“First Past the Post” Voting: How the Math Works UPDATED


About a week ago, I shared a post where I came out in support of Mitt Romney as the person I will be voting for come November (barring any unforeseen events). Note that I don’t think he’s the perfect candidate, but seeing’s how St. Michael the Archangel isn’t on the ballot, Romney will get my vote, as the incumbent, who I believe is bent on destroying true religious liberty (and for other troublesome quirks), will never, ever, receive my vote.

I know that many want to cast their votes morally, don’t trust Mitt Romney, think he’s not Pro-Life enough, untrustworthy, etc., etc. And I know that this horse has been beaten to death on Catholic blogs and in other venues but voting third party is a waste of your vote, contrary to your attempts to reason your way out of this fact. You want to see proof, so here goes.

Why won’t I vote third party? To me the answer is obvious: math. As background, I studied political science in college, see, and though my concentration was in international relations, my other concentration was in comparative politics. So when I wasn’t bolstering my future resume with economics and accounting courses (UCLA doesn’t offer minors, nor does it offer an undergraduate degree in business administration), I studied what you might loosely be able to call “international political economy.”

And I learned that here in the U.S., we inherited our system of single-member districts, and “first past the post” voting systems, from our English forebears. Sure, I had learned this in high school civics class too, but that was more of a cursory glance than an in depth analysis. Also, I learned what we don’t have here in the United States: proportional representation, direct democracy, potential for coalition governments, etc.

But back to the voting numbers angle, I also learned how mathematically the “first past the post” system works. It’s where no candidate has to get a majority of votes to win, but just the most votes to win, which, in short order, results in a system with only two viable parties, to the detriment of all others. By the term “viable” I mean having an actual chance to win an election.

I could continue to spill ink on this fact, and bore you to tears with stuff I learned in rational voter theory class too, but seeing how this is the Age of New Media, I’m going to spare you all that. Instead, I will share this brief video on how the “first past the post system works. Caveat: the video is negative toward this particular system, but I’m not interested in other systems that may, or may not, be better than what we have. I just want to help you understand what we do have, and why voting for anyone, known, or unknown, virtuous, or scandalous, who represents a third party is a waste of your vote, and possibly a breach of your civic duty. The same thing goes for writing in another candidate on your ballot. Take a look,

The Problems with First Past the Post Voting Explained.

YouTube Preview Image

This is why in my earlier post I said that I wouldn’t be “overthinking” my vote, or trying to make it into something it isn’t, and that it mathematically is impossible for it to become. A vote for a third party brings the post the incumbent(or the other major candidate) needs to pass in order to win, closer, and victory easier to obtain. That’s how the system was designed, and that’s how the math works. True, voting for Romney may only buy us a little more time, or a result that is only a little less palatable, but Mr. Romney doesn’t appear to be hell bent on making it illegal for Catholics to live according to our consciences either.

Whether Romney wins or not, though, the best way, short of a revolution, to change the two dominant parties, so that they more closely reflect Christian ideals of liberty, and the dignity of the human person, is to become involved in them locally. That is the principle of subsidiarity put into action. It will be messy, frustrating, and time consuming, so think of it as a vocation. And it will be about as fun as petting sharks, or swimming with piranas, which is why most of us don’t get involved.

In the minds of many the idea that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” is quite simply “overthinking” your vote in a system built to support two major parties. As noted above, we don’t have proportional representation here, or coalition governments, etc. Getting all hepped up about the lack of perfection among either of the two dominant parties and their candidates, or the lack of differences between the two major parties, points to where, if you really want to change them, you need to be spending your time doing so.

Hint: It’s not in the ballot box, but in the Central Committees at the local level in precincts all throughout the country.

But this year, as James Schall, S.J. notes recently, may be the year where “blithe Christianity” meets “the last free election.” So pray as you ponder this coming election, and when you go to the polls, remember how the system works.

More election math, with some potential future improvements to our system, can be read about here. Just recall what G.K. Chesterton said about mathematicians,

The difference between the poet and the mathematician is that the poet tries to get his head into the heavens while the mathematician tries to get the heavens into his head…Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.

Vote like Chesterton’s poet. Don’t waste your vote on the altar of logic. The math doesn’t support it.

Like Patheos Catholic on Facebook!