POLYAS Election Glossary

We provide explanations and background information on elections, voting rights and digital democracy

First Past the Post

First past the post (FPTP) is a majoritarian electoral system which is used in the United States, United Kingdom and some other countries across the globe. The system is regarded as being disproportionate and not representing citizens in an electorate as democratically as does proportional representation. Only votes cast for the eventual winner are "important" because they will be the only ones represented in the election outcome.

The winner takes all 

As an example, voters in every state in the US Presidential election have one vote and can assign it to their preferred candidate. Only a simple plurality (i.e. the most votes, not necessarily a majority of votes) is needed to win all the electors in the electoral college for any given state. To illustrate, take the example of Michigan in the 2016 US Presidential election where the percentage of votes won by each candidate was:

  • Clinton - 47.3%
  • Trump - 47.6%
  • Others - 5.1%

Under the first past the post system, Trump was awarded all 16 of the state's electoral college votes despite being unable to win a majority and only narrowly outperforming Clinton in the popular vote. Neither Clinton nor any minor candidates were represented in Michigan's electoral college votes. Hence, the "winner takes all". Under a system of proportional representation, however, both Clinton and Trump would have received roughly the same number of electoral college votes. 

There are two exceptions to the first past the post rule in US Presidential elections: Maine and Nebraska use a proportional system when allocating their electors in the electoral college.

See also: Presidential election process, majority vote, proportional vote, caucus, primary, list election

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