“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.

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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.

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  • Mick Lee

    Three points your article does not make but should be spared a few moments reflection. 1.) The two-party system in the U.S. by design or accident has the benefit of encouraging every one of various political dispositions to moderate their views toward one of the two contesting visions for the nation. One may approve or deplore this; but it does at least keep us on the same page with each other. 2.) The defect in a parliamentary system and the ability to form coalition governments is that in practice it is the last party to join to form the coalition that winds up with the most power–certainly power beyond its numbers. 3.) One of the best ways to ensure political instability is for the party in power to make sweeping changes after only winning by a plurality of votes. In parliamentary systems, it is quite possible for a party 60 to 70 percent did not vote for to come into power. With the exception of the two Clinton elections, most presidential elections in the U.S. have been decided by a majority of voters. Majorities lend governments a legitimacy no plurality ever could.

    • Frank Weathers

      Are you including the G.W. Bush vs. Gore election?

  • Faith

    Thank you, Frank, for writing this!

  • wineinthewater

    I think we are increasingly facing a situation where there is no Catholic vote, nor even much of a good vote. But I’ll offer another take on the issue:

    The lesser of two evils is still evil. Election after election of voting for the lesser of two evils (for I have never voted in an election where a presidential candidate rose above the “lesser of two evils” level with any conviction) has only gotten us presidents who embrace greater and greater evils. I’ve seen the appeal to the horribleness of Obama’s presidency as a reason to vote for anyone else, but it is my contention that the only reason a candidate as bad as Obama could ever become president is that we had so long been willing to vote for the lesser of two evils. And as such, if we continue to do so we are only going to enable the election of candidates who would be even more horrible as president.

    I do not hold any illusions of a third party candidate winning. To my mind, that is not the point of voting that way. The first reason is my own conscience. I simply refuse to vote for someone who I find to be an unacceptable candidate. The “two contending visions for the nation” are both fundamentally flawed (from a Catholic perspective) and those visions often do not result in substantially different governance. Bush was as big government as nearly any Democrat and Obama has governed like Dick Cheney decided to become rabidly pro-choice.

    The second reason is more pragmatic. Every vote denied the First Past the Post is also a message. The popular vote might not determine the winner, but it still means something. Every notch down the winner’s victory percentage goes, their “mandate” goes down a notch. Also, we’ve seen how the major parties respond to third party votes: they take their issues more seriously. When the Green Party began to eat into the Democratic vote, the party took their issues more seriously. When the Libertarian party began to eat into the Republican vote, the party began to take them more seriously. It’s not that those defections really fundamentally changed the parties, but they did make them respect that position more. If the Catholic vote started to eat into both parties’ vote, they would take heed. Maybe then the Democrats would stop mistaking social welfare programs with social justice and stop exiling the pro-life vote and maybe the Republicans would actually do something substantive about abortion and not be so biased to wealthy.

    And third, every vote for a third party candidate makes it easier for others to take this approach and step away from the damned if you do damned if you don’t proposition offered by the major parties.

    All that being said, there is no hard and fast “Catholic” course of action here. There may be some options a Catholic shouldn’t pursue, but none that a Catholic must pursue. It is all prudential judgement, it’s navigating a bad situation as best as possible. I think that voting for Romeny is unwise, but fully within the realm of acceptable prudential decisions for a faithful Catholic.

  • Jared B.

    You make important points about voting based on how the math works, so shouldn’t the conclusion have been “vote like a mathematician”? I thought I understood your post—you’re voting Romney because it’s the most mathematically correct, logical thing to do—until the end with the Chesterton quote and the implicit suggestion that people who vote 3rd party are guilty of being *too* logical. It seems to undercut the rest of what you wrote.

    • Frank Weathers

      Perhaps “vote like a simpleton” would have been more apt. :)

      My closing remarks are aimed at the link on the “mathematical solutions” for the future via other voting schemes. But knowing the way the basic math works NOW, under the scheme that is our reality, is what I’m trying to get at with this post. From comments I’ve seen elsewhere though, some folks try to argue as follows,

      Commentator A says, ”The fact is votes for the third party do draw votes away from one of the two candidates who really stand a chance of winning.”

      Commentator B replies (my emphasis), “Again, this is bad reasoning. As I wrote above: It’s premised on the hypothetical “If you had to choose between the two …”, and that somehow you can finagle someone’s answer from that hypothetical into practical action. You don’t have to choose between the two.

      That statement should end with “If you don’t want your vote to count.”

      It’s not bad reasoning, fallacious logic, or any of that high thinking what not to understand that voting third party always makes one of the parties weaker than the other. Which makes me wonder if folks like Commentator B understand how the First Past the Post system works.

      I hope that clarifies things. Sorry for the confusion.

      • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

        In other words, it would take a virtual revolution (like the one that kick started the Republican Party and kicked out the Whigs in the mid-19th century) to make a third party viable.

        I do think we’re reaching a level of frustration with both major parties that would allow a third party to become a viable contender; and the internet equalizes the media playing field a great deal. The problem is finding a platform that enough of the disaffected “independent/swing” Americans can get on board with that they can beat out at least one of the other parties.

        I’m curious how those pie charts and bar graphs would look if they included citizens eligible to vote who do not cast a ballot? How many of those would vote if only they had a candidate they could stomach voting for?

        I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but we really need to stop complaining about candidates and parties, and start articulating a vision, developing viable candidates, and organizing an alternative.

        • Frank Weathers

          Yes, and then the “new” third party would supplant either the Republican or Democrat parties in order to be viable, as only two can survive under the current scheme for national elections.

          The alternative is as you say: that both major parties could be transformed from within by folks rolling up their sleaves and getting involved.

