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.
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.
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.
It’s been eighteen months since 555 & Counting was updated. The main explanation is things cropping up to hinder plans and create delays. That’s topical! All the same, the untypical voting pattern in 2017, out of alignment with the UK’s four previous elections, did have an influence in knocking us slightly off course. As did the Brexit imbroglio, too omnipresent to be prevented from silencing all arguments needing to be advanced for electoral reform.
The myth abounded even among eminent scholars that UK politics had bounced back to rude health. They claimed 2017 to be a massive return to two-party politics and ‘a big turn out’. Both were statistically untrue, as this website was pointing out in 2017 (see last para here) and (fourth para here). But real facts find traction in the public mind hard to come by. Factoids, truisms and positive sounding spins always get in the way.
As if to prove the point, I recently spoke to one of the country’s most celebrated and sought after election analysts after he’d given a presentation. He seemed slightly irritated that an evidently unqualified non-entity had stepped up to present him with the reality of those parliamentary seat distribution statistics. He dismissed them with disdainful waves of the hand and a comment something like ‘Oh, you always get that.’ Afterwards, I thought, had he been pressed or tired, he could have invited me to email him with the data.
This is a hot off the press up-date of our European general election participation table that records the impressive improvement by Spain in its election held at the end of April 2019:
Sweden and Italy held elections in 2018. It’s doubtful even young readers will live to see the UK achieve Sweden’s 87.2%. But when comparing ourselves to the three European economies roughly our size, including Italy, we fall well short of them.
Now we fall well short of Spain too. If our 2017 election had seen the same turnout rate as Spain’s this year, an additional 3.3 million Brits would have gone to the polls. We continue to accumulate evidence that first-past-the-post electoral systems suppress turnout. The US uses it and their last election got a turnout of 55.5%. The most powerful head of state in the world was elected with the support of not much more than one in four of his electorate. Something can’t be right, can it?
We are currently working on a different table that will analyse turnout rates in countries across the world that still hold to first-past-the-post systems. Forgive the spoiler but you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the turnout rates are not at all impressive.
The limitations and warts of first-past-the-post have become all too apparent as well during the Brexit deadlock. It has made it clearer to a wider audience that our two-party system is demonstrably in a deep malaise. Electoral reform is now even more urgent. We’ll go into learning the lessons of Brexit in more detail in a post to follow soon.
Seven parliamentary elections have taken place in European countries this year. In France and Austria turnouts declined, bringing them down to eighth and tenth ranks in our table. The Czech Republic and Norway were static.
In Germany and the Netherlands, turn-out increased by 4.7% and 7.3% respectively. Note in the up to date Participation Rate table both countries moving well up from their previous ninth and seventh places:
Advocates of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the only one persisting in Europe, argue that British voters would not like Westminster elections based on proportional representation. Just across the Channel, though, European electorates are mostly more motivated than Brits to go to the polls, as our table shows.The last column projects how many more Brits would have voted at that country’s turn out rate.
2017’s increase in UK turn-out of 2.6% from the relatively low starting point of 66.1% in 2015 and unimpressive twelfth place ranking, was touted by many as “a re-awakening of interest in politics”. Given the fanfare advance billing for Brexit – “the most crucial issue facing the nation since WWII” – 2.6% seems more like gently stirring from an afternoon nap. Numerically, though, 1.5 million extra voters did turn out, a moderate step in the right direction but fewer than Germany’s extra 2.7 million and not hugely more than the Netherlands’ 1.1 million extra, a country whose electoral size is a mere quarter of the UK’s. The issue of outstanding significance in the UK was massive vote redistribution mainly from the Liberal-Democrats and UKIP to Labour and Tory and from the Greens and SNP to a lesser degree.
In Germany, the right-wing party AfD attracted 13% of the vote, the same as UKIP in 2015. UKIP were allocated one seat in parliament, the AfD, ninety-four. Repeat: ninety-four. Under PR, UKIP would have got at least eighty. How we orbit on a politically different planet from the rest of Europe! Some would say democratically different too. This website may well not agree with UKIP policies but we unhesitatingly say they should have been defending eighty seats at the 2017 election, not one. Their standing in parliament would still be reduced no doubt. In fact under first-past-the-post’s ‘reality’, representation of their 1 million remaining voters’ views has magicked away altogether.
