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Problems with Single Member Plurality Elections

“Winner-take-all” is a term used to describe single member district and at large election systems that award seats to the highest vote getters without ensuring fair representation for minority groups. In the United States, these are typically single-member district schemes or at-large, block-voting systems. Under winner-take-all rules, a slim majority of voters can control 100% of seats, leaving everyone else effectively without representation, leading to problems including:


•    Severe under-representation of women, communities of color, third parties, young people, and major party backers stuck in areas where another party dominates. Winner-take-all election systems do nothing to provide representation to any group making up less than half of the population in a given voting district, and the high percentage of the vote needed to win election can be a severe barrier to minority candidates.
•    Since many areas are dominated by a single political viewpoint, winner-take-all voting systems often result in no-choice elections where one party has a permanent monopoly on power, and the winner is effectively predetermined. In the United States, two in five state legislative races go uncontested as a result, and nearly 99% of congressional incumbents win reelection by large margins.
•    High percentages of “wasted votes” (that is, votes cast for candidates who do not win). Winner-take-all elections frequently result in more than 50% of votes being wasted; in FPTP, more voters are represented by someone who they did not help elect than under any other system.
•    Undervoting. Under at-large systems in particular, voters who feel strongly about a single candidate will be likely to “bullet vote” (that is, use only one of their votes) to help their preferred choice win election. In this way, winner-take-all discourages voters from expressing their full range of political preferences.
•    Decreased voter turnout. With limited choice, and little chance of influencing the outcome of an election under winner-take-all rules, many people choose not to participate.
•    Divisive campaigns that fail to address challenging issues and ignore entire constituencies. Under winner-take-all, there is no incentive to reach out to opponents or build cross-party support. Negative campaigning is often a sensible and effective strategy.

Winner-take-all systems are a recognized anachronism in the modern world; nearly every emerging democracy has rejected their use. They were introduced to America by the British during the colonial era, and are virtually unknown in other developed countries; the cause of the political problems described above stems from this inheritance.