While many voting systems exist, two are more common than others: majority voting and plurality voting. If you live in a democratic nation, it is highly likely that one of these two systems is what you vote under when election season comes around. Having a greater understanding of plurality vs. majority voting systems can help you better understand the political process and become more civically engaged.
Plurality voting seeks to elect the candidate who receives the most votes in a single round of voting. Plurality voting is also often referred to as “single-choice” or “first-past-the-post” voting. The mechanism for plurality voting is simple: all the eligible candidates are listed on the ballot, voters cast a single vote for their preferred candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. It is simple to implement and simple to understand for both organizers and voters.
Many countries that use plurality voting are countries with strong historical ties to the United Kingdom, such as the United States, Canada, and India.
Majority voting systems are designed to keep a candidate from winning an election if most of the electorate voted against that candidate. To this end, they require a candidate to receive a particular percentage of vote before they can successfully win the election. Most of the time the required threshold is 51%, but it’s possible to require a higher number such as 67% or 75% as well. These higher numbers are often called a supermajority or qualified majority.
If an election only has two candidates, this is a simple affair, as one of them is all but guaranteed to earn over half the vote as long as the vote doesn’t result in an exact tie. However, large modern elections may have substantially more than two candidates vying for a spot, making it increasingly likely that one candidate will fail to receive the required number of votes.
If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the majority voting mechanism for choosing a winner is through a second vote, often called a “run-off.” In this run-off vote, the candidate list is reduced to funnel votes to the most popular candidates and increase the odds of a winner being chosen. Depending on the system, one or more of the worst-performing candidates may be removed, or all but the top two candidates may be removed from the ballot.
Examples of countries using majority voting systems include countries in mainland and eastern Europe, including Portugal, Austria, and presidential elections in France.
There’s no immediately clear winner in the debate between plurality vs. majority voting, as both have good and bad points to consider.
The advantages and disadvantages of plurality voting are primarily concerned with ease of implementation on one end and minority representation on the other.
Plurality voting is easy for everyone involved to understand, especially voters. The system is essentially the same as any impromptu vote you might cast, such as members of your family voting on what you’d like to eat for dinner.
In the context of major elections with potentially millions of voters, having only a single required vote per citizen simplifies the actual process of setting up voting booths and counting ballots, which can be a major undertaking and expense at that scale.
Only requiring setting aside time for a single vote means high participation rates, especially in contentious areas.
That simplicity comes with a number of disadvantages, however.
In an election with more than two candidates, you can easily end up with a candidate most citizens voted against as the winner. For example, in an election with five candidates, a candidate with as little as 21% of the vote could be declared the winner.
Another problem is that of wasted votes: if a party or candidate has a strong majority in a given area, any vote not for that party is essentially wasted, leading many would-be voters to not vote at all and further cementing the lead of the dominant party.
Perhaps the largest real-world impact of plurality voting is that it brings about compromise or “tactical” voting by citizens. If their most-preferred candidate is unlikely to win, a voter may shift their vote to a candidate who is more likely to win and shares more of their views than another opposing candidate with good chances to win. Voters are thus not choosing their most preferred candidate, but a reasonably acceptable candidate they feel may win, which can give an incomplete view of the electorate and shut out candidates who may be more popular than suspected by voters.
This tactical voting contributes to the eventual formation of only two major political parties in regions with plurality voting.
To illustrate this final point, let’s look at an example:
Assume a country had four political parties: A, B, Y, and Z. Some voters prefer party A but shift their votes to party B because it’s perceived as more likely to win, and their main goal is to avoid a win by Y or Z. Voters in favor of Y and Z vote their preference without using tactical voting at all. B wins the election by a sizable amount. Seeing this, supporters of Party Z are forced to shift their votes to Party Y in the next election to compete with the now-larger Party B. Over time, this will result in elections where only Party B and Party Y are relevant, despite significant support for other views.
Because majority voting systems were developed later than plurality voting systems, the disadvantages and advantages of majority voting tend to be direct responses to those of plurality voting.
In a majority voting system, a candidate will never win an election with less than the prescribed ratio of votes, which is usually just over 50%. By the time an election is over, more voters are likely to feel better about the result having at some point cast a vote for the winning candidate.
Having run-off elections can prevent a scenario where a candidate wins despite a majority preferring either of multiple other candidates.
Here is an example to illustrate this second point:
In the first round of voting, assume Candidate A receives 40% of the vote, Candidate Y receives 35%, and Candidate Z receives 25%. In a majority voting system, no winner will be declared at this point. Instead, Candidate Z will be removed from the ballot, and most of Z’s voters shift their votes to Candidate Y, who is much closer to their beliefs. Candidate Y will win the run-off election, in alignment with the views of most of the electorate. In plurality voting, candidate A would win despite most voters disagreeing with them.
Note that the implementation of ranked choice voting can speed up the process described in this scenario.
Majority voting still carries disadvantages, some of them shared with plurality voting:
Smaller parties are still incentivized to unite with larger parties until there are only two parties left. While voters may feel more confident voting for a smaller party in the first round of votes, as only an overwhelming favorite is likely to be elected in that round, the incentive to tactically vote and shoot for a majority in that round still exists and would misrepresent the support of those small parties. Wasted votes could also be just as prevalent in districts where one party is dominant.
The costs associated with running a second run-off election after the initial round fails to produce a winner can be significant. Organizing the second round of voting and ballot counting at scale is not a trivial task or expense — though electoral reforms like ranked choice voting, also called instant run-off voting, can mitigate these costs.
Second-round votes also tend to have much lower voter turnout than first rounds, calling into question how much the process actually improves how well the election reflects the opinions of the electorate. Again, ranked choice voting can alleviate this problem, as all rounds of voting are conducted simultaneously.
In the United States, the exact voting system used depends on the locality and office. Many local elections and party primary elections use a majority system, while most state and national elections use a plurality system.
For presidential elections, a somewhat strange hybrid system is at work due to the Electoral College and how its implementation has changed over time. Presidential candidates must win over half of the electoral votes to be declared the victor, a hallmark of a majority system; but in 48 states, their electoral votes are distributed solely to the candidate with the most votes, a classic plurality system.
The relationship between electoral outcomes and voting systems cannot be understated. Five times in U.S. history, this hybrid system has led to a president with fewer total votes than their opponent winning the election. The last time a president won a federal election without winning the popular vote was in 2016, when Donald Trump won election.
Wherever you stand on plurality vs. majority voting, if any aspect of these two voting systems feels unfair or worth improving to you, there are ways for you to make your voice heard and support the creation of a more democratic and representative electoral system.
Good Party is a nonprofit organization seeking to put an end to the two-party system by supporting independent candidates and electoral reforms such as the ones mentioned above. Learn more about how you can volunteer with Good Party and how you can help improve representation for Americans all across the country.