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Teachers: Citizenship:

Last Updated: Friday May 06 2005 13:35 GMT

Voting systems

Citizenship 11-14/KS3/Levels E&F
Electoral systems and voting


Ballot box
Britain's first-past-the-post voting system means that to become an MP, a candidate simply has to win more votes than any rival in their area, not a majority of votes cast.

Students compare the first past the post system with proportional representation and look at the advantages and criticisms of each way of voting.

Learning Aims

By the end of the lesson, students should be able to answer these questions:

  • What is the first past the post voting system?
  • What is proportional representation?
  • What are some advantages and criticisms of the first past the post voting system?
  • What are some advantages and criticisms of the proportional representation system?
    Hold a mack ballot

    For this exercise you will need six chairs; three red and three blue (you could stick some coloured paper on the back).

    The students will each need a red and a blue pen to indicate a choice of vote.

Ask students to brainstorm the general election and voting and share their knowledge with the rest of the class.

Explain that they are going to mock up the results of a general election.

Divide a class of 33 (this could mean including a teacher and assistant to make up the numbers) into three groups of 11.

Taking their red and blue pens or cards with them, each group stands in a different part of the room.

Give each group two chairs; one red and one blue.

Ask them to imagine the classroom is a country, divided into three areas, called constituencies.

Students have to decide who they want to run the country from a choice two political parties; the Red party and the Blue party.

The chairs are the politicians from each party, who will sit in the Houses of Parliament, and take part in making decisions about how the country is run.

Students hold up either their red or blue pen to show their favourite colour (and their favourite party).

Count the votes in each constituency.

Write them in a table like this on the board (figures are an example). Multiply numbers by three to get a percentage.

Table showing mock results of a general election

Explain that whichever party gets the most votes in each constituency, wins a seat for their politician in Parliament.

Place the three winning seats at the front of the class (the House of Commons).

Explain that the party with two seats (the majority) forms the new government who will run the country.

The politician from the other party (in the minority) will still get to take part in making decisions about the country, but it will be on issues decided by the government.

Explain that this type of voting system is called first-past-the post and that this is used to choose the UK's government in the general election.

Repeat the exercise, but instead of giving students a free vote, ask them to vote according to this table:

Table showing mock results of a general election

Again, place the winning seats at the front of the class.

Ask the students:

  • Which party forms the new government?
  • Which party won the majority of the total votes?
  • Is this fair?
Main activity

What alternatives are there to the first past the post system?

Explain to students that there are other voting systems which try to match the number of seats more closely to the number of votes than the first past the post voting system. This is called proportional representation.

In groups, students see if they can come up a fair voting system. They could start by thinking about these questions?

  • What would be the effect of increasing the size of the constituencies? The more voters in an area, the more likely you are to reflect the distribution of the total vote.

  • What would be the effect of having more than one MP per constitutuency? Voters are more likely to have someone representing their views in Parliament.

  • What would be the effect of making a first, second, third choice etc. for the person you want to represent your constituency in Parliament?

  • If you kept the first past the post system, is there anyway of tweaking it to make it more fair? What would be the effect of having a handful of spare seats to give to MPs from parties who were handicapped by the first past the post system?
Extension activity

The class of 33 divide themselves to represent the total number of votes for each of the three main political parties (plus others) in the UK's 2001 general election:

  • Labour: 13 students representing 41 per cent of the total number of votes in the UK
  • Cons: 11 students representing 32 per cent of the total vote
  • Lib Dems: 6 students representing 18 per cent of the total vote
  • Others: 3 students representing 9 per cent of the total vote
Ask students:
  • Which party won the 2001 election?
  • Which party came second?
  • Was it a close-run election? Yes, just 2 students in it, representing 9 percent of the total vote.
Now show students the number of seats won by each party:
  • Labour: 413 seats
  • Cons: 166 seats
  • Lib Dems: 52 seats
  • Others: 28 seats
Explain that these statistics suggest Labour were almost two and half times more popular than the Conservative party. This is known as a landslide victory.

Ask students:

  • Does this reflect the national vote?
  • Do you think the first past the post voting system is fair?
ICT activity

Students use a spreadsheet programme to enter data from the ice-breaker exercise (Red v Blue parties) and from this exercise (2001 general election).

