First, where does the term come from?
The term first past the post (abbreviated FPTP or FPP) was coined as an analogy to horse racing, where the winner of the race is the first to pass a particular point on the track (in this case a plurality of votes), after which all other runners automatically and completely lose (that is, the payoff is "winner-takes-all"). There is, however, no "post" that the winning candidate must pass in order to win, as they are only required to receive the largest number of votes in their favour. This sometimes results in the alternative name "furthest past the post".
That's nice, but how does it work?
There is a very simple example that quickly illustrates how FPTP works.
Imagine you and nine friends are trying to decide on where to go for dinner and suppose your group comes to the decision to use the FPTP method of voting - that is, whichever restaurant was picked the most, wins. Each of your friends and yourself pick a different restaurant, with the exception of two - they both choose McDonald's. All ten of you (having agreed to be bound by the will of the vote) are now off to enjoy Big Mac's or Chicken McNuggets.
No consensus and certainly no majority of opinion. Seems trivial in this example, you might argue. Suppose however, you were deciding policy on something important like social services, taxation, or whether or not to go to war.
Let's also clear out some misconceptions about FPTP.
First Past The Post is used by the most people - about 45% - in the world living in democracies, in about 45 countries.
This is due more to history than a true choice or selection of democratic traditions. If your parents have bad habits, the children will tend to copy or mimic those bad habits too.
- 32 are former colonies or protectorates of the United Kingdom, or former colonies of former colonies of the United Kingdom (Papua New Guinea from Australia, Samoa from New Zealand, Bangladesh from Pakistan). Remember, the United States and Canada are former British colonies too.
- India uses Proportional Representation in their upper house.
- The United Kingdom does not even use FPTP in Scotland, Wales (local elections only), and Northern Ireland, nor to select representatives for the European Union.
- Louisiana does not use FPTP.
MMP is currently in use in Germany, New Zealand, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Lesotho.
Next up, how FPTP gives us poor representation.
Update: Corrected some punctuation (I don't claim all, if you find more ;-) ).