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As a mechanism for deciding political contests, elections held under plurality rules have the great apparent advantage of simplicity. Plurality elections are most commonly used to elect one candidate for one position. When the number of positions to be filled is one, the candidate with more votes than any other candidate is declared the winner. In some plurality elections, however, the number of positions to be filled is more than one—for example, four. In such elections, the positions are filled by the four candidates who win more votes than the other candidates.
But plurality elections are not as simple as they seem. Candidates are elected under plurality rules with more votes than the losing candidate or candidates. But when there are many more candidates standing for election than positions to be filled, successful candidates may receive far less than half the votes: For example, in an election in a single-member district for which there are 100 voters and five candidates, the winner might receive only 21 votes, three losers 20 votes, and the other 19. Sometimes the difference in number of votes between the winning and losing candidate in a single-member plurality election is called the majority. But more accurately, a majority is 50 percent plus one of all votes cast. In this case, in the election example above, the winner would receive 51 votes and the losing candidates 49 votes between them. Therefore, candidates elected under plurality systems where many more stand than can be elected do not necessarily have majority support.
Electoral theory posits that the number of candidates likely to be competitive in a plurality election is the number that can be elected plus one: where the position is for a single member, therefore, this equals two (Cox 1997), but this does not always happen. This claim is often extrapolated from a single election in one district to a general election across an entire country where parties compete. Thus plurality electoral systems are said to generate two-party systems, and, in particular, they tend to increase the number of successful candidates for the winning party beyond its share of the votes cast nationally. Plurality elections, in this context, are said to produce manufactured majorities among the persons elected. In this sense, plurality elections produce majority outcomes, and are thus often labelled majoritarian. Certain theories of democracy value this aspect of plurality elections because the consequent two-party systems are said to make possible alternation of office between moderate parties and enhance the stability, decisiveness, and accountability of governments.
However, this strength of plurality elections is most apparent where societies have one major social division and related political preferences are distributed across electoral districts in a way that can generate balanced twoparty competition. Plurality elections worked successfully in many democratic societies during the twentieth century under these conditions. But if social divisions and preferences are distributed similarly in all districts, one party can in theory win all seats. And if there is more than one social division and associated sets of preferences are separated spatially among districts, a multiparty system will emerge (Kim and Ohn 1992). In essence, plurality elections privilege social divisions that are distributed spatially, but provide poor representation of those that are not. Given this, it remains debatable whether plurality can operate as a system of election in the increasingly socially heterogeneous societies of the twenty-first century as successfully as it did in the past.
- Cox, Gary W. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Kim, Jae-On Kim, and Mahn-Guem O 1992. A Theory of Minor-Party Persistence: Election Rules, Social Cleavages, and the Number of Political Parties. Social Forces 70: 575–599.
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