Origins of the term “winner-take-all”

An institutionalist perspective on intellectual history

Not all terms for describing electoral systems originated in political science. Some were developed (or at least popularized) by professional reformers seeking to build popular movements because history had made legislative adoption too hard. One of those terms is “winner-take-all.” Here is what F.A. Hermens says about it in written comments at the 1985 World Congress of the International Political Science Association.

Professor Longley makes some very perceptive remarks about factors which affected the demand for electoral change and the people who shaped it […] After an interval the energetic Enid Lakeman took over and intensified the work [of Humphreys]. She presided over a significant terminological change: The P. R. Society became The Electoral Reform Society, and the cause of reform was identified with that of P. R. Similar terminological changes were stressed: Calling plurality voting the “first past the post” system became more widespread, as did “winner take all” for majority voting. Thus the notion was conveyed that the former was as simplistic as the children’s game and the latter a grab for all there was. It is sad as well as significant that this terminology became frequent in academic writings; even the cautionary quotation marks are now all but gone.

By “majority voting,” Hermens seems to mean the two-round systems that tended to predate PR adoption on the European continent. “Majority voting” was a lifelong theme in his work.

Current use of “winner take all” inverts what Hermens observed 39 years ago, if we focus on the importance he attached to majority allocation. It gets used to describe plurality allocation and the Alternative Vote. (Less frequently it’s used to describe the opposite of what Maloy [2019] calls a “multi-mark ballot.”)

Early exchanges like the above are fascinating because they were taking place alongside formation of APSA’s organized sections. They were shaping the scientific discourse of the decades to come.

I am not saying that any of the terms above — winner-take-all, first-past-the-post, whatever — should be banned. I’ve used them and probably will continue to do so, depending on the audience! After all, the terms were invented for public-facing communication. With such terms, however, it is helpful to remember the words of the reformer Walter Millard (with respect to the “short” ballot in 1943):

It was a slogan or label more calculated to arrest attention than to be accurate. It may be held to be more salient than logical, but it may have been the better for this; a great deal of the thinking of a great many people is of that type. At any rate it “worked.”

That the terminological move began in Britain is not surprising. I have suggested elsewhere (p. 28, fn. 7) that non-list approximations of PR (like STV and cumulative voting) were all but fated to win the advocacy battle due to long-established traditions of party government in Anglo democracies. In short, reform in said democracies is prone to “rage against the machine.” That’s because incumbents didn’t — and maybe still don’t — need it to prevent coalition raids and/or shore up party discipline. On that, I recommend two papers. The first contains a short section on why early party government might close off what I call an insulating PR adoption. (These papers also cover the problem of coalition raids under Hermens’ preferred “majority system.”)

More on party government. It is not surprising that Hermens piggybacks on Longley. The latter was a scholar of comparative legislatures. (Hat tip to Dan Smith at Penn.) Legislatures generally work more smoothly when organized by parties.

As for Lakeman, it also is not surprising that she led the terminological revolution. Lakeman (1903-95) would have experienced the Liberals’ replacement by Labour as one of the United Kingdom’s two leading parties. Her Wikipedia entry notes lifelong commitment to the Liberal (later Liberal Democratic) Party. She might have been looking for a way to raid the majors’ coalitions — possibly on transfers under STV.

Here, it may be helpful to compare the most prominent U.S. minor parties (cf. Karol 2019, Devine and Kopko 2021), as well as the newer Forward movement. All of these need ‘PR’ to break up existing parties. That is the opposite of using ‘PR’ to insulate what already governs. I have suggested above that these divergent imperatives are due to different trajectories of political development across Western democracies.


Further reading: Malcolm Baalman on the origins of the term “first-past-the-post.”

Deliberative democracy and electoral-system reform

South Koreans liked proportional representation. Americans were “flummoxed.”

Can a deliberative mini-public change minds on electoral systems? Recent efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere have tried to do just that. (“Try” may be too strong because the goal, I think, is to put options before everyday people and let them reach their own conclusions.) The latest originated in Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

I am not optimistic. I think parties/partisanship shape political culture to an extent that constrains the deliberative approach.

Here is some background. I am not an expert on deliberative democracy/mini-publics. However, with respect to my research area, the trend originated with two citizens’ assemblies in Canada. One recommended single transferable vote (STV) for British Columbia (BC) in 2004. Another recommended mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) for Ontario in 2006. Both proposals went to referendum (twice in BC’s case), but neither resulted in adoption. Yet these citizens assemblies’ presumably changed enough minds to result in proposals.

More background. The point of a citizens’ assembly is to wrest control of some agenda from the hands of incumbent politicians/party leaders. At least that is how I understand it in the context of my research area. In that area, incumbents are assumed to oppose all change. “Turkeys voting for Christmas” is a mantra in the electoral-system change literature. Americanists might be more likely to write “Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving.”

Two countries’ experiences with DD inspired this post. James Traub recently reported on them in Democracy Journal. (The editors ask good questions, as I learned last summer.) Here are the key quotations:

Earlier this year, the South Korean parliament, deadlocked on a series of electoral reforms, authorized a [deliberative] poll on the subject. South Korea elects members of parliament through both single-member districts and proportional representation. After hearing arguments on both sides, the participants proved vastly more favorable to proportional representation than they had been in pre-deliberation surveys.

Now for the United States:

As they talked their way through the proposals, the group gravitated toward those that seemed most likely to reduce polarization, like nonpartisan primaries. “Let’s just vote the human being,” Brian said. They were flummoxed by unfamiliar ideas like fusion voting, which allows a candidate to run on more than one ticket and make common cause with other parties, and proportional representation, in which voters choose multiple winners for large, multimember districts.

These excerpts suggest big difference between the countries’ respondents with respect to what I might call “pro-party” reform. More precisely, the countries’ respective mini-publics appear to differ on reforms that treat political parties as bargaining units. South Koreans liked proportional representation. Americans were “flummoxed.”

I am not surprised. One thing I wrestle with is whether certain reforms are impossible in the United States, full stop. That’s because ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’ are fundamental to the way Americans understand politics and process (filter) political information. In turn, that leads (allows?) elites to shape the debate in certain ways. Here is part of what I wrote on the issue in More Parties or No Parties (p. 47).

Whether a reform is party-hostile or -hospitable depends on the composition of the reform coalition. It can comprise a single party, multiple parties working together, or a coalition that defies party lines (i.e., is cross-party). The pre-existing number of parties limits which of these are possible. In a two-party system, a cross-party coalition must be anti-party, unless it is a polarizing one. Consider recent data on public views of reform [in the U.S. and elsewhere]…

Thanks to Gary Morehead (on X) for arriving at the same conclusion using different information.

Thoughts on the direction of electoral reform

Here are some ideas for what reformers might be doing. They are based on my research and my interpretation of others’ research.

None of this (except maybe MMP) is said with an eye to policy effects. I am focusing only on reform longevity and voting-rights concerns.

  • Restrict STV to places that already have nonpartisan elections.
  • Convert STV to OLPR when the alternative is repeal.
  • Restrict ‘instant runoff’ to the optional-preferential form. Ensure party control of the party label. Develop inclusive rules for handling improperly marked ballots. I can share an example set.
  • Consider MMP for state legislatures.

This is a set of compromise proposals. It takes account of widespread demand for electoral reform, legitimate concerns about electoral reform, and the fact that RCV/nonpartisan elections aren’t going anywhere — a point made forcefully by many in or near this space.