For such a widely used and analyzed electoral system, the typical Anglo-American means of electing legislators sure has a wide range of names.
My general view is that First Past the Post (FPTP) is the worst of all possible names, aside from the others that have been used from time to time.
The main advantage of FPTP (as a name, not a system) is that it is widely understood and the apparently dominant name in numerous countries that actually use the system. It has various disadvantages, however, including being an awkward name to say in full, and an unpronounceable acronym (which I have heard even political scientists mess up as “FTPT”). It is also a little weird to have one of our major concepts be described by a term from horse racing. And, as both Nathan Batto in a recent post at his blog, and Rob Richie in a comment here in 2011 noted, in an election using this method, there is no fixed post, unlike at your local racetrack.*
I would actually prefer to banish proper names for electoral systems entirely, and describe them by their most important parameters. The preference for the rich detail of proper names suggests, as Rein Taagepera put it in Predicting Party Sizes (2007), a preference for zoology over the broad generalizations of molecular biology. Therefore, were I to be strictly adhering to my own principles, I would say the electoral system in question is M=1, single-round, simple quota. Or something like that. Not exactly a classification scheme I expect to catch on, but a vast improvement analytically over attempting to give a proper name to every combination of rules ever invented here or there. I have no idea how many times I have received a description of some bizarre melange of rules and been asked, what would you call this? I often respond by saying, well, let’s break it down into its parts and see where that gets us.** I really do prefer this over the naming game–in principle. It might be impossible to provide a few concise component-based terms for complex multi-tier systems; I am afraid proper names like MMP will continue to grace the pages of this blog and my academic writings. And if that is the case, I suppose we need a convenient proper name for the standard Anglo-American system.
Some sources, including works I like and assign in classes, use SMP, meaning single-member plurality. It is descriptive, and component based, referencing the district magnitude (“single member”) and the allocation formula (“plurality”). It has one very big flaw, however, and I recommend not using it. The letters within it are too widely used to refer to other systems or features of systems. I became aware of this while recently revising a chapter on New Zealand’s current electoral system, which is, of course, in its full proper-name glory, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP). The editors of the volume advised authors to use SMP for the system otherwise known as FPTP (or in New Zealand, FPP, because, why use a letter for the definite article?). However, I just can’t see writing about the change from SMP to MMP, without confusing the poor reader to an even greater depth than various political scientists, because it logically suggests that only one aspect of New Zealand’s system was changed, S to M.*** In fact, I have heard even electoral-systems specialists inadvertently refer to MMP as multi-member proportional (as though there were any other kind), because, after all, we have “SMD” (single-member district) and we have “MMD” (multi-member district), so “MMP” must mean multi-member…, right? I guess that means logically SMP could mean “single-member proportional”, which is actually an oxymoron, but would be a semi-accurate description of a system in which a substantial share of the seats are elected by M=1, yet the overall allocation assures a large measure of proportionality. In other words SMP=MMP! What a morass!
Because of the confusion by experts around a conference table back in 1998, I drafted a recommendation to drop the acronyms SMD and MMD altogether. This recommendation appears in an appendix to the book that came out of that conference, Mixed Member Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? (please never forget there is a question mark in the subtitle!). In the book, we argue instead for referencing districts as single-or multi-seat (SSD vs. MSD), and I have continued to do so, to make the acronyms look less like the proper name of the New Zealand system. Of course, really, I would prefer never to use acronyms to refer to district magnitude when we can easily say “one-seat districts” or “M=1 districts”, or a system with M>1, etc. But if we must use magnitude acronyms, can we please use SSD (MSD) rather than SMD (MMD)?
So then, what of the electoral system otherwise known as FP(T)P? Well, I suppose we could use SSP (single-seat plurality). I am not sure I like it, but it avoids the confusion of SMP and MMP. Duverger called it the “simple majority, single-ballot system”. I find “simple majority” confusing, and much prefer “plurality”, while “single-ballot” is arguably redundant. He was contrasting it to the two-round majority system, and presumably also to the possibility of two round majority-plurality.
I could live with just saying “plurality system”. I think it is mostly clear, though it does refer only to the allocation rule and leaves open how many legislators (members/seats) are being elected per district. I generally understand FPTP to refer to M=1 plurality, although I think I have used it myself to refer to M>1 list plurality (which maybe I should not?). Besides, is it just me, or is “plurality” really hard to say? And I might note that Fowler’s Modern English Usage says that “plurality” should mean “many” (as in “a plurality of different names for the same old electoral system”) and that the word for “the largest” should be “plurity”.
So there you have it: a semi-serious plea for calling it the plurity system, or M=1 plurity, or SSP (single-seat plurity). Anything but SMP. And I still think FPTP is the worst name except for all the others–if one must be an electoral zoologist.
*Rob said that “top of the heap” would be more accurate, to which Bob Richards, responded:
Top of the heap — TOTH — unlike FPTP it’s an acronym you can actually pronounce. It even has an appropriately icky sound (perhaps I’m biased). Best of all, it is scrupulously accurate.
** I am certainly not always consistent, having devoted a whole thread once to a “name this system” competition.
*** Which I would otherwise understand as meaning the Size of the legislature and the Magnitude of districts, respectively.