Which party will be first past the post?

In these last few days before the midterm elections in the United States, I find I've been thinking about Monsieur Jourdain.

He's the hero of Molière's 17th-century comedy, "The Bourgeois Gentleman," about a nouveau riche who tries to make his way into the aristocracy with the help of some new threads and a gaggle of what we would today call "personal coaches."

One of them is a "philosophy master" who tries to explain to him the difference between poetry and prose. Here's Monsieur Jourdain's big discovery: "By my faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it."

It's a punch line with a serious lesson: Sometimes it isn't until we learn about something new that we are able to understand fully its more familiar counterpart.

For well over 200 years, Americans have had a "first past the post" system for their elections, mostly without knowing anything about it. It's the system where the one with the most votes wins. It's how we decide elections in the US.

We take this so much for granted that we barely have a name for it. It makes me think of those indigenous tribes whose name for themselves in their own language means something like "the people."

I probably first read the phrase "first past the post" (FPTP) many moons ago in The Economist, based in London.

FPTP, the term, is used mostly outside the United States. It's an expression borrowed from horse racing. This gives it a certain energizing excitement lacking in its blander equivalent, "plurality voting."

Simplicity is part of the appeal of plurality voting. Everybody "gets it." The downside is that it is possible to win without a majority of votes. And when used with a set of multiple districts as in the US House of Representatives, for instance, FPTP can magnify small district pluralities into a lopsided legislative majority.

A single House race decided by 435 votes would be considered a squeaker. But with FPTP it is theoretically possible for one party to capture all 435 districts by a plurality of a single vote in each one – a 435-vote margin that would color the entire country red or blue.

Some would call that magnification not a bad thing, arguing that it provides a clear mandate. FPTP tends to push a polity toward a two-party system and make third parties disappear, unless they are concentrated geographically.

Other cognoscenti would argue for some form of proportional representation – a system that ensures, for instance, that if a given party had roughly 20 percent support among the electorate, it would have about 20 percent of the seats in the legislature. (Imagine the US House after the 1992 elections with 82 members of the Reform Party as a reflection of Ross Perot's relative success as a third-party candidate.)

Proportional representation – or "PR," as election-policy wonks know it – is in wide use in Western Europe and in Israel, with enough local variations to make your head spin.

Germans, for instance, get two votes, one for an individual and one for a party preference (which would help address the quandary of an American voter who thinks, "I like my congressman but think it's time for a change in Washington").

"Preferential voting" is an Australian specialty that lets a voter go down a list of candidates and rank them in order of preference. It's supposed to ensure that most voters get at least their second choice as a winner.

I'm not necessarily advocating a change in the US system, any more than I would try to get Monsieur Jourdain to speak in verse.

But learning some new electoral vocabulary may help Americans understand the prose of their own system.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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