Voting systems

If you would like to know about some of the different voting systems available, we invite you to watch these short videos by C.G.P. Grey, which explain our present First Past the Post system and two examples of Proportional Representation (PR) systems that the UK could use instead; Mixed Member Proportional, and Single Transferable Vote. These serve as examples of systems which would return governments that fairly represent the people, maintain a constituency link, and are easy for anybody to understand and use. There are many other proportional voting systems available. Party List Voting is the most commonly used type of PR in the world and is discussed below the videos.

All the examples we have given of countries that use the proportional electoral systems set out below are ranked higher than the UK on the Economist's Democracy Index

First Past the post (FPTP)

First Past the Post (FPTP) is the system developed and used in the United Kingdom. Similar systems are used in many countries that were once British colonies, including two of the three most populous countries in the world (India, USA). This has led to members of the present British government misleadingly claiming that, "our current electoral system is one of the UK's biggest exports, used by half the voters in the world".

For a more comic take on the problems with FPTP see The Simpsons - Two party system.

Every OECD member (i.e. developed) country that uses First Past the Post has a major grassroots campaign to abolish it, including CanadaUSA and of course the UK. In New Zealand a popular movement successfully replaced First Past the Post with a proportional system by referendum in 1997. Countries that use other non-proportional systems, like Australia, also have popular campaigns for PR. No country has ever changed from PR to First Past the Post. Irish politicians have twice tried to change from STV to FPTP but the voters rejected the proposal both times in referendums. For more information on the perverse effects of FPTP, see another of C.G.P. Grey's videos: Why the UK Election Results are the Worst in History.

Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP)

The Mixed Member Proportional system is - as its name suggests - a form of Proportional Representation. It is also referred to as the Additional Member System (AMS), and is used in Germany and New Zealand.

MMP is an option which retains the one-MP-to-one-constituency link, while using top-up lists to ensure that no parties receiving a significant share of the popular vote overall is excluded from Parliament.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

The Single Transferable Vote system is a form of PR used in the Republic of Ireland and Malta, and in some local, regional, or upper house assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland, India, Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

STV is the preferred electoral system of the Electoral Reform Society. It minimises wasted votes and, by linking several MPs to a multi-member constituency, ensures that many more constituents are able to approach a representative with similar views to their own than is currently the case.

Party List PR

Party list systems are a family of voting systems in which parties put forward a list of candidates to stand for election. Seats are then allocated to candidates on the list in proportion to the share of the vote the party receives. The precise way in which the share of seats is calculated depends on the formulae used - of which the D’Hondt method is perhaps the most famous - but they all ensure that seats broadly match how the people voted.

At its simplest, each party provides a single list of candidates for the whole country and the ones who are elected represent the entire country without responsibility for any specific geographical area. In other variations, the country is divided into constituencies containing several seats and each party presents a list for each constituency. Constituency seats are allocated according to the share of the vote each party receives within that constituency. This feature allows voters to elect representatives for their particular area, who they can hold to account.

Party lists can also be either “closed” or “open”. In closed list systems - such as the one used in the UK to elect Members of the European Parliament - the party ranks their candidates with those they most want elected at the top. Voters vote for the party, rather than for individuals, and seats won are allocated to candidates in the order they are listed. By contrast, in open list systems the voters - rather than the parties - choose the order in which candidates on the list are awarded seats. There are various ways of doing this, and variations are used to great success in countries like Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

If you would like to know more about voting systems see our Further Information on Voting Systems for a selection of resources. If you know of any other good resources which might benefit others contact us and let us know so we can add them.