Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What’s wrong with FPP

Like all Illinoisans of my generation, I had to pass an exam on the US Constitution before I could graduate from high school, and again at university. The classes leading up to it were all based on the implicit assumption of the superiority of the US system of governance. Over time, I came to realise it’s all built on a lie, because the US election system is not democratic.

At nearly every level, the US uses a system called “First Past the Post” (FPP) to elect people to office. Basically, whoever gets the most votes, wins, which I grew up thinking was perfectly fair and reasonable—until I learned better.

At the top of this post is the official video explaining FPP, the system in place in New Zealand before MMP was adopted, and the system that conservatives most want to return to. The video actually highlights why: Dominance by one party and the improbability that small parties or new parties can win seats in Parliament.

New Zealand’s conservatives and business elites want FPP because any party that wins government will govern alone, without coalitions, and it’s almost certain there will be no small parties (unless a sitting MP quits one of the two main parties). This makes a right-leaning National Party government highly probable and a centrist Labour Party government unlikely most of the time. That’s the way conservatives and the business elites want it.

There are more problems with FPP, as are outlined in the video below by CGPGrey. First, FPP almost always elects a candidate with minority support. Since small parties and independents can’t win, their supporters will vote for the party they dislike the least, but not who they want. In New Zealand under FPP, there were years in which parties won substantial percentages of the popular vote, but no electorate seats. Not only were those people totally unrepresented in Parliament, the “winner” of a seat often had a small minority of votes. FPP encourages this.

CGPGrey also points out what I think is FPP’s biggest flaw: It leads to an “inevitable, unavoidable two-party system “ because, as he says, “it’s math.” This is at the core of the political problems in the US: No one but a Republican or Democrat can be elected in most places, so there’s never an opportunity for any real change, nor any incentive for the two major parties to respond voters’ demands. This is why hardly anything in Washington, DC ever changes—the system makes sure it can’t.

In New Zealand, FPP would mean rule by Labour or National. Small parties almost certainly could not win seats, and so, couldn’t force change. The two main parties would “stay the course” and nothing much would change and problems would go unsolved. Just like the US.

CGPGrey also talks about the “spoiler effect”, which almost always causes the most similar major candidate to lose, as most famously happened in the 2000 US presidential election in which Ralph Nader’s spoiler candidacy helped make George W. Bush president (although Republican vote fraud and a corrupt US Supreme Court ultimately sealed the deal, Nader made it possible for that to happen). Fear of this is one of the reasons small parties get nowhere in FPP elections—nowhere except helping to defeat the most ideologically similar candidates.

So, FPP is not truly representative because winning candidates usually have only minority support, and because FPP suppresses full representation by inevitably favouring a two-party system. In so doing, it disenfranchises many—often the vast majority—of voters. In short, it’s the most undemocratic system a country can have while still being at least nominally a democracy.

All of this is why I oppose FPP and favour other systems in its place. More on that in another post. But in addition to the huge advantages of MMP, all these problems with FPP are why I’m voting to Keep MMP.

For official information on the referendum, go to www.referendum.org.nz
For information from the campaign to Keep MMP, go to www.keepmmp.org.nz

No comments: