Understanding Plurality Voting
and Ballots During a Candidate Election

Also known as First Past the Post Voting System

Plurality voting is an electoral process whereby a candidate who gets the most votes in the election wins. Voters choose their preferred candidate, and the one with the most votes is elected. Plurality elections are unlike the majority voting process. In a majority election, the candidate needs to get more votes than all the other candidates combined to win. But with a plurality ballot, the candidate only needs to get the most electoral votes overall to win the election. The plurality election system is the most popular method for electing public officers, party candidates, and new organization leaders for available seats. Plurality elections are simple to run and give each one of the candidates an equal opportunity to win since the candidates don't require a majority vote. You can read more about the differences between plurality vs majority voting systems here.

Plurality Voting and Ballot Systems

Plurality voting systems have several different variations. Depending on your district’s or organization's objectives, you can choose single-member district plurality voting, multi-member district plurality voting, and instant runoff voting. The two-round system is another lesser-used election option. Depending on the type of elections you plan to hold, you may want to choose an alternative vote system such as ranked-choice voting, proportional approval voting, additional member system voting, a mixed single vote, or a single non-transferable vote. Each of these voting systems have pros and cons. It is important to understand how each system works so that you can make an educated choice on which system to use for your elections

Single-Member District Plurality System

Single-member district plurality (SMDP) is the default voting system in the United States legislative elections. In Canada and the UK, this voting system is known as "first-past-the-post." Using the single-member districts plurality electoral system, voters choose their preferred candidate from a ballot, and the one candidate with the most votes is declared the winner of the election. There's no single member plurality vote percentage or proportional threshold for candidates to surmount during the election—just one vote more than the popular candidates gets the winner over the finish line. Single-member district plurality voting is straightforward and doesn't require the complex processes that a single transferable vote, score voting systems, two-round voting systems, or ranked-choice elections require.

Multi-Member District Plurality Voting

The multi-member district plurality system is also known as at-large or block voting. The district voting system allows voters to choose a candidate for several seats in one election. For example, with the plurality block voting, voters may choose an overall chair for an organization and select new representation for different departments simultaneously. Blocking voting can also be used to elect governors, state executives, or other political candidates depending on the electoral system's policy. Multi-member district plurality electoral systems allow minority districts to maintain their voice in the bigger picture of governance. Electoral districts plurality voting can be a major benefit to underrepresented voters. If you have a district or organization with minorities, the plurality system could be a good choice for your elections.

Instant Runoff Voting

The instant runoff voting system ensures that the winning candidate has the support of the majority of voters in the election and the district's boundary. For this voting system, voters don’t simply choose their preferred candidate. Instead, it is a ranked-choice voting ballot and system where voters rank the candidates in order of preference. With instant voting, there is no need to conduct a runoff election to establish which one of the candidates has the majority vote. In a ranked-choice voting election, the candidate that is ranked the highest wins.

Plurality vs. Majority Voting

The plurality voting system is one of the simplest systems you can use to determine the winning candidate in an election. A candidate only needs to get more votes than the other candidates to be declared the winner of one of the contested seats. In a majority voting system, on the other hand, the winner needs to have more votes than all the other candidates combined. In an election where there are a lot of candidates for the contested seat, there’s a good chance that the winning candidate will have less than 50% plus one of the votes. In such cases, there can be mixed results and a runoff election will have to be conducted to establish which candidate has a clear majority of the votes.

Using a party plurality system can simplify the voting process and eliminate the need for a second round of voting. If your elections have a time limit, party plurality systems can be a good choice.

Plurality Votes Pros and Cons

If you’re about to conduct an election at your organization, a plurality poll system may be the best voting system to use. For one, plurality polls are understood by most voters. After all, this is the default voting process in the United States for executives, state legislatures, and electing other officials. Plurality elections also provide a quick and clean resolution to any election. You don’t have to conduct more than one round of elections, which means fewer monetary and operational resources will be required during the electoral process

On the flip side, plurality elections may result in the election of a candidate with very low voter buy-in. For example, if there are five candidates, the winning candidate may only have the support of 20% plus one of the voters. Low approval of the elected candidate may be a concern for some organizations or districts. But this disadvantage of plurality elections may be overcome by voting systems like instant runoff. If electing a candidate that doesn't have the majority vote is an issue, you could also use a transferable vote system, candidates ranked-choice voting, or a majority vote system.

Voting Process

With plurality voting, voters select one or more candidates on their ballot. During the election, voters will elect one out of five presidential candidates, elect three directors from seven candidates, or choose yes or no to a bylaw amendment. The voter will indicate their choice of candidate on a ballot that will be counted in the election. Plurality elections are commonly used throughout North America for civic, state, provincials, and federal elections.

How the Results are Calculated

The plurality vote is counted using a vote counting algorithm. Each ballot is counted, and the candidate or candidates with the highest percentage of votes wins. In elections with more than two candidates, a majority of the votes (greater than 50% of the total) is not needed to win the desired seats. For example, after an election is run, if candidate one has 25 votes, candidate two has 35 votes, and candidate three has 40 votes, candidate three wins the election even though they only have 40% of the total votes cast.

The choice of each voter matters when using the plurality voting system. When running an election for multiple seats (such as when three directors are elected from seven candidates) the candidate with the highest percentage will win the first seat, the second-highest percentage wins the second seat, and so on, until all seats are filled.

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