Democracy Electoral System 101

First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR) stand as the two big approaches

Democracy Electoral System 101
Photo by Cyrus Crossan / Unsplash

29 May 2029 is the South African general election day. This is a reminder that democracies have different electoral systems. In electoral systems, First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) and Proportional Representation (PR) stand as the two big approaches, each shaping the political landscape in distinct ways. FPTP, characterized by its simplicity, operates on a winner-takes-all basis within single-member constituencies, often leading to a two-party dominance and majority governments. This system, while straightforward, is a big driver of distorted representation relative to the actual vote share. Smaller parties are sidelined in favor of the big dogs (i.e. USA).

On the other hand, PR aims to closely align the distribution of seats in the legislature with the proportion of votes received by each party (that's South Africa). This typically results in a more diverse political spectrum, encouraging multi-party systems and often necessitating coalition governments (look at Europe). While sometimes less stable, it offers a more comprehensive representation of the electorate's preferences.


First-Past-The-Post (FPTP)

Proportional Representation (PR)

Voting System
Single-member constituencies
Multi-member constituencies or nationwide lists
Winning Criterion
Candidate with the most votes in a constituency wins
Seats allocated based on proportion of the vote
Often produces majority governments
Often results in coalition governments
Can lead to disproportionate representation of votes
Aims for representation that matches vote share
Party System
Encourages a two-party system
Facilitates multi-party systems
Voter Behavior
Encourages strategic voting
Encourages voting for preferred parties or candidates
Tends to produce stable governments due to clear majorities
Can result in less stable governments due to coalitions
Impact on Small Parties
Often marginalizes smaller parties
Gives smaller parties a better chance of winning seats
Simple and straightforward for voters
Can be complex, especially with party lists and thresholds