Plurality, FPTP, SMP. What’s in a name?

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.

13 thoughts on “Plurality, FPTP, SMP. What’s in a name?

  1. in stead of plurailty versus majority: relative versus absolute majority?

    M>1 plurality doesn’t tell enough: I would expect each voter having so many votes as there are seats to fill, and those votes must be spread over different candidates – but both assumtions can be wrong and can lead to very different formulae: less votes than seats (limited vote or SNTV) or posibility to plump (cumulative vote). ‘MNTV’ only rules out SNTV.

  2. I’m not against the term SSP. Given my obscure stature in the discipline, I’m not going to try to be the one to promote it, but it makes sense. However, the observation that SMP is only one letter away from MMP does not seem to me to justify using FPTP. On the one hand, SMP and MMP are among the most widely used terms in the discipline. Is confusion about them really such a widespread problem? On the other hand, FPTP fails on all your other criteria. It does not describe the system at all. If one does not already know exactly what FPTP means, the term itself will not enlighten. What post? A cabinet post? At least one can read the words “single member plurality” and get a good idea of how the system will work.

    • As I said in the post, I agree that “SMP” satisfies my criteria of describing the components of the system (even though I do not like the acronym approach that I nonetheless use). But, yes, I think SMP and MMP are inherently confusing, and the story I related about the conference in 1998 has certainly stayed with me. I have heard such confusion of “multi-” and “mixed” many times since as well. And just think about it: if we use SMP for single-member plurality, then logically what is multi-member plurality? Oops.

      I also don’t have the sense that “SMP” is that well established. I don’t have any great desire to do the requisite searching, but is it anywhere close to a standard? I don’t think so, and even more, I hope not!

      I would not object to retiring “FPTP”, though I suspect it is better established than any other name. That is not a good enough reason to use it, however. I won’t defend it, other than in the backhanded way I did in the post (er, entry).

      And regarding “relative majority” (Bancki), I find that even more confusing. And you are right that terms referencing plurality rules with M>1 are even more unclear.

  3. What about terms such as Alternative Vote, Preference Vote, Preferential Vote, and Single Transferable, and Ranked Choice? Some open party list systems describe their choice of candidates with in a party as a preference vote, and it is confusing not to conflate that with the Australian Ranked Ordered Number system?

    All PR systems use multiple-member districts to ensure proportionality, and not all plurality/majoritarian systems are single member districts, there are some multi-member ones such as the Bloc vote. One could say with MMP that it is a blend of SMD Plurality, and Party List system with the List acting as a compensation/adjustment tier. It would be hard to rename the terms and create a more consistent terminology.

  4. Quick, somebody name a field of study in which all terminology is uniformly descriptive, precise and understandable. Electoral systems is not an outlier.

    • What about terms such as minority government, coalition government, majority government? These can be open to debate. A minority government could have more than one party in it usually those are called minority coalition governments common in Scandinavia. A coalition government could be the one that is formed between the Liberals and the Nationals in Australia, but that is not seen as a coalition, but a majority government. A majority government is a single party that has won an absolute majority, but could actually be a multi-party coalition that has a majority.

      • I don’t see that the terminology on coalitions and minority governments suffers from any similar issues as that on electoral systems.

        Majority vs. minority is a separate dimension from single-party vs. multiparty, and it is pretty straightforward to distinguish pre-electoral coalitions from post-electoral. Actually, I think this terminology is about as clear as can be.

        Rob’s comment is extremely timely, as I actually came here not mainly to look for recent comments, but to put up a new post about coalition and minority governments as options for the UK in 2015. Perhaps discussion of this terminology could be continued over there.

  5. A problem with “plurality” is that, afaik, is not easy to translate to other languages (at least in Portuguese – and I suspect that is similar in other Latin languages – does not exist a similar word; we use “maioria simples” – “simple majority”)

  6. Miguel, that is certainly true in Spanish as well (“plurality” is translated “mayoría relativa”).

    And actually, I think it is not clear that the English “majority” should mean only half plus one, although I believe that is its common understanding in American English. British English, on the other hand, does use “majority” to mean either plurality or half plus one. (Or so it seems; I am not a linguist!)

    Given that “major” just means “big” it is sensible to use qualifiers like “relative majority” (bigger relative to any other) vs. “absolute majority” (bigger than all the others combined).

    See, it is even more complicated than I thought!

  7. Fowler’s entry on “plurality”, which I mentioned in the original post, is well worth quoting in full:

    With three-cornered contests as common as they are now, we may have occasion to find a convenient single word for what we used to call an absolute majority, but now, under the baneful influence of OVERALL, have rechristened an overall majority, i.e. a majority comprising more than half the votes cast. In America, the word majority itself has that meaning, while a poll greater than that of any other candidate, but less than half the votes cast, is called plurality. It might be useful to borrow this distinction, but to better it by changing plurality to plurity. The correct meaning of plurality is not moreness (which is the notion that is wanted, but which would be plurity), but pluralness or severalness or more-than-oneness. Plurity is an obsolete English word exactly suited to the need.

    Italics in the original; words in all caps indicates a cross-reference. Some other cross-references at the end of the entry omitted.

    Fowler’s Modern English Usage, second edition (Oxford University Press, 1965).

  8. And I might add that the British use of “overall majority” has along grated on me. Good to recall that Fowler shares that view.

    I am not sure which is worse: “overall majority” or “hung parliament”. Well, actually, almost certainly the latter.

    • Funny, re-reading this thread again, and having just come through the intensive following of UK media coverage, I am almost coming around to “overall majority” to describe the situation when a party has more than half the seats in the legislature. It is descriptive, meaning in effect, “big relative to all others combined”.

      But what bugs me more than I ever realized is that British commentators also use “majority” where I would consider “margin” more accurate. As in, such and such a victor overcame a 2,000-vote majority in the constituency.

      And few terms about politics are as grating as “hung parliament”. Well, I guess we won’t be hearing that so much now for a while.

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