          Be careful of overestimating the effect of the internet. Ron Paul is HUGE on-line (based on the number of posts and FB likes,etc.), but voters for him were virtually nonexistent at the polls. Pity.

          Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.Dwight D. Eisenhower

          • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

            I suppose the question is whether a two-party system leads inevitably to the sort of corruption and pot-vs-kettle politicking we have today, as much as FPTP leads to a two-party system.

            Certainly, for the present, I’d be plenty happy to see one of the major parties (don’t care which one) get the boot and drop out, if it were replaced by a party or coalition of candidates I could actually support even half the time.

            I am concerned about inherent problems in a two-party system, but I don’t know enough political science/history to know how justified my fears are.

      • wineinthewater

        I think that the problem with the “first past the post” perspective is that it takes too limited of a view of voting. Our vote determines much more than just who is elected in that election. Whenever we vote for the lesser of two evils, we are voting for a system that makes voters choose between bad candidates. People often call a third party vote a wasted vote, but I think the only vote that is wasted is a vote for our current system. Voting is not just numbers, percentages and majorities, it is about what you will stand for.

        You are right that voting third party takes a vote from one of the other parties. The comment seems to characterize that as a bad thing, but I actually consider it a good thing. For the most part, neither party deserves our votes. Yet by continuing to vote for them, they have no incentive to ever improve. And the fact that we continue to tolerate their deterioration actually only gives them incentive to deteriorate.

        So, I say, deprive the parties of our votes. Make a stand now. Things have gotten much worse just during my voting lifetime (which has not been all that long), and I shiver to think what things will be like for my children. I am more than willing to accept things getting worse in the short run (during my lifetime) in exchange for the hope of things getting better in the long run (my children’s lifetimes).

        • Frank Weathers

          I hear you, WITW, but I’m saying it’s better to use your vote, rather than withhold it. Because actually, see, it’s not just a “perspective” as much as it is a mathematical certainty.

          While third parties do alter the attention of the major parties for a time, and may even result in some of their ideas being adopted by the Big Two (loosely, usually), at the same time, the majors (building upon the mathematical advantage), use every legal means available to quash these movements. The two dominant parties that arise from this FPTP scheme have used voter laws to solidify their positions, making viable runs by third parties all but impossible to come by. The duopoly harnesses every chip they can muster to insure their “bipartisan” hegemony is secure as well, including the “bipartisan” nature of committees in the legislatures. Not multipartisan, but bipartisan, meaning committee chairs and the like will only be headed by folks from the two major parties.

          Just skimming through Theresa Amato’s book, Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party System, will give you an idea of the lengths the Democrat Party and the Republican Party will go to trip up runs made by third party candidates. Amato was Ralph Nader’s campaign manager in 2000 and 2004. Have a preview here through Google Books. It’s eye opening.

          So we’re back to the situation at hand, the contest between the weevils, not “evils.” And the same arduous task lies ahead: go about transforming the majors from within, which is tough enough as it is, or be a philosophical Sisyphus, and never roll the change boulder up the mountain. For change of the magnitude that is needed will not come by means of the ballot box alone.

          • wineinthewater

            Oh, I don’t vote third party with any hope or intention of getting a third-party candidate into office. (And I’m not convinced that a coalition-style approach to governance works very well at all, much less that it would work in our system.) It is a choice between the lesser of two evils, not because the two candidates are evil but because the two choices are. We should never find ourselves in the position of voting for someone manifestly incapable of doing anything resembling the job of president. You might look at voting third party and think of how little that vote does to change things or determine the course of the future. And actually I agree. It does very little. It is simply my belief that voting for one of the major parties when they put forth candidates who so heartily embrace evil and/or are so laughably unworthy of the office of president does *even less*. It’s not that I think voting third party is good and voting for the better major is bad, it’s that I think voting third party is bad and voting for the better major (when they can’t meet even a low standard) is worse.

            Interestingly, it is my belief that the ballot box is not the full solution that leads me to my position. And in fact, I don’t really have much faith in transforming the majors from within. Whatever their roots and original intents, whatever the lofty goals of the individual members, as institutions, our parties exist for the sole purpose of aggregating power and disenfranchising opposition. I think we must address our problems comprehensively in all spheres of society and that the recent disproportionate focus on the political sphere actually works against that goal.

            But as always, this is just my prudential opinion and I recognize that taking the other route is a valid prudential opinion as well.

          • Frank Weathers

            Let’s go have a beer and talk about baseball, and who are favorite saints are. ;)

  • Ted Seeber

    If I was to not vote with logic, I’d be writing in St. Michael the Archangel. Why? Because I am in Oregon, and in Oregon, as long as the majority of the population lives in ultra-liberal Portland, Salem, or Eugene we effectively have a ONE party system. The Republicans are as likely to win a state office as the Green Party is or the Libertarians are or the Constitutional Party is- with 51% of the vote hopelessly Democratic, no other party stands a chance *AT ALL*.

    This effectively changes my reason for voting from “to see my guy win” to “to get to heaven”; and a vote for Mitt Romney doesn’t do it for me (and a vote for Obama almost certainly sends my soul running in the wrong direction entirely).

    First past the post is a good argument in a swing state. But if your state is dominated by rural areas or dominated by a few overpopulated urban areas, voting itself becomes something of a joke.

    • Frank Weathers

      You’re getting me psyched for my next post: the Electoral College. I’ll be putting everyone to sleep with that one. :)

      • http://denythecat.blogspot.com Brian Sullivan

        That was my question. Since we are not voting for candidates but for electors, does that change anything? If not, why not. You may use the back of the internet to complete your answer.