First past the post countries

We wanted to test whether first past the post (FPP) voting systems have an influence on the rate of voter participation in general elections around the world.

Here is a table to summarise our findings:

Very few nations with populations comparable to the UK’s still use FPP. A list of all those which do would show them to be mostly small states and island territories.

We found seventeen candidate nations with published statistics for recent general elections and discounted four of them initially. These latter were associated with both observations and allegations of irregularities, street violence and repression of opponents in the lead ups to and during voting.  Indonesia used FPP back in 2014 but by its 2019 election it had switched to a French style presidential election with a PR system for its legislature.

We have included India with some serious reservations. It has been reported that over 1,500 people involved in the 2019 count died of exhaustion from overwork and that hundreds more were taken ill. In such distressingly stressful circumstances, it must be difficult to vouch for the reliability of the official returns.

USA, UK and Canada are the three remaining developed world economies who use FPP.

We first show the official turnout statistics reported by the authorities (Columns 7 and 8). Malaysia ranked top with 82.3%. The Philippines were just behind and Brazil third. No other country recorded a turnout of 70% or more. The lowest was Nigeria at 34.8%.

But official returns overstate the level of real participation. That is because in all countries the register of voters never matches the voting age population. In the UK, for example, who rank fifth, unregistered voters are estimated to number around three million. The absolute number is less important though than the width of the discrepancy in percentage terms. Let us first look at how taking this factor into account affects the rankings in the table.

Columns 9 and 10 now place Brazil at the top with an implied turnout of 73.4%. Voting is compulsory in Brazil for those aged 18-70.

Malaysia goes down to third place due to its implied turnout rate being nearly 16% lower than official returns. The Philippines also shows a large difference of 10%. Neither of these countries have automatic voter registration. Nor do most states in the USA where the aggregated national statistics do not appear to account for an estimated 20 to 40 million unregistered voters. Even so its turnout at 55.5% is already below the 57.8% average for all the countries in the table.

The findings compare very unfavourably with the analysis in our table that details European rates of participation. Excluding France and the UK, who do not use proportional representation, the average for the European countries is 73.6%, a higher figure than any one country in the FPP table.

This has been a simple snapshot. We have found a statistically significant difference that suggests turnout is suppressed under FPP systems. This data may not be entirely accurate but we have found no evidence to suggest that FPP voting is a neutral influence on turnout nor that it has a beneficial effect.

All the same this site will in due course research discrepancies between voting registers and voter age populations in European countries. We may also look into proportional representation systems in large non-European states in search of a fuller overall picture.

We will shortly be making available further details via a link to our Statistics section when you will be able to find the above table reproduced with notes, qualifications and a list of potential reasons for the discrepancies in people numbers we have referred to here.

We hope you find our analysis to date informative and of interest.

Europe Vote Shares

European General Elections: vote shares of largest parties.

The table shows the vote shares gained by the four best supported parties in the most recent European elections in sixteen countries including the UK.

The table places countries in order of highest to lowest turnout. The French legislative parliament attracts low turnout in comparison to presidential elections and thus places France at the foot of the table. Much in the way of local and European elections in the UK many voters treat it as a bit of a sideshow. The largest party fell just short of an overall majority but gained consent of the assembly to lead. In Poland the voting constitution is complex and in 2015 for the first time a party achieved the necessary level of support to take government by itself.

Germany is being governed under a Grand Coalition. For the uninitiated, it is a coalition between the two largest parties. We were unable to clearly identify from available sources the exact arrangements under which Portugal is currently governed in its parliament.

At the foot of columns 5,6,7 and 8 we have shown the average support for the placings ranging from 30.2% for the largest to 9.2% for the fourth largest parties.

Beneath that we show by how much the UK varies from average and it can be seen that the variance at each placing is statistically huge. The second place variance is not far off the value of the average itself. If we remove France from the averages, the UK variances increase a little more.

Our data may help readers in terms of the following lines of investigation:

    • Referring to Column 9, under proportional representation systems, is there a common pattern in the arrangements made for government? The small ‘s’ indicates a party that achieved fifth place support or lower. Formation talks may be under negotiation in countries with recent election dates.
    • What levels of support do the largest parties attract (Column 5) and how evenly is support divided across the four largest parties (Columns 5 to 8)?
    • If readers are interested in true levels of support in the electorate as a whole, the percentages in Columns 5 to 8 must be multiplied by the percentage turnout in Column 3. In each case actual support is a lower figure, increasingly lower until among the bottom-most rows, the figure will be approximately halved.
    • The table will inform readers as to the distinctly different pattern shown up in the figures for the UK. It would have been even more evident had we taken Poland and France out of consideration, countries where the untypical factors mentioned above apply. Unusual circumstances did prevail at the time of the UK 2017 general election. But the largest party has often gained 40% and more in recent UK elections and the second largest over 30%.
  • Electoral reformers can use this table as a step to identification of a model for proper proportional system of the type they wish to advocate for the UK. At first glance our analysis indicates both quantitative and qualitative differences between the top and lower halves of the table.