The UKIP party though has kept the lowest possible profile on electoral reform so we aren’t reaching for the box of tissues. With full knowledge of the situation they have placidly accepted living with the cruel fate that first-past-the-post, for all the foreseeable future, will unfailingly dole out to them and all parties of similar size and diffidence.
Quoting the AV-Referendum of 2011 is the easiest way for front-line media interviewers to block discussion of electoral reform.
This is a serious impediment to getting positive messages over to the public about PR. Electoral reform is discussed very rarely in mainstream media so any opportunities are precious. You will find a short video on our Facebook page called: Handling the false claim there is no demand for UK electoral reform.
The exchange is usually introduced by the reformer who makes a point about the FPTP system being unrepresentative and unfair. The interviewer typically responds quoting AV2011 and affirming it was rejected by the British people. The reformer nearly always tries to protest the truth, that it was never a true referendum for PR. The presenters know this very well but still cut things short by arguing it would have been a staging post in the right direction for something better…
In other words, the reformer is very easily made to seem on the defensive. A change of tactic is necessary and it can do no harm here to try and turn the tables by going on the attack.
So instead of going down the AV is not PR line, we should say that AV2011 was a mistake. It should never have happened. It was the Lib-Dem leadership’s fault that it went ahead at all.
It was a strategic blunder of huge proportions. There was no co-ordinated campaign and there was no widespread consultation or unity among potential partners. There was no coherent message, no flag flying* to get behind and the whole episode has been described as bad-tempered and ill-informed. It was held on the same day as local elections, renowned for low turn-outs, in many areas of England and sure enough the turnout was 42%.
A spade should be called a spade: the blame lies squarely with the Liberal-Democrat leadership. They wanted to chalk up something concrete to show for their Coalition status. On a hope and a prayer what they did was divert potentially more constructive pressure for electoral reform onto the sidelines, while providing enough ammunition to the status quo to last a generation.
There are several strands of evidence backing up the strategic naivety of the Lib-Dem leadership. Bear in mind that two of their party’s highest profile, flagship policies were electoral reform and Europe.
From the moment they decided to enter Coalition with the Tories, they made a number of bad judgements, the one mostly remembered being on tuition fees.
They demanded nothing on the EU – for example, a Minister for the EU or increased dissemination of positive aspects of EU membership.
Even if they thought they had a chance of winning it, they agreed to far too early a date for AV2011 which left no time for the necessary preparation and organisation referred to above.
The coalition was an opportunity to showcase a ‘PR-style alternative’ and demonstrate government need not resemble the fears FPTP advocates had always stoked up. The Lib-Dem leadership failed comprehensively – almost as if they did not grasp that the opportunity was a real one.
We should not attach blame to Liberal-Democrat voters. They made their feelings known in 2015 when support fell from an impressive 6.8m in 2010 all the way down to 2.4m.
The Liberal-Democrat legacy then is, if anything, a more tarnished image for PR and, more concretely, one year after the Coalition, a vote to exit from the EU.
Yet Mr Clegg when interviewed still convinces himself and tries to convince us that they did a great job of holding down the Tories. Denial is not helpful when looking for a way to topple the overbearing edifice that is AV2011. Parties to a future campaign for electoral reform must confess and agree that it was a big strategic blunder. The party to blame must take it on the chin and move on. It will be better for them and all the more condusive to the more assertive, positive and modern case for electoral reform this website promotes.
*It’s worth noting that the Remain campaign were much criticised for printing and distributing to every household a leaflet containing its arguments for staying in the EU. Despite the fact that each full facing page in the document was a glossy, colour photograph, not a single image of the EU flag was visible (nor at any other time in the campaign as far as we recall). A grave strategic error?
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?
FPTP’s Two Great Deceptions in the run up to every election
Tory and Labour want an outright majority so at each election, their priority of achieving a ‘winner-take-all’ outcome takes over. To them, playing the electoral system seems more important than any concern for whether democratic election process is being served or not. In or out of power they have not been interested in:
- the depth and validity of their mandate to govern outright
- whether your and my vote gets counted towards the overall outcome in a meaningful way
- parliamentary representation that reflects the growth of support for small and new parties.
A lot of that might be obvious but now we come to two further examples of FPTP’s power of democratic distortion that are not as easy to spot. We call them FPTP’s Two Great Deceptions.
In the weeks before an election hosts of experts, pundits, politicians and presenters push out a familiar mantra in one or another form of words: ‘Get out and vote. Don’t waste your democratic right; influence the outcome; vote with your conscience; it only takes 20 minutes.’
