FPTP means the person with the most votes wins, even if there are hundreds of candidates and the person with the most votes has 2%. Because there are three major parties (and more in Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland), This is what happens in most British constituencies.
First past the post encourages a 2 party system.
Um, there are > 2 parties in all parts of UK.
AV encourages more hard-liners, because a candidate can win without even having to win the middle, they can win on the extreme right or left vote only.
OK, now I'm starting to think you got FPTP and AV mixed up.
posted by caek at 3:21 PM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


That is not how FPTP works. FPTP means the person with the most votes wins, even if there are hundreds of candidates and the person with the most votes has 2%. Because there are three major parties (and more in Scotland/Wales/Northern Ireland), This is what happens in most British constituencies.

Yes, so you can win with two votes, if no one else got more than one. In the same way that a horse could win while taking hours to cross the finish line, if all the other horses broke their legs or ran off the track. It doesn't have to be a "good" performance, just better than anyone else's.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:25 PM on March 2, 2011


caek - I agree, I think flood has got the systems mixed up. But that's my confusion too - in AV there is a "post" (50% of voters prefer the candidate, on balance, over the others). In FTPT, I don't understand what the "post" is.

Thanks for the responses so far - the first few posts have clarified where the term comes from, but don't explain what the "post" is in the context of a voting system.
posted by finding.perdita at 3:34 PM on March 2, 2011


The post is simply 'the most'. Members of Parliament each represent a constituency, and there is only one elected representative for each constituency. Another preferred term for this kind of election is 'winner takes all', but even in AV elections, the 50%+ mark is arbitrary in raw numerical terms since constituencies vary in size. The 'post' is simply 'the most' — turnout and individual vote share is irrelevant, since the single largest vote share dictates the winner, even if that share constitutes a minority.

There's some good information on the website of the ERS pertaining specifically to FPTP (and many other electoral systems). They're biased in favour of true proportional representation, but not dishonestly so, and of course you may consider that bias to be positive.
posted by jaffacakerhubarb at 3:43 PM on March 2, 2011


In FTPT, I don't understand what the "post" is.

It's the winning post, in the abstract sense that 'past the post' means 'winning'. You could call it 'winner wins by winning', in a crude and basic sense.

I'm afraid that you're not going to get a satisfactory figurative correspondence for a metaphor that doesn't stand up to that kind of close analysis without it being a bit fanwanky.
posted by holgate at 3:47 PM on March 2, 2011


The post is the 326 seats needed to form the majority in Parliament.

FPTP does not refer to the election results of a single seat, but to the seats of an entire party (or coalition).
posted by paulash at 4:28 PM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


First past the post means that there is no set percentage required to win.

In a horse race, it doesn't matter how fast the horses go as a group, only that the fastest horse of that group is the winner.

Shorter time = more votes. All the winner has to do is be better than the rest of the field by just one vote.

So in a political election, you've got 10 candidates and one gets 11%, one gets 10% and the rest get 9.875. Objectively, they all suck. Subjectively, in this particular race, one candidate did get more votes.

So the fair voting schemes try to make the win a bit more convincing. Applied to a horse race, it would be like saying that if a horse didn't break a certain time, or beat the other horses by a certain amount of time, none of them win. So you get rid of all but the top two horses and run them again. Now you know who is the winner without all the other losers getting in their way.

In the same way, you take the two candidates with the 11% and the 10% and make them run head to head. By definition, the winner will be the one who a majority of the voters support.

Fair voting schemes try to correct for splitting of bases. If in that election, the person with the 11% was a Democrat and the rest of them were Republicans, you'd have a Democrat winning in a race where 89% of the population supported Republicans. So you do a runnoff and the will of the population is more accurately reflected. This is how Chicago does their mayoral races. If a candidate doesn't get above 50%, the top two run again.
posted by gjc at 4:46 PM on March 2, 2011


The post is the 326 seats needed to form the majority in Parliament.

FPTP does not refer to the election results of a single seat, but to the seats of an entire party (or coalition).


Good point. If one party passes the 326, they win, they were first past the post. Nobody else can possibly win. If none does, and a coalition can't form, literally nobody passed the post and nobody won.
posted by gjc at 4:48 PM on March 2, 2011


paulash - FPTP is the voting method used to determine the results of individual seats, not the government as a whole. Regardless of the voting method, the government is the party who is able to command a majority in the lower house. If AV replaces FPTP, this doesn't change. What changes is how individual MPs are elected.

gjc - I know how different voting systems work, my question is what the "post" is referring to in the FPTP system.
posted by finding.perdita at 5:13 PM on March 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Post" just means "finish line". That's it. The finish line is the point in the political race where a candidate cannot be beaten by anyone else.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:51 PM on March 2, 2011


Thanks to Google's historical book search, we can do some amateur etymological sleuthing. Since at least the mid-1800s, the phrase "first past the post" has been used as a metaphor for winning, primarily in the horse racing realm, but occasionally in other forms of racing like rowing or cycling. However, it should also be noted that there is a slightly more technical meaning of the phrase related to betting on horse races. When a bet is paid on the "first past the post", that's what it's precisely what it's paid off on, regardless of any later objections, disqualifications, etc... Apparently, to some, this is rather distasteful (maybe due to the potential for cheating shenanigans?).

The earliest citation I could find in a voting context was here, in the 1913 New Zealand Hansard:
...the old method of what is called "the first past the post." In other words, that the man who happens to be at the head of the poll at the first ballot, no matter how small the proportion of his votes is to the total number cast, shall be declared the successful candidate.
That's all the Google Books snippet provided. What was happening in New Zealand in 1913? Well, 1913 marked the end of their experiment with Second Ballot voting. Viewed in this light you can kind of see where they're coming from. If anyone has an earlier citation of this phrase in a voting context, I'd be very interested to see it.


Meanwhile, here are a few other instances of the phrase I came across in my search that I found interesting:
  • Here's a neat old advertisement for Daimler Motor Co. (pre-Benz) from 1904 which advises: "The Car which is First Past the Post, or in other words Makes Fastest Time is the Car which attracts his attention".
  • Here's a reference to a team cycling contest that was scored on some kind of points system
    We trust next year that the events will be decided on the first-past-the-post principle, as the ''points'' system is not only confusing, but (as events proved) somewhat paradoxical. To wit, the Cantabs secure two firsts out of three, and yet are beaten!
  • Here is a description of some silly party games. I'm not sure what to make of the tasks involved in the "Housekeeping Stakes" vs. the "Needle Threading Competition".

posted by mhum at 9:24 PM on March 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


Horses all the way down.
posted by corvine at 7:22 AM on March 3, 2011


The post is the 326 seats needed to form the majority in Parliament.

FPTP does not refer to the election results of a single seat, but to the seats of an entire party (or coalition).


Rubbish. FPTP refers to the voting system, it does not refer to the formation of government on the floor of Commons.
posted by wilful at 8:42 PM on March 3, 2011


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