We hope you have found this data useful. We encourage you to circulate it among those who wish to bring about a real improvement to the UK’s democracy by moving us as quickly as possible to a PR system.

European GE Turnouts

Rates of General Election Participation in European Countries

The table here shows the rates of participation in sixteen European countries. The UK is the only nation that has continued to use the first-past-the-post election system. The others use proportional representation except for France where a two-round presidential election operates which usually ends up in a run-off decided on a simple majority between two candidates.  We show the turnout rate in the second round.

The table is kept up to date with revision made as soon as possible after new elections are held (Column 2). It is a snapshot making available data that can be used for a variety of purposes, the main ones being:

a) to evaluate and rank UK turnout against principal European countries (Column 7).

b) to allow readers to form a view on any relationship between the rate of turnout and the system of election in use (Column 6).

c) to indicate the approximate change in the number of UK voters who would turn out to vote if the rate of participation matched that of the other countries in the table (Column 8).

d) to calculate an average rate of turnout across the sixteen countries. As of June 2019 this currently stands at 73.7% UK excluded and 73.4% UK included.

2017 Chart

This chart shows the pattern of voting in the UK election general election held on June 8th 2017.

Compared with the charts for the previous four elections this century, for 2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015, you will see an established pattern has been broken. The numbers voting for Labour and Tory showed big increases. The other, smaller parties fared poorly, losing not far short of half their support. Much of this was explained by the decline in the votes for the Liberal-Democrats, UKIP and SNP.

Looking more closely at the vote for Labour, the number of people voting for them increased by an astonishing 37%. By reporting the change in vote share, 10%, the mainstream media tend to obscure the true extent of the change.

As for the Tories, they also increased their vote numbers impressively, by 20%. There are good reasons to believe that many of the 2.3m people this represents were made up of returning UKIP-Brexiteers and those defecting from SNP in Scotland. The following table with the statistical breakdown of the results can be compared with the tables for previous elections.

This was a strange election called for manipulative reasons and originally presented as a mandate for Brexit consolidation. In this sense a one-off, it is too early to draw the conclusion that it marks a permanent shift to new voting patterns. It suits spokespersons for Labour and Tory to insist that we have seen a massive return to two-party politics.

But what makes all the difference is seats held in parliament. To get to the true picture we have to go deeper. Between 2001 and 2015 the average hold on seats by Labour and Tory combined was 86.75%. This time the two parties have grabbed 89.1% which is admittedly an increase – but only of 2.35% above the average. That amounts to 15 seats more in a 650 seat parliament. If that signifies a ‘massive return to two-party politics’ what did we have before?

Turnouts in recent European elections: UK near the bottom.

We have compared turnouts – or participation rates – at the 2017 UK general election with the most recent of our 15 closest counterparts in Europe. We have not included Balkan or former Soviet states. Looking at the following table, you will see that only five countries had lower turnouts than the UK – Spain, Eire, Czech Republic, Portugal and Poland.

This is only a snapshot in time but it is worth noting that the 2017 turnout of 68.7% was the biggest of the five UK elections held since 2001, the average of which is 64.1%. But still we only rank eleventh out of sixteen. It is reasonable to conclude from this data that a new twenty-first century pattern of low voter turnout has been established in this country.

Defenders and advocates of our First-past-the-post system, the only one in use in Europe, claim low turnout has nothing to do with the type of electoral system. The data tends to indicate the opposite – that a proportional representation system of voting encourages people to get to the ballot box. There are significant factors. For example, they know that their vote is going to be counted in a meaningful way even if it’s not a winning vote. Also that if they support a smaller party, it will get its fair share of representation in parliament.

The election that grabs all the political attention in France, where they do things differently too, is for Head of State. Their 2017 election returned a record rate of abstentions which demoted them down the table from fourth to eighth place.

The last column in the table projects the millions of additional votes that would have been cast in the UK election had it matched the turnouts achieved by other countries. If made comparable with Belgium, Sweden and Denmark, an astonishing 8 to 10 million more votes would have been cast. The biggest statistical grouping in UK elections is ‘non-voter’.

Very significant inroads could be made into the massive non-voter group were the UK achieving the more modest turnouts of the countries ranked fifth to ninth, when an additional number between 1.3 and 3 million might be expected to turn up at the polls.

However, the experience of a first-past-the-post system is that little can happen under it to evolve political change. Tory or Labour typically secure an unearned mandate for outright government though that was not the case in the odd circumstances of the snap election of 2017. The Tories were returned as the largest party but with no overall majority, prompting them to start talks with the DUP regarding a working arrangement for power. As fierce critics of PR kind of approach to politics they usually profess to despise.

2015 Chart

Because of the extraordinary similarity in the vote split between the 2015 and the previous three elections, there’s not a lot we can add to the comments we’ve already made. Here is the chart:

2015 enlarged update Aug 2015

Click here to see how similar the chart looks to those for 2001, 2005 and 2010.

Looking back over the 2001 to 2015 timeline the tide has turned from Labour towards the Tories. But ‘tide’ is surely an exaggeration. Look at the figures in this table:

This time, the Tories attracted just under one in four of those entitled to vote, exactly the same as Labour did in 2001. Do not forget that the support for Labour and Tory combined, the two largest political parties, has averaged 43% of the electorate in our four 21st Century elections. That means they’ve been disputing the difference of the consistent  20 million votes or so jointly cast their way. The reality we boil down to is the rivals must persuade about one million out of those 20 million to stick or switch, depending respectively whether they’re in power or trying to get it.

That is the essence of a little in-fight that leaves 25 million of the electorate each time – the ones who didn’t vote or voted Other – out in limbo land. And on top of that, the 9 million or so supporters of the losing rival don’t have that great a time either. Anyone with leanings towards Labour who lived through the 18 year reign of the Tories that began in 1979 might remember how politically marginalised they felt for so long. Similarly, Tories who endured 13 years under Labour starting in 1997 might have felt an equal sense of desperation (although Tony Blair acting pretty much like a Tory PM must have been some consolation – sorry, Tony, cheap shot!).

But none of this seems to carry weight with the Labour and Tory party machines and their politicians. Their simple aim each time is to offer about one million people a carrot that tastes and smells a little sweeter than their rival’s. Because that’s what they need to trigger that crazy allocation of seats in parliament and give them their outright majority to govern in Westminster. That’s their desire – winner-take-all. If it comes off, they feel validated; if it doesn’t, crushed until next time round when they pick themselves up ready to play the game again…and again…and again. Is this a fully mature approach to the politics and governance of a 21st Century democracy of 65 million people?

 

2010 Chart

The 2010 election may have produced a very rare outcome where neither Labour or Tory for once gained overall control of the House of Commons. But the chart here shows just how similar the vote split was to the elections of 2001 and 2005.

2010 enlarged update Aug 2015

Click here to see how similar this looks to the charts for 2001, 2005 and 2015.

Once again, the non-voter block (nearly 16 million) was by far larger than the largest party’s share (Tory, 10.7 million) and, as the following table shows, the vote share of Tory and Labour combined was pretty much as normal: just over two-fifths of the electorate.

 

 

Look at the very similar data for ‘Tory’ and ‘Other’ in the first three columns. There are only fractional differences between them. Then look at the all-important fourth and fifth columns which tell us about the split of the number of seats in parliament. Through the distorting machinations of our electoral system, the Tories ended up with over three times the number of seats. And Labour, who polled 1.75 million less votes than Others got just under three times the number of seats.

This underlines very well the message of the last four elections. Under our archaic first-past-the-post electoral system, power in parliament is proportional to the way it allocates seats, not to the voting intentions of the people.

 

2005 Chart

Looking at the charts in this section of 5.5.5 & Counting should soon show you that a very similar pattern of voting has emerged in UK politics in the four elections since 2001. This is the chart with results for 2005:2005 enlarged update Aug 2015

There is striking similarity between this chart and the ones for 2001, 2010 and 2015.

The 2005 results shown in the following table include in the last row the combined vote for Tory and Labour, revealing something disturbing. Together, the two largest political parties have fallen well short of attracting even half the votes of the electorate. It’s actually only a whisker over two-fifths.

 

Labour was the winner in 2005 with a fraction over one-fifth support of the 44.22 million people entitled to vote. They only got 35% of those who voted. In other modern democracies, this level of support could well have made them the largest party in the legislature but left them nowhere near the number of seats for outright executive power. There are a handful of exceptions who follow the Westminster model, including the USA.

There is no doubt that on 5 May 2005 one of the biggest ever distortions of democratic principle occurred in peacetime. It was possibly the most extreme misallocation of power ever seen in an advanced western nation. This website’s name is a constant reminder of that date and the fact that we keep counting off election after election is if everything’s fine and dandy.

2001 Chart

Looking at the charts in this section of 5.5.5 & Counting should soon show you that a very similar vote split has emerged in UK politics in the four elections since 2001. Start by taking a look at 2001: 2001 enlarged update Aug 2015 You may want to quickly look at how similar this is to the charts for 2005, 2010 and 2015.

More figures for 2001 are shown in this table. We have added an extra row to show the combined vote for Labour plus Tory. This reveals that together they attracted the support of only 43% of those entitled to vote. The non-voter group at 40.6% (18 million) nearly equalled the joint vote for our two largest political parties.

Yet neither one of these two parties ever has qualms over claiming the right to govern with an outright majority when they get the better of their rival. Getting the better of your rival in this context has come to mean polling the few more per-cent that boosts the triumphant one to a total of 10.5 to 11 million votes. In this instance, Labour crept back into Westminster to claim their outright majority in 2001 with the support of 10.73 million, less than one in four of the electorate. But we invite you to see how it actually gets worse next time round. If you’re of nervous disposition have something steadying to hand before you look in close detail at the analysis for 2005.