The thing they never make clear is that they are only talking to voters in contested seats.
In the much greater number of safe seats the advice they are giving you is pointless on almost every count. Mostly Labour and Tory, by far, have held the swathes of safe seats lying across England for decades. Under FPTP, cast a vote for any party other than the incumbent and you simply cannot influence the outcome. You might as well have stayed at home. FACT: Voting will take about 20 minutes but other than that, the advice the pundits and the rest are putting out is a complete deception as far as it affects you.
Think about what the media put on your screens when they analyse and debate the election. It centres on three basic factors:
- the quality of the parties’ leaderships with particular focus on the prospective PM
- the parties’ policies or manifesto, compared one against the other
- the skills and qualities local MPs bring to their relationships with their constituents
Now recall that in the FPTP voting booth, you get one ‘X’ to mark in one box and if you attempt anything more, your paper is spoilt. It is clear then that the analysis of these differences only helps you if, as it happens, you conclude all three of them apply to the party of one of the candidates you consider voting for.
But what if they don’t. In your view, Party A might have the best leader, B the better policies and C a really hard working local MP. FPTP will not let you express all that careful analysis you will make and indeed, will be encouraged in the run up to the election to make as if it were possible for you to fully express your preferences.
FPTP turns every voter into a one-shot wonder. It lacks the sophistication to serve a 21C election process in an advanced democracy. Only a system of PR that allows you to make multiple choices or rank two or more candidates can give you that.
If we had such a system, many of which are happily in use across Europe, the Two Great FPTP Deceptions would no longer be relevant. It would be worth going out to vote in every constituency because all votes, including non-winning votes, would have a say in the overall result. Doing all the analysis would have made sense too, because after all that, you do not have to back your once-every-five-year opportunity into a single corner if that’s not what you want.
Electoral Reform is Urgent – the Dangers of Brexit and Missing Marginals
There are three points in this post. Two are about a need for urgency on electoral reform and the third concerns this website.
Let us first deal with the two matters that call for Urgency on Electoral Reform.
Brexit: surprisingly to us, no case was ever brought before an EU jurisdiction to get First-past-the-post declared unfit for purpose in a 21C democracy. Our January item showed how we are the last country in Europe to use it while the others all have one or other system of proportional representation. With Brexit almost certainly going through, any scrutiny by the EU we might have called on will be out of reach for good.
We will be on our own to wonder whether the power-holding segment of our homogenised political class might like to move to an even less democratic electoral system. Citizens should be capable of recognising this possibility when they look at an institution that prides itself for carrying over into the digital age attitudes and practices rooted in the 18C or earlier. If when MPs enter Westminster world, there’s a pompous, antiquated mindset that enough find it hard to stay out of, we are entitled to worry.
Particularly those who think Brexit is a short-sighted error – a regression for our democracy – need a way of getting some balance back. In the short term, an effective answer is electoral reform. Proportional representation broadly reflects the will of the electorate and takes away the ability of any single party to govern us outright without a genuine majority mandate. Let’s get a campaign underway. URGENT!
Diminishing Number of Marginal Seats: we recommend this link to the London School of Economics website which published ‘The Case of the Missing Marginals.’ It is indicating how their numbers are in decline. There are already about 425 safe seats where your vote for a party that’s not the incumbent is about as meaningful as casting it into the nearest drain outside the voting station. Only in the marginals does any serious contest take place, mostly between Tory and Labour but not exclusively. The parties funnel the lion’s share of their campaign budgets into the marginals.
So from a practical point of view, fewer marginals and more safe seats is no bad thing for them. But if the number of marginals keeps diminishing ad absurdum, in theory only one party might be able to win general elections in perpetuity. It will not take much more to push us over the line to full-on ‘electoral dictatorship’.
Whether in safe seats or marginals, winning and most non-winning votes cast under proportional representation are both of value. They are meaningfully counted and will have a say in the final allocation of seats in parliament. So the worst effects of this disturbing ‘missing marginals’ trend can only be protected against in the short term by moving to proportional representation. This looks like high-octane campaign fuel to us! URGENT!
Contact Form: the contact form on our Homepage is functioning again after being out of order for some time. We apologise if you have tried to use the form and hit a dead end. Annoying for you and an embarrassing issue for us. We would like to hear back from you on any of the posts, issues and analyses on the site. The contact form is an opportunity to respond with comments, questions or requests to post your thoughts.
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.