They use the chart-making tool to turn statistics into:

  • A bar chart showing votes per party in each constituency (Red v Blue activity only)
  • The percentage division of the total vote (Red v Blue and 2001 general election exercises)
Bar chart showing mock results of a general election


Groups present their ideas for a new voting system, pointing out advantages and possible criticisms.
See Teachers' background below

Students compare their voting systems with different types of proportional representation in use:

Alterative Vote System

Voters rank candidates in order of preference; first, second, third etc.
The candidate with half the total vote is elected.
This system is used in Australia.

Single Transferable Vote System

Voters rank candidates in order of preference; first, second, third etc.
The votes are counted until one candidate has reached a certain number of votes (quota).
They are elected.
Any other votes for that politician are transferred onto other candidates, following voters' second and third choices etc.
The process continues until the required number of candidates have been elected.
This is used in the Republic of Ireland for large constituencies which may have four or five politicians.

Additional Member System

The first past the post system is used to elect most politicians.
A number of seats are left open.
They are filled by candidates to reflect the popularity of political parties.
These candidates are chosen from a list.
The list can be open, allowing voters to chose their preferred candidate.
The list can be closed, allowing the party to chose the candidate.
This is used for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Assembly.

Closed List System

Each political party makes a list of their candidates, ranked in order.
People vote for their preferred party.
A party that wins e.g. 30 per cent of the votes gets 30 percent of the seats.
They give these seats to their politicians, working their way down the list.
In other words, people vote for a party rather than a politician.
This system is used by many countries in western Europe.
It was also used to elect the UK's MEPs in 1999.

Open List System

This is like the closed list system, except that voters can see the list.
They have the choice of voting for a particular party OR a specific politician.
In other words, they re-order the party's list.

Supplementary Vote System

Voters make a first and second choice of candidate.
A candidate who gets over 50 per cent of the votes is elected.
If this does not happen, the 'second choice' votes for the top two candidates are counted.
The winner is given the seat.

Teachers' background

Ballot boxes ready to be distributed to constituencies

Advantages of first-past-the-post system

Voters can change the way a country is run by voting in a government from a completely different party.

Voters can choose a politician, who they might trust as a person, as well as a party.

A single ruling party makes a strong government. MPs are able to make clear decisions on how to run the country, without having to compromise too much.

Criticisms of the first-past-the post system

A party can become the government with a minority of votes (but a majority of seats).

Some people's vote could be seen as wasted (if they want to vote for a party who are very unlikely to win the seat in their constituency).

Many people don't have an MP from their preferred party to represent their views in the Houses of Parliament.

Advantages of proportional representation

The number of MPs in the House of Commons is more likely to reflect the total number of votes cast per party.

It is not unlikely that a party to with a minority of votes can form the government.

Voters may be more likely to vote if they think it will count. This would increase turn out and promote democracy.

Criticisms of proportional representation

Voters are less able to hold a government responsible for it's actions by turning it out at the next election.

The list system, especially a closed list means that voters can only vote for a party, not a candidate, who they might trust as a person.

The way forward (governmental polices) is often more difficult to decide when there is a a mixture of parties (a coalition government).


The Jenkins Commission report on electoral reform recommended that 15 to 20 per cent of seats in the House of Commons should be elected by proportional representation in order to "reduce the disproportionality and the geographical divisiveness" of the current system without "imposing a coalition habit on the country".

But no action has yet been taken.

Proportional representation has been introduced, however, for a number of other UK elections, including the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the European Parliament, and the London mayor.

The average number of voters in Labour-held seats (66,997) is 5,000 less than the number of voters in Conservative-held seats (72,849).

Given that turnout is substantially lower on average in Labour seats, it takes far fewer voters to elect a Labour MP than to elect a Conservative MP.

The current system increases the importance of the 100-150 marginal seats where most campaigning is concentrated, and electoral reformers argue that it means the voters in the remaining 400 seats are regarded as irrelevant.

A move towards an electoral system based on full proportional representation has always been rejected by both the Labour and Conservative parties on the grounds that it would produce weak coalition governments and break the link between MPs and their constituents.

The Liberal Democrats want a proportional representation system, where the number of MPs is determined by the national share of the vote. They say that many people's votes are "wasted" in the first past the post system.

Proportional representation could form part of the plan for further reform of the House of Lords, and is already planned for local government in Scotland.

Election 